Pesachim 21: Welcome Stranger

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

There is no more oft-repeated command in the Torah than the charge to be kind and sensitive to the ger—ki because[1],  gerim hayeetem, you were strangers in the land of Egypt". Thirty-six times, possibly even forty-six times (Bava Metzia 59b) the Torah exhorts us to treat the ger properly. Clearly, this is a most difficult mitzvah, on both a personal and national level. If it were easy to do, mentioning it once would have been enough. 

As important as this mitzvah is, the Torah never defines the meaning of ger. With the Torah linking this mitzvah to our servitude in Egypt, it is clear that the original context cannot refer to converts. We surely were not “converts” in the land of Egypt. Furthermore, if “we” must be sensitive to gerim because we were gerim, the “we” is the collective, meaning the Jewish nation as a whole. In other words, G-d took us out of Egypt—a place where the ger, the non-citizen, the stranger, the outsider, the Hebrew, was mistreated—so that we would set up a very different type of society. In our society, the ger, “the other”, was to be treated as an equal. “There shall be one law for the citizen and for the ger, the stranger, who dwells among you” (Shemot 12:48). 

One need not look too far to see how important and difficult this mitzvah is. Many of our parents and grandparents were warmly welcomed into these lands, with the sight of the Statue of Liberty being the harbinger of freedom for so many. Yet, in the greatest time of need, the doors were closed to the stranger and the immigrant. As wonderful a country as Canada is, it was not long ago when the minister of immigration—asked how many Jews should be let into Canada—responded, “None is too many”.  

Yet in addition to the plain, nationalistic meaning of the verse, our Sages understood that the command to be sensitive to the ger also applies on a person-to-person basis. We must be extra-caring, extra-nice, show extra love and concern to one who leaves his ancestral religion and joins the Jewish people. Despite the fact that we may not oppress anyone, that we must love all Jews (and perhaps all those created in G-d’s image), the Torah specifically repeats these commands in reference to the ger. We must love them more than others, we must be more careful not to oppress them nor to cause them anguish. When one recalls that converting to Judaism often meant being totally cut off from one’s family, and often entailed risking one’s very life, these commands take on extra meaning. But even in the open societies of today, where there is little stigma attached to converting to a different faith, treating the ger with extra sensitivity, is of paramount importance, bringing responsibilities that are not always met. It is human nature to take advantage of the “weak”, something that has been so evident these past ten months. 

While the Torah itself makes no such distinction, the halacha distinguishes between a ger tzedek—a righteous convert who links their fate and faith with the Jewish people—and a ger toshav, a non-Jewish resident in the land of Israel, who accepts its basic moral code and the notion of one G-d, but does so within their own religion. While the mitzvah to love the ger may not technically apply to the ger toshav, it is clear that he, too, is to be treated well—very well, in fact. Surely, we may not discriminate against them, even as they may not enjoy the full benefits of being part of our people. As the Gemara notes, “Ger [toshav], you are commanded to maintain him” (Pesachim 21b)[2]

An example of what treatment of a ger toshav entails can be seen through a discussion of the prohibition of deriving benefit from chametz on Pesach[3]. The Gemara (Pesachim 21b) puts forth the claim that whenever the Torah prohibits us from eating something, lo tochlu, it includes a prohibition of deriving benefit, unless the Torah specifically indicates that only eating itself is prohibited. Such is the case regarding unkosher meat, where the Torah writes, “You shall not eat kol neveilah, anything that has died a natural death; give it to the ger, the stranger in your community, to eat, or you may sell it to a nochri, foreigner; for you are a people consecrated to the Lord your G-d. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Devarim 14:21). 

While the verse makes it clear that one may derive benefit from a neveilah[4], Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda argue about the exact meaning and limitations of the verse. Rabbi Meir insists that one may either sell it or give it as a gift both to a nochri and a ger toshav. As to the wording of the verse that implies one gift it to the ger but sell it to the nochri, Rabbi Meir argues that this refers to the preference of the Torah. The Torah would first prefer that we give the neveilah to a ger, but if for some reason that is not feasible, then one may sell it to a non-resident alien. But, bottom line, one can do with the carcass as one pleases, selling or gifting it to whomever one chooses. 

Rabbi Yehuda counters that we do not need a Torah verse to teach us that it is preferable to give away neveilah meat to a ger rather than to sell it to a non-Jew. Being that we must “maintain” the ger, the non-Jew dwelling in Israel, such is obvious and no Torah verse is needed. The fact the Torah does write this is to teach something else. That is, if we are giving the neveilah to the ger, it must be a gift; but we must sell it to a heathen. This is a rather amazing view, demonstrating how we must treat the stranger in our midst. As a neveilah is forbidden to be eaten, one can try and make a bit of money by “exporting” the meat to people with whom one has little connection. Alternatively, one can gift it to the stranger in our midst, helping to create a society where all are welcomed and made to feel important.

 

[1] The word ki in Biblical Hebrew can also mean “despite”, making the command even more powerful. Often people who have gone through tough times are actually less sensitive to the needs of others, arguing that they should just toughen up, as they themselves were forced to do. The Torah here warns against such an argument.  

[2] How we must treat an idolater will, please G-d, be the subject of an upcoming post. 

[3] Interestingly, the very same verse that mandates the ger toshav be treated as a citizen also tells us that he may participate in the korban Pesach ritual, provided he is circumcised. The actual halachic meaning of this verse as understood by the Oral Law is beyond the scope of this devar Torah

[4] There are three types of non-kosher meat. A beheimah temeiah is a non-kosher animal, such as a pig. A treifah is a kosher species animal that has one of 18 terminal diseases that would have led to its death within a year. A neveilah is an animal on which the shechita was not properly done, i.e., there was a nick on the knife. The Torah tells us that a treifah “should be sent to the dogs” (Shemot 22:30). Our Sages understood that this was a reward for the fact that, during the actual Exodus, the [guard] dogs of Egypt did not even bark.