Bava Metzia 71

Stranger confusion.

The Hebrew word ger has a number of different meanings depending on the context and the historical period in which it’s used. It’s often translated as stranger, sojourner, alien or, later on, convert. Today’s daf considers how a ger is positioned in Jewish society, or more specifically whether a ger can acquire a Hebrew slave or sell themselves to a Jewish owner.

As background, the mishnah on yesterday’s daf told us that a ger toshav — a non-Jew who lives in Israel and observes the seven Noahide laws, also known as a resident alien — can both borrow and lend money at interest. But in a beraita cited by the Gemara, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi expresses confusion. We have sources in the tradition referring to a different kind of ger, a ger tzedek (convert), in the context of purchasing an enslaved person. And we have a source talking about a ger toshav (resident alien) in the context of charging interest. But for reasons that aren’t totally clear, Rabbi Yehuda is uncertain which each of these terms is referring to. Stated slightly differently, our mishnah seems to indicate that the ger toshav is the particular kind of ger who can borrow and lend with interest. But Rabbi Yehuda doesn’t seem to know this.

For space considerations here, we’re going to sidestep the question of interest and look only at the issue of slavery, which the Gemara tells us is a reference to Leviticus 25:48-49. That verse introduces the idea that a poor Jew who can sell himself into slavery. It states: “If a resident alien among you has prospered, and your kin, being in straits, comes under that one’s authority and is given over to the resident alien among you, or to an offshoot of an alien’s family, [your kin] shall have the right of redemption even after having been given over.”

The Gemara notes that two potential categories of acquirer are mentioned there: the resident alien (ger toshav) and “an offshoot” of the resident alien’s family, members of whom, presumably, are simply non-Jews who don’t meet the conditions of being a resident alien (e.g., who don’t follow the seven Noahide laws). The Gemara comments further that being sold to relatives of a resident alien is the equivalent of being sold into the service of idol worship.

What happens next is a bit confusing, as the Gemara substitutes one definition of ger for another:

The Master said: And not only to you (a born Jew), but even to a convert, as it is stated: “And sells himself to a stranger.” Is this to say that a convert may acquire a Hebrew slave? The Gemara raises a contradiction: A convert cannot be acquired as a Hebrew slave, and a woman or a convert may not acquire a Hebrew slave. 

First, we can see how the Gemara reinterprets ger as convert here, leaving behind the Levitical term “resident alien.” Given the semantic ambiguities and the changes in the meanings of these phrases over time, the rabbis occasionally substitute one for the other, and it’s difficult to resolve that here without an extensive examination of the history. More importantly, though, we’ve stumbled across a contradiction: The biblical text envisions a ger of some kind acquiring a Hebrew slave, but the beraita cited in the Gemara bars a convert from acquiring a Hebrew slave. How do we harmonize these two positions?

A convert cannot be acquired as a Hebrew slave, as we require (the fulfillment of the verse): “Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and shall return to his own family” (Leviticus 25:41), and a convert is not able. 

So converts can’t sell themselves into slavery. Why not? Because Leviticus says that a freed slave returns to his own family, and converts — who have no Jewish family of their own to return to — are unable to fulfill this verse. As a result, they can’t travel this path.

And what about a convert acquiring a Jewish slave? The Gemara resolves this with in the negative:

Only one who can be acquired can acquire a Hebrew slave, and one who cannot be acquired cannot acquire.

So the conclusion above that a convert can acquire a Hebrew slave is wrong — the Gemara imposes a symmetry requirement and decrees that if you can’t be acquired, you can’t acquire. Which explains Rabbi Yehuda’s confusion, given that the earlier textual analysis would lead us to conclude that it would have been acceptable.

Read all of Bava Metzia 71 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 9th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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