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Parshat Ekev: Converts or foreigners: Which geirim are we commanded to love?

Av 5783 | July 2023


“Because the Lord your God is the God of gods and Master of masters, the great, mighty, and awesome God, who does not show favor and will not take bribes. Who makes justice for the orphan and widow, loves the geir (foreigner) and gives them bread and clothes. You shall love the geir because you were geirim (pl.) in the land of Egypt.”[1]

Rambam notes that there are two commandments to love the geir in addition to the commandment to “love your fellow as yourself.”[2] Therefore, one who does not love the geir transgresses two commandments – the general commandment to love our fellow (reiya) and the specific commandment to love the geir.[3] Similarly, the midrash points out that there is also a specific prohibition against exploiting (hona’a) the geir, when there is also a general prohibition against exploiting one’s fellow (amit).[4]

These midrashim indicate that every geir is also a fellow (reiya, amit), words that generally refer to other Jews. They teach us that in addition to existing Torah commandments to love our fellows and not to exploit them, the Torah specifically adds another level of responsibility towards geirim.[5] But is the Torah referring to Jews-by-choice (a.k.a. converts), or is the geir another type of foreigner? Why must there be specific mitzvot about attitudes toward the geir?

Who is a geir?

Today the term “geir” is synonymous with Jews-by-choice, but this wasn’t its original meaning. The first appearance of the term geir in the Torah describes Avraham’s descendants’ sojourn in a “land that is not theirs;” in the second Avraham calls himself a geir v’toshav among the Canaanite people.[6] In both cases the geir is distinct from the people of the land; Avraham and his descendants are not supposed to adopt their (corrupt) ways, behavior that is incongruent with conversion. Indeed, it seems the term geir originally referred to a temporary dweller or sojourner who is not indigenous to the land, as opposed to an ezrakh, a resident.[7]

Geir: A convert to Judaism

Many sources don’t define which type of geir we are commanded to love; others indicate this may refer to Jews-by-choice, but leave room for interpretation.[8] Nevertheless, perhaps in the wake of Rambam, many halakhic authorities explain that the mitzvah to “love the geir” specifically refers to converts who have “entered beneath the wings of the Shekhina (Divine Presence).”[9]

Yet this interpretation seems to conflict with the instruction, “A verse can’t be removed from its plain context.”[10] Although the scope of this rule is debated, explaining the term geir in two different ways in the same verse is certainly problematic, which makes it difficult to claim that “love the geir because you were geirim in the land of Egypt,” refer to converts rather than foreigners in general.[11]

Geir: A foreigner or immigrant

Therefore, many commentaries on the Torah interpret geir in a broader sense. Ramban explains that the geir we may not oppress is any foreigner, for just as God had mercy on us when we were oppressed foreigners in Egypt, so too God has mercy on all oppressed people regardless of their merit or religious practice.[12]

Sefer Mitzvot HaKatzar (Semak) is one of the few halakhic sources that explicitly teaches that this commandment applies to all foreigners in our midst, not just ones who have converted. “The meaning of geir here is ‘someone who comes from another land or another city to live with us,’ even more so a geir who has converted. And this [mitzvah] applies in every place and every time, for men and women.”[13]

Nevertheless, Semak paraphrases the concept that this mitzvah is in addition to “you shall love your fellow as yourself.” It’s possible that he views anyone who serves God as a reiya, a fellow, even if they are not Jewish. In this case a geir is not any foreigner, but a foreigner who has chosen to live with the Jewish people and, at the very least, has renounced idolatry and serves God. As we saw in Parshat Devarim, this may be the Torah’s minimum prerequisite for non-Jewish residents of the Jewish state.

Geir: A foreigner with shared values

It’s possible to relate this reading to a cryptic Midrash Tanhuma regarding the definition of a geir. Rav Asi states that if a geir accepts the entire Torah except for one detail, even one that is rabbinic in origin, their conversion is not accepted.[14] Though this opinion is not directly refuted, the midrash follows it with Rabbi Yehuda bar Shalom’s statement that the Torah cautions us about the geir forty-eight times, concluding, “The Holy One, blessed be He, said: It’s enough that they have abandoned idolatry and came to you, [therefore] I caution you to love them, for I love them, as it says, ‘[God] loves the geir and gives them bread and clothes.’”

