In the Torah, Is the Ger Ever a Convert?
Rabbinic Judaism has a category of people called “converts” or “proselytes,” i.e., people born not Jewish but who undergo a ritual process—immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) and circumcision (for men)—that turns them into Jews. The term for such a person in rabbinic Judaism is ger (גר), a biblical term from which the rabbinic category ostensibly derives. But does the Torah have converts in mind?
The Torah’s Many Gerim
The Torah speaks many times about the ger (pl. gerim), a noun from the verb gur, “to dwell”; thus, the ger is literally “a dweller.” But defining exactly what kind of person the Torah means by this term is difficult, and assorted passages understand this term differently.
Israelites Living Among Non-Israelites
A number of verses describe the ger as a foreigner living among people of a different group. For example, Moses names his first son Gershom, because גֵּר הָיִיתִי בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה, “I was a ger in a strange land [=שׁם, ‘there’]” (Exod 2:22, 18:3). Likewise, God warns Abraham that, גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם “your descendants will be ger(im) in a land that is not theirs” (Gen 15:13), and Deuteronomy explains that Israelites should not treat Egyptians with contempt because גֵר הָיִיתָ בְאַרְצוֹ “you were ger(im) in their land” (Deut 23:8).
Similarly, when Abraham wishes to buy a plot of land to bury Sarah, he says to the Hittites of Hebron:
בראשית כג:ד גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם תְּנוּ לִי אֲחֻזַּת קֶבֶר עִמָּכֶם…
Gen 23:4 I am a ger and a toshav among you; sell me a burial site among you…
Here the term ger is coupled with toshav, meaning “resident,” in what seems to be a hendiadys, two words that convey one concept. Abraham is not a Hittite, but he lives among the Hittites and wishes to bury his dead in their territory.
These examples refer to Israelites living as foreigners among other groups, but the Torah also uses the same term when discussing foreigners living among Israelites. When describing these non-Israelites, the term ger is likely used in more than one way.
Vulnerable Non-Israelites Living Among Israelites
In some cases, gerim are foreigners living on the land of an Israelite host, and therefore, vulnerable to predations. A number of laws, therefore, come to protect them. For example, Exodus’ Covenant Collection says:
שמות כג:ט וְגֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 23:9 You shall not oppress a ger, for you know the feelings of the ger, having yourselves been gerim in the land of Egypt.
A few verses later, we are told that every seventh day should be a day of rest,
שמות כג:יב …לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ שׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרֶךָ וְיִנָּפֵשׁ בֶּן אֲמָתְךָ וְהַגֵּר.
Exod 23:12 …in order that your ox and your donkey may rest, and that your bondman and the ger may be refreshed.
Deuteronomy’s law of the tithe emphasizes the vulnerability of gerim and the need for Israelites to take care of them:
דברים כו:יב כִּי תְכַלֶּה לַעְשֵׂר אֶת כָּל מַעְשַׂר תְּבוּאָתְךָ בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁלִישִׁת שְׁנַת הַמַּעֲשֵׂר וְנָתַתָּה לַלֵּוִי לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה וְאָכְלוּ בִשְׁעָרֶיךָ וְשָׂבֵעוּ.
Deut 26:12 When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield—in the third year, the year of the tithe—and have given it to the Levite, the ger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements.
This verse suggests that the ger was powerless, just like the fatherless and the widow.
Non-Israelites Equal to Israelites Under the Law
Other texts from the Torah emphasize the need for equal treatment of the ger, noting that the ger share obligations and rights with the natural citizen (אזרח). For example, a ger has a right to bring the paschal offering:
במדבר ט:יד וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּכֶם גֵּר וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַי־הֹוָה כְּחֻקַּת הַפֶּסַח וּכְמִשְׁפָּטוֹ כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה חֻקָּה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם וְלַגֵּר וּלְאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ.
Num 9:14 And when a ger who resides with you would offer a paschal sacrifice to YHWH, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites of the paschal sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether ger or citizen of the country.
