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Traditional Jewish text - Texts on the Ger (stranger)

Exodus 23:9

וגר לא תלחץ ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים

You shall not oppress the ger, for you know the feelings of the ger, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt.

Jacob Milgrom "Reflections on the Biblical GER" Leviticus 17-22 (New York: Doubleday, 2000) 1416-1417

The term gēr or its compound form gēr tošab is generally rendered "resident alien." Hence one might think that it always refers to a non-Israelite. However, this is not its meaning in Genesis and Exodus. Abraham declares to the residents of Hebron, "I am a resident alien among you" (Gen. 23:4). Moses in Egypt also admits, "I have been a gēr in a strange land" (Exod. 2:22); see Gen. 15:13). Indeed, from a divine perspective, the people of Israel has the status of a gēr on its own land: "For the land is Mine, you are but resident aliens under my authority." (Lev. 25:23) Moreover, according to the testimony of the Psalmist, "I am only an alien in the land" (Ps. 119:19); all human beings are but tenants on the earth charged with the responsibility "to work and take care of it." (Gen 2:15)

How does the gēr differ from other persons in Israelite society? He is neither the Israelite native ('ezrāh) nor the foreigner (nokrî). True, the gēr is also of foreign origin, but there the distinction ends. The foreigner is either a visiting merchant or a mercenary (2 Sam. 15:19); he is attached to his homeland and intends to return to it. The gēr, however, is a resident alien; he has uprooted himself (or has been uprooted) from his homeland and has taken permanent residence in the land of Israel. . .

Having severed his ties with his original home, he has no family to turn to for support. Thus deprived of both land and family, he was generally poor, listed together with the Levite, the fatherless, and the widow among the wards of society (Deut. 26:12), and exposed to exploitation and oppression. (Ezek. 22:7). . .

According to the Bible, the gēr is completely equivalent to the Israelite in civil law: "the same tôrâ and the same mišpāt shall apply to the gēr who resides among you" (Num 15:16). Here, mišpāt stands for civil law and tôrâ for religious law. However, though the legal status of the gēr matches that of the Israelite in civil law, the same is not true in religious law. In fact, the gēr is held to a more lenient regime. He or she is obligated to observe only the negative commandments, the prohibitions, but not the positive commandments, the performative ones.

Ramban on Exodus 22:20

לא תונה גר ולא תלחצנו ותחשבו שאין לו מציל מידך, כי אתה ידעת שהייתם גרים בארץ מצרים וראיתי את הלחץ אשר מצרים לוחצים אתכם ועשיתי בהם נקמה, כי אני רואה דמעת העשוקים אשר אין להם מנחם ומיד עושקיהם כח, ואני מציל כל אדם מיד חזק ממנו. וכן האלמנה והיתום לא תענו כי אשמע צעקתם, שכל אלה אינם בוטחים בנפשם, ועלי יבטחו. ובפסוק האחר הוסיף טעם ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים (להלן כג ט). כלומר, ידעתם כי כל גר נפשו שפלה עליו והוא נאנח וצועק ועיניו תמיד אל ה' וירחם עליו כאשר רחם עליכם, כמו שכתוב (לעיל ב כג) ויאנחו בני ישראל מן העבודה ויצעקו ותעל שועתם אל האלהים מן העבודה. כלומר לא בזכותם רק שרחם עליהם מן העבודה

"You shall not wrong or oppress the ger" thinking that none can save him from your hands. For you know that you were gerim in the land of Egypt and "I saw the oppression with which Egypt oppressed you," (Exodus 3:9) and I brought revenge on them; for "I see the tears of those who are oppressed and have no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors there is power," (Ecclesiastes 4:1) and I save every person "from the hands of those who are stronger than they." (Psalms 35:10) Similarly, "you shall not wrong the widow or the orphan," for I will hear their cries, for all of these people do not rely on their own power, but trust in me. And, another verse adds a reason for this: "For you know the feelings of the ger, having been gerim in the land of Egypt." That is to say—you know that every ger feels depressed and is always sighing and crying, and always directs his eyes toward God. Therefore, God will have mercy upon the ger as God showed mercy to you, as it is written, "and the children of Israel sighed by reason of their bondage, and they cried, and their cries came up unto God by reason of the bondage." (Exodus 2:23) God had mercy on them not because of their merits, but only on account of the bondage.

Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael Mishpatim

וגר לא תונה ולא תלחצנו כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים. לא תוננו, בדברים, ולא תלחצנו, בממון. . . חביבין הגרים שבכל מקום הוא מכנן כישראל; נקראו בני ישראל עבדים, שנאמר +ויקרא כה נה+ כי לי בני ישראל עבדים, ונקראו גרים עבדים, שנאמר +ישעיה נו ו+ לאהבה את שם יי' להיות לו לעבדים. . . נאמר בישראל שמירה, שנאמר +תהלים קכא ד+ הנה לא ינום ולא יישן שומר ישראל, ונאמר בגרים שמירה, שנאמר +שם /תהלים/ קמו ט+ יי' שומר את גרים; אברהם קרא עצמו גר, שנאמר +בראשית כג ד+ גר ותושב אנכי עמכם; דוד קרא עצמו גר, שנאמר +תהלים קיט יט+ גר אנכי בארץ, ואומר +דה"א =דברי הימים א'= כט טו+ כי גרים אנחנו לפניך ותושבים ככל אבותינו כצל ימינו על הארץ ואין מקוה, ואומר +תהלים לט יג+ כי גר אנכי עמך תושב ככל אבותי. . .

"You shall not wrong or oppress the ger, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt." "You shall not wrong" with words, "and you shall not oppress" financially. . . [We know that] God loves the gerim, for in every place that the ger is mentioned, he is described in language also used to describe Israel. Israel is called servants, as it says, "The children of Israel are servants to me." (Lev. 25:55) and gerim are called servants, at it says "As for the foreigners who attach themselves to Adonai to be God's servants" (Isaiah 56:6) [the text mentions many other words, including "brit" (covenant) and "love," used to describe both Israel and gerim.]. . . the word "protection" is attributed to Israel, as it says, "The protector of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers." (Psalms 121:4) and to gerim, as it says, "God protects the gerim." (Psalms 146:9)

Discussion Questions: 
  1. What reasons are given in these texts for why Jews should not oppress the ger? What are the differences among these reasons? Which of these reasons resonates most with you? Why?
  2. Does the biblical memory of the experience of the Hebrews in Egypt play a role in how you personally respond to gerim? Do any other experiences (Jewish or not) influence your response to gerim?
  3. In the aspects of the Civil Rights Movements you have studied, who would you characterize as the ger? Do you think there are cases where more than one person/group could be considered gerim? If yes, how – if at all – might this change the way we interpret the laws about how we treat gerim?

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Traditional Jewish text - Texts on the Ger (stranger)." (Viewed on April 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/texts-on-ger-stranger>.