While Rav Asi thinks a geir must accept the entire Written and Oral Torah, Rabbi Yehuda bar Shalom thinks that anyone who abandons paganism and idolatry to serve the one God qualifies as a geir – which we saw does not necessarily mean convert to Judaism.[15]

In a similar vein, the gemara brings three possible definitions of geir toshav (a foreigner who is a resident of Israel): someone who has rejected idolatry before three chaveirim (Jewish people meticulous in their halakhic observance), someone who observes the Seven Noahide Laws, or a convert who has accepted all mitzvot except that they will eat neveila.[16] Out of the three, the only social identity that persists today is that of the Noahide. Nevertheless, there are halakhic opinions that debate whether other Monotheists can be considered geirim according to the Torah.[17]

Why follow the narrowest definition of geir?

Considering the textual and rabbinic debates concerning the identity of the geir, why do many later halakhic authorities only discuss the mitzvah of loving the geir who is a Jew-by-choice?

It’s possible that these authorities rely on Rambam’s interpretation, but it’s also possible that the other definitions of geir were not discussed because they were no longer applicable. When the mishna and gemara were composed Jews living in the land of Israel were persecuted by their foreign rulers who often actively tried to destroy their way of life. Both in Israel and in exile we are the foreigners. For hundreds of years, we considered ourselves fortunate if we were treated as second-class citizens. More often we were refugees – barred from owning land, begging to reside in the worst areas, reliant on the whims of rulers who did not think we deserved justice or righteousness. The only people who had a lower social status were converts to Judaism, so it makes sense that rabbinic authorities would stress mitzvot to be kind to them.

Now that we have a Jewish State we need to grapple with the question of the geir’s status – which type of geir is protected by the Torah? Is it possible there’s a mitzvah to love and not to exploit any foreigners in our midst, or at least those who share our basic beliefs in one God? Is it possible the Torah that tells us “You shall love them (geirim) as yourself, for you were geirim in Egypt” would allow us to treat foreigners the way we were treated as foreigners?[18]

Why is there a particular mitzvah to love the geir?

Some explain that geirim are singled out because of their socio-economic status. A geir does not have a portion of land they can use to support themselves.[19] A geir does not have familial and social ties that can act as a safety net.[20] A geir is more likely to be oppressed or taken advantage of.

An interesting juxtaposition in Rambam offers another insight. Rambam explains that since people are normally influenced by the opinions and actions of those around them a person should seek out the company of sages and righteous people.[21] He continues with the mitzvah to love all Jews and specifically to love the geir. Rambam, who shunned extremes and advocated for the golden mean, may have been concerned that people would seek the company of righteous people to the exclusion of all others. This prejudice could be catastrophic for geirim who may be discriminated against because they do not have the benefit of a Jewish upbringing. While we should seek to be influenced by those who excel in ways we don’t, we must also reach out to those who are growing, and we should never shun our fellows..

Others say the extra kindness is to ensure they remain committed to their new way of life.[22] Several sources point out that it’s easy for a geir to return to their past behavior.[23] One midrash goes as far as to declare that the prohibition against verbally abusing (hona’at devarim) the geir is juxtaposed to the prohibition against serving false gods to teach us that someone who torments a geir and causes them to return to their pagan ways is considered as if they worshipped false gods.[24] It’s possible the midrash equates the two because it holds the tormentor partially responsible for the geir’s sins.

Why would the midrash hold other Jews responsible for the foreigner’s sins?

The answer should be so clear one should not have to ask the question. A geir who chooses to join the people of Israel to serve God does so because they believe we have a special relationship with God; we know what is right and follow the path of God. If we treat this person as a second-class citizen, as we ourselves were treated when we were the minority, or if we judge a person by their birth and not their actions – then we are not fulfilling the tasks God set us in this week’s parsha, to walk in the ways of God, a God who “does not show favor.”

Why would anyone want to join a people prejudiced against them? Why would anyone want to follow the God they claim to represent?

This brings us to another possible explanation for the midrash’s harsh statement. It’s possible the midrash literally considers a Jew who mistreats a geir as someone who serves a false God. The One, true God created all people “in the image of God” and “loves geirim.” Someone who thinks their religion allows them to treat a human being who shares the same basic values as a second-class citizen is clearly worshiping a false god.

Does the Torah have a double standard?

The gemara in Bava Kama states that “A gentile who learns Torah is considered like a High Priest,” which it learns from the verse, “that a person shall do and live by them,” which refers to any person and not specifically an Israelite.[25] This certainly makes it seem like the sages don’t believe God has a double standard.[26] Yet the sages themselves seem to, as evidenced by the next story.