The ger also has the right to bring gift offerings:
במדבר טו:יד וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּכֶם גֵּר אוֹ אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹכְכֶם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם וְעָשָׂה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ לַי־הֹוָה כַּאֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשׂוּ כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה. טו:טו הַקָּהָל חֻקָּה אַחַת לָכֶם וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם כָּכֶם כַּגֵּר יִהְיֶה לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָה. טו:טז תּוֹרָה אַחַת וּמִשְׁפָּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם.
Num 15:14 And when, throughout the ages, a ger who has taken up residence with you, or one who lives among you, would present a gift offering of pleasing odor to YHWH—as you do, so shall it be done by15:15 the rest of the congregation. There shall be one law for you and for the residing ger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the ger shall be alike before YHWH; 15:16 the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the ger who resides among you.
Similarly, if the nation as a whole has unintentionally sinned, the priest’s chatat (sin or purification offering) atones for all:
במדבר טו:כו וְנִסְלַח לְכָל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם כִּי לְכָל הָעָם בִּשְׁגָגָה.
Num 15:26 The whole Israelite community and the ger residing among them shall be forgiven, for it happened to the entire people through error.
Moreover, gerim are sometimes subject to the same requirements and even punishments if they violate Israelite norms:
במדבר טו:כט הָאֶזְרָח בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם תּוֹרָה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם לָעֹשֶׂה בִּשְׁגָגָה. טו:לוְהַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה בְּיָד רָמָה מִן הָאֶזְרָח וּמִן הַגֵּר אֶת יְ־הֹוָה הוּא מְגַדֵּף וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּהּ.
Num 15:29 For the natural citizen among the Israelites and for the ger who resides among them—you shall have one ritual for anyone who acts in error.15:30 But the person, be he natural citizen or ger, who acts defiantly reviles YHWH; that person shall be cut off from among his people.
In Leviticus (24:15–22), this principle of the ger receiving the same treatment as the natural citizen is applied explicitly to blasphemy as well as murder and the lex talionis more broadly. This image of the ger is very different than the one of a protected foreigner, who is clearly not like the Israelite.
Different Sources, Different Ger
Contemporary critical scholarship has suggested an alternative model, namely, that the Pentateuch’s various sources have different understandings of what the place of foreigners among Israelites should be. The key difference, in this model, is between the Deuteronomic source on one hand, and the Priestly source on the other.
The Deuteronomic Ger
As noted above, the Deuteronomic texts imagine the ger as a foreigner living among Israelites. These gerim are vulnerable socially and economically and must, therefore, be assisted.This is seen clearly in Deuteronomy’s tithe law (מעשר עני, “the tithe for the poor” in Rabbinic terminology), which states:
דברים יד:כט וּבָא הַלֵּוִי כִּי אֵין לוֹ חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה עִמָּךְ וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ וְאָכְלוּ וְשָׂבֵעוּ לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדְךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה.
Then the Levite, who has no hereditary portion as you have, and the ger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill, so that YHWH your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake.
The ger, here and throughout Deuteronomy, appears alongside the orphan and the widow (and sometimes also the Levite, who in Deuteronomy is a landless downtrodden individual), as those the Israelite must care for and is responsible to (Deut 10:18; 14:29; 16:11; 24:14, 17, 19, 20). The ger is not an Israelite, but he lives “within your gates,” a client wholly dependent on his Israelite patron, just as widows and orphans are. But Deuteronomy does include the ger in the covenant established with the entire nation (Deut 29:10, 31:12), implying that he has a mixed status.
The Priestly Ger
The Priestly and Holiness legislation’s presentation of the geris different. As noted above, instead of presenting gerim as vulnerable charity cases, P and H state consistently that the ger should be treated like any natural citizen in matters of commandments. It is in these sources that we find the refrain חֻקָּה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָכֶם וְלַגֵּר וּלְאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ, “one law for you, for the ger and the citizen of the land,” or similar expressions.
Some scholars argue that the difference between D and P reflects a social transformation between the Deuteronomistic and the Priestly societies, pointing to the fact that most Pentateuchal scholars believe the Priestly and Holiness sources to be the latest. In the society envisioned by Deuteronomy, the ger was akin to a poor serf living on the land of wealthy Israelite or Judahite proprietors. The Priestly ger, however, has a status almost equal to that of the native-born Israelite or Judahite citizen, as a result of the rise of a new class of wealthy immigrants who arrived in the period of Persian occupation.
Other scholars have argued for an evolution of the ger’s religious status from tolerated stranger to the convert familiar from rabbinic Judaism (which we will explore below), or something approaching this. They too support this trajectory by noting that the Priestly sources are generally dated to the Second Temple period, and thus closer in proximity to rabbinic Judaism.
For example, Kenton Sparks of Eastern University calls the Prieslty ger an “assimilating ger” as well as a “proselyte” while Reinhard Achenbach, of the University of Muenster, speaks about “religious integration.” Sparks further argues that the Holiness Code invented the distinction between ger and toshav in order to distinguish between the old alien resident (toshav) and the new proselyte (ger), thus between social and religious integration.
Eating the Pesach: The Test Case
To substantiate the claim that the Priestly ger is an actual convert, these scholars point to the Priestly treatment of the ger who wishes to eat from the paschal sacrifice in Exodus:
שמות יב:מג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן זֹאת חֻקַּת הַפָּסַח כָּל בֶּן נֵכָר לֹא יֹאכַל בּוֹ.יב:מד וְכָל עֶבֶד אִישׁ מִקְנַת כָּסֶף וּמַלְתָּה אֹתוֹ אָז יֹאכַל בּוֹ. יב:מהתּוֹשָׁב וְשָׂכִיר לֹא יֹאכַל בּוֹ… יב:מז כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יַעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ.יב:מח וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַי־הֹוָה הִמּוֹל לוֹ כָל זָכָר וְאָז יִקְרַב לַעֲשֹׂתוֹוְהָיָה כְּאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץוְכָל עָרֵל לֹא יֹאכַל בּוֹ.יב:מט תּוֹרָה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָאֶזְרָח וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם.
Exod 12:43 YHWH said to Moses and Aaron: This is the law of the paschal offering: No foreigner shall eat of it. 12:44 But any slave a man has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised. 12:45 No bound or hired laborer shall eat of it… 12:47 The whole community of Israel shall offer it. 12:48 If a ger who dwells with you would offer the paschal sacrifice to YHWH, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall then be as a citizen of the country. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. 12:49 There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.
These scholars suggest that, according to this text, although a regular foreigner (נכר) may not offer the paschal sacrifice, if foreigners living among Israelites wish to do so, they must convert by being circumcised, making themselves like the natural citizens of the land. And thus, according to this reading, the law of the paschal sacrifice demonstrates that in P, a ger is a circumcised proselyte, a convert.
I do not, however, believe this to be the correct reading of the text. The circumcised ger does not become a citizen, but is rather treated “as a citizen” (כְּאֶזְרַח) just as is the case with the other equation clauses above. It would thus appear that the requirement to circumcise is unique to Passover; no similar requirement is recorded regarding any other commandment.
Significantly, this requirement is not restricted to the ger, but also to the uncircumcised Israelite, as “no uncircumcised person may eat of it.” In other words, a special feature of the paschal lamb according to this legislation is that it may only be eaten by someone circumcised.
The circumcision of a foreign resident does not make the ger into an Israelite any more than the circumcision of the uncircumcised Israelite does; certainly, the Israelite is an Israelite even if uncircumcised. Thus, the message of the text is that among those who are permitted to eat from the paschal sacrifice—a group which excludes foreigners (נכר) but includes both natural citizens and gerim—the uncircumcised are excluded.
This same connection between the paschal offering and circumcision also appears in Joshua, who circumcises the Israelites before they offer the Pesach (Josh 5:2–10).