The gemara then relates that two Roman officials were sent to study Torah with the sages. These officials pointed out a double standard in the rabbinic interpretation of the laws of damages, whereby a Canaanite is more liable to pay damages, yet is not eligible to receive them. [27]

At first their objection seems purely linguistic, but it can also be understood as a moral one. How can the Torah give preference to Israelites over their neighbors? How can someone be liable to pay damages when they are not eligible to collect them if the situation is reversed?[28]

Indeed, the gemara first introduces this law with the justification that God permitted the Jewish people to take the money of non-Jews when they rejected the Seven Noahide Laws.[29] Setting aside the prejudice of this statement, we are once again left with the question: does this law apply to a non-Jew who keeps the Seven Noahide Laws?[30]

What kind of geir am I commanded to love?

There is certainly a mitzvah to love the Jew-by-choice – both because they have the privilege of being our fellow and because they are disadvantaged as a foreigner. And even though Rambam does not list it as a mitzvah, it seems both immoral and unusually lax to ignore the Semak’s inclusion of all foreigners, or at least those that reject idolatry and believe in one God.

There are several reasons why the Torah commands us to love geirim as ourselves and reminds us that we too were geirim. The Torah seems to be warning us against attempting to justify our actions with “they did it first,” or, “that’s what they would do in the same position.” In the past we were treated poorly because we were not the sovereign or majority, this does not give us license to do this to others, but rather should teach us to protect the minorities in our midst.

The same Torah that tells us “go according to the majority” also tells us to love the minority and not to take advantage of them. Unfortunately, many people have trouble maintaining allegiance to both – understanding that the rule of the majority must also protect the minority.

The Torah and  sages clearly wanted us to understand that not all foreigners are friends; certainly, those who rejected God were considered a threat. But it seems that those who share our basic morality, who serve God and renounce idolatry, should have at least some protections.[31] As Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra explains: “So I caution you about the geir, because your power is greater than theirs, or because they have no power because they are in your land under your dominion.”[32] Although he lived long before the Enlightenment and Emancipation, Ibn Ezra spent most of his life destitute and wandering which may have left him especially sensitive to the plight of geirim.

The 19th century scholar Shadal had a different point of view. He explained that ancient nations only loved their own kind, they believed it was fine to exploit everyone else; the Torah teaches us that we should treat geirim the way we wish to be treated – not just by our fellow people, but also when we are in the sensitive position of geirim, a powerless minority.[33]

Beyond our borders

We must remember that the Torah commands us to love the geir in the larger context of our duty to walk in all the ways of God.[34] God cares for all creations, God fights against all forms of oppression, God feeds the hungry and clothes the needy. Up until this point we have discussed the geir in our midst, but in today’s global society, perhaps we need to do more?

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks saw this mitzvah as informing how we as Jews should treat refugees:

‘I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose color, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.’[35]

[1] Devarim 10:17-19

[2] ibid and Vayikra 19:23-24 “When a geir dwells with you in your land you shall not oppress them. The geir shall be [treated] like you, a citizen, and you shall love them as yourself because you were geirim in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”

[3] Sefer HaMitzvot Aseh 207

[4] TB Bava Metzia 59b.

[5]In some instances the midrash continues with Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol’s statement that there are over thirty instances where the Torah commands us how to treat the geir, foreigner. TB Bava Metzia 59b counts thirty-six or forty-six. Midrash Tanhuma Vayikra 2:1 counts forty-eight. For example: Shemot 22:20; Vayikra 19:23-24; 23:22; 25:35; 24:17; Bamidbar 15:14-16.

[6] Bereishit 15:13-14. The first time the Torah uses the term geir is in brit bein habetarim, the covenenat between the parts, when God describes the exile and enslavement of Avraham’s future descendants, “Surely you shall know that your descendants will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave and afflict them…”
In Bereishit 23:4 Avraham is the first person to describe himself as a geir, after Sarah’s death when he approaches Ephron the Hittite to buy a portion of land as a burial plot, “I am a foreigner and a resident with you.”

[7] Geir and ezrakh are often juxtaposed. See Vayikra 17:15; 24:16, 22; Bamidbar 9:15; Yehoshua 8:33.

This does not mean that the term geir always refers to the same type of geir. Language evolves and at a certain point the definition of geir became synonymous with what Chazal (the Talmudic sages) also call a geir tzedek, a righteous convert. But this meaning is certainly not the exclusive meaning in Devarim, as Moshe will soon caution the people, “Do not eat neveila, give it to the geir in your gates and they will eat it, or sell it to a foreigner…”

Devarim 14:21. Neveila is meat from a kosher animal that was not slaughtered according to the law. A Jew may not eat neveila, and converts have the same obligations as people born Jewish.

[8] Sifra Vayikra, Kedoshim 8:4 and Midrash Tanhuma on Vayikra 2:1 are unclear.

[9] Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvot Aseh 207; Hilkhot De’ot 6:4.

Several commentaries question why this should be counted as an independent mitzvah if it completely falls under the category of “love your fellow as yourself.”

Other interpretations as a convert include: Sefer Mitzvot Ha Gadol, Asin 10 (prior to Rambam), Sefer HaChinukh (who follows Rambam), Sefer Chasidim 116:1, Netziv in HaEmek Davar.

[10] TB Shabbat 63a; Makkot 20b

[11] For more on the scope see Rambam Sefer HaMitzvot Shoresh 2 and Ramban’s comments.

Some commentaries bring midrashic interpretations for the end of the verse that are more congruent with the interpretation of geir as a convert. See Malbim,

[12] Ramban Shemot 22:20. Ralbag also compares a geir to someone who is persecuted in his commentary on Devarim 10:18.

[13] Semak Mitzvot Aseh 65

[14] Tanhuma Vayikra 2:1.

[15] It’s also possible to explain that Rabbi Yehuda bar Shalom is speaking about the minimum requirement to accept a convert, but this is a more problematic interpretation.

[16] TB Avoda Zara 64b.

[17] A debate we mentioned in our discussion of Parshat Devarim.

[18] Vayikra 19:23-24

[19] Ha’Emek Davar Devarim 10:18

[20] Malbim Devarim 10:18

[21] Hilkhot Deot Chapter 6. He explains that this is the way to fulfill the mitzvah to cleave to God, since it is impossible to fulfill it literally, we can do so by sticking to those who are closest to God in this world.

[22] Bereishit Rabba 70:5 relates that Akilas the Geir questioned why the verse says that loving the geir means giving them bread and clothing. Rabbi Eliezer rebuffed him saying this is all Yaakov asked for when he ran from Esav, “Give me bread to eat and clothing to wear.” Bereishit 28:20

Next he sought out Rabbi Yehoshua, who patiently soothed him by telling him bread was Torah and the clothing referred to the clothes of the priest. The midrash concludes that if it were not for Rabbi Yehoshua’s patience, Akilas would have returned to his wayward ways, connecting this to the verse, “Patience is better than might.” (Mishlei 16:32)

[23] See TB Bava Metzia 59b.

[24] Midrash Agada Shemot 22:20.

[25] TB Bava Kama 38a; Vayikra 18:5.

[26] The gemara does state that non-Jews that study Torah are rewarded as people who fulfill mitzvot they are not commanded to do, which is on a lower level than those who are commanded. Yet with Torah study the same could be said of women, blind men, and others – so the same standard applies to Jewish and non-Jewish people.

[27] They read the Torah three times and stated that all was truth except for one law; the rabbis explain that if an ox belonging to an Israelite gores an ox belonging to a Canaanite  the Israelite does not pay damages, but if a Canaanite’s ox gores an Israelite’s they’re liable for full damages, even if the ox had never gored in the past. They object to the rabbinic ruling linguistically, as the text just uses the term “reiyeihu” “his fellow.” If this term refers only to an Israelite then a Canaanite should not be liable, and if it also refers to a Cananite then the Canaanite should be eligible to receive damages.

This law has two double standards. An Israelite is not liable when their ox gores a Canaanites ox, but is if the victim was an Israelite’s ox. A Canaanite is liable for full damages in cases where an Israelite is only liable for partial damages.

[28] The conclusion of the story is that these Romans deal kindly with the sages, informing them they will only tell Rome that the Torah is true and will not mention this one issue. One could understand this as a lesson that we should not discard the entirety of Torah because there are some sections that are challenging. Yet this can also be understood as a subtle criticism of the rabbis who displayed less kindness or righteousness than the Romans.

[29] TB Bava Kama 38a. Rabbi Yochanan explains that it was permitted when God gave Israel the Torah, which may indicate that it applies to all non-Jews.

[30] It seems Shita Mekubetzet did not deem this justification adequate. He adds that this is not a Torah law but rather a rabbinic fine because they suspected non-Jews would purposely try to kill or maim animals owned by Jews, while Jews were known to do everything in their power to prevent their animal from causing damage. He also teaches that if non-believers ask they should be told that it only refers to the Seven Canaanite nations and not to modern non-Jews.

[31] Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra Vayikra 19:33-34; Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch Devarim 10:18-19.

[32] Ibn Ezra on Vayikra 19:33, and similarly on Shemot 22:20.

[33] Shadal on Vayikra 19:33.

[34] Devarim 10:12.

[35] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Refugee crisis: ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers’ calls us now,”

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.