Blood as Protection for Passover and Circumcision
The special linkage of the Paschal offering to circumcision may be related to the apotropaic nature of both commandments – both are related to blood as a form of protection.
There are still remnants to this conceptualization in rabbinic literature. Thus, the Tannaitic Midrash combines the two commandments of Exodus 12, the Paschal lamb and the circumcision as the merits that made the Israelites worthy of redemption (Mekhilta of R. Yishmael; Pisḥa 5, Trans. Lauterbach, vol. I, p. 24):
נתן להם הקב״ה שתי מצות דם פסח ודם מילה שיתעסקו בם כדי שיגאלו.
Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, assigned them two duties, the duty of the paschal sacrifice and the duty of circumcision, which they should perform so as to be worthy of redemption.
This may help explain why the paschal lamb, of all the commandments, requires that its participants, whether Israelite or not, must be circumcised.
LXX: Two Types of Gerim
If even the Priestly texts do not understand ger as convert, when and how did this understanding of the biblical text evolve? To answer this question, we must recall that, unlike contemporary Bible scholars who tend to explain contradictory concepts in the Torah by assuming multiple sources, the ancient sages read the Torah as one consistent document. As such, it should have one systematic view of what the status of foreigners living among Israelites should be. And yet, as noted above, the Torah presents more than one picture of the ger.
The earliest source we have to take up the problem of why the Torah uses the term ger in more than one sense is the Greek Septuagint (LXX), which uses two different terms to translate ger depending on context:
- Paroikos (πάροικος)—The standard Greek word for “neighbor,” literally “living near.” LXX uses it in the sense of foreigners living outside their own country among another group, i.e., “neighbors who are not the same.” It is the standard translation for ger when the term refers to Israelites living among foreigners, but is only rarely used for ger in reference to foreigners living among Israelites; it is, instead, the preferred translation of toshav, “sojourner” in such cases (Exod 12:45, Lev 22:10, 25:6, 23).
- Proselytos (προσήλυτος)—A Jewish-Greek term for a ger that literally means “one who has arrived,” likely implying more than just “living among,” but “joining.” LXX uses this term for the vast majority of cases when ger refers to an outsider living among Israelites.
The Ger in Deuteronomy Who Eats Carrion
Although LXX avoided using paroikos for a ger living among Israelites, in some cases the translators felt they had no choice. An example from Deuteronomy is telling:
דברים יד:כא לֹא תֹאכְלוּ כָל נְבֵלָה לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ אוֹ מָכֹר לְנָכְרִי כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַי־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
Deut 14:21 You shall not eat anything that has died a natural death; give it to the ger (LXX: paroikos) in your community to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people consecrated to YHWH your God.
The position of the ger here is liminal. On one hand, the ger is explicitly marked as different from the Israelites who may not eat carrion. On the other hand, the ger is distinguished from the nochri, i.e., the outsider, in that the ger is to be given the meat for free, while the outsider is to be charged; that is, the Israelite has social responsibility for the ger, but not for the nochri.
We may deduce from the fact that the LXX translates ger here as paroikos that the translators use this term for foreigners who live among another group as a separate community, whether it is Israelites among foreigners or foreigners among Israelites. In contrast, proselytos refers to foreigners who live among Israelites and join the community and share its commandments. This is why the same rules apply to gerim and natural citizens, because they are one legal community.
In short, LXX understands what scholars call the Priestly ger as someone who has joined the Jews and is obligated to keep Jewish law, and extends this definition to as many (non-Priestly) passages about gerim that can sustain it.
The Proselytos and the Convert
It is natural to assume that LXX’s proselytos is coterminous with the Rabbinic Judaism’s convert. In fact, the Greek proselytos (via Latin) is the source of the English word proselyte. But the matter is not so simple, and we must be wary of anachronistically translating ger as “convert” in the LXX because of how the rabbis eventually understood the term ger.
In fact, during the Second Temple period, becoming a Jew did not involve crossing the sharp, binary gentile/Jew divide through a specific, legislated, instantaneous ritual that transformed the gentile into the Jew. Instead, as Shaye Cohen meticulously shows, during this period there is a continuum, rather than a dichotomy, between various levels of identifying with and as Jews.
Even Josephus, at the end of the first century C.E., is still aware of this continuum, and does not describe a specific conversion ritual, but rather the coexistence of different models to becoming a Jew, as we see from his discussion of the conversion of King Izates of Adiabene. The rabbis, however, put an end to this fluidity of identity and ritual.
Introducing the Rabbinic Ger
The rabbis divide the references to ger in the Torah in the same way as the LXX did hundreds of years earlier:
- גר תושב (ger toshav)—meaning “the ger who is a sojourner,” this refers to a gentile who remains a gentile, but lives under Jewish sovereignty and fulfills some commandments.
- גר שנתגייר (ger she-nitgayyer)—meaning, “the ger who has converted,” this refers to a gentile who undergoes circumcision (if male) and ritual immersion (both male and female) and thereby becomes a Jew. This category is also referred to as גר צדק (ger tzedek), meaning “a righteous ger.”
On the face of it, the division of sojourner vs. convert seems the same as LXX’s division between paroikos and proselytos. Like the LXX, the rabbis understand the vast majority of the Torah references to a ger living among Israelites as referring to those who join the community and reserved the term גר תושב only for those cases which cannot be read as referring to a convert.
As for LXX, the classic example of such an exception was the verse in Deuteronomy about giving a carcass to a ger. In fact, the rabbis sometimes use this verse as a distinguishing mark of the ger who is not a real proselyte, calling him גר אוכל נבלות, “a carcass eating ger.”
And yet, the distinction between the types of gerim in rabbinic literature is sharper than anything we find in Second Temple literature. The gradations of Jewishness possible in Second Temple times for the proselytos who wishes to join the Jewish people was erased in rabbinic literature and replaced with ritual conversion.
The rabbinic view does demonstrate some continuity with Second Temple practices, since we learn from certain Second Temple sources how males who wanted to become Jews to the fullest extent underwent circumcision. Yet, the rabbis preserved only this most extreme option of full integration.
For the rabbis, a convert is someone who becomes fully Jewish. In their view, ethnic identity is for the most part, binary: a person is either a gentile or a Jew. An individual changes from the former to the latter through rituals of conversion, namely immersion, plus, for men, circumcision.
The Rabbinic Conversion Revolution
The transformation of the ger into a convert and the consequent marginalization of the sojourner in rabbinic literature is part of a broader move of eradication of the intermediate positions in the Jewish-gentile continuum. Even if it is built upon the Second Temple reality that outsiders can join Jews to various degrees, the rabbinic systematic transformation of biblical gerim into full-blown converts is revolutionary.
While Second Temple Judaism still allowed for gradations of Jewishness, the rabbis created a fully binary model of a Jew vs. gentile. In so doing, the rabbis standardized the position of the proselytos, turning the ger into a full Jew, and legislating the rituals required in order to accomplish this transformation.
Thus, for the rabbis, the gentile who circumcised himself to eat of the paschal lamb was a full-fledged Jew, who had the responsibility to observe all the mitzvot (commandments) that were incumbent on Jews, rather than a foreigner who had to go through a particular ritual just to eat from the sacrifice, as the Bible envisions it. The biblical ger, who lives among the Israelites and thus may eat the paschal lamb with them, was transformed by the rabbis into a full convert, in accordance with their new, comprehensive binary structure.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
April 15, 2019
July 17, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi is Professor of Rabbinic Literature in the department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel-Aviv University, and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. in rabbinic literature from Tel-Aviv University and was elected to the Israel Young Academy of Sciences in 2013. Among his many publications are Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity (2011); Body and Soul in Ancient Judaism (2012); and Goy: Israel’s Others and the Birth of the Gentile (2018, with Adi Ophir).
Essays on Related Topics: