Talmud

Yevamot 48

Foreigners among us.

Back when I was a university chaplain, I spent the majority of my time with students who weren’t Jewish. This might be an unusual pastoral flock for a rabbi, but serving the entire campus community was my responsibility, regardless of how they identified religiously. I met students who may not have been Jewish but were searching for a Passover seder because they grew up with Jewish friends and had grown accustomed to attending one. Others fasted on Yom Kippur or attended Shabbat dinner simply because they liked doing it. They might not have been Jewish, but they weren’t entirely not Jewish either.

Today’s daf addresses a similar situation. The rabbis are considering Exodus 23:12, which imposes a requirement of rest on Shabbat “in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your home-born slave and the stranger may be refreshed.” The word for stranger, ger, sometimes also understood as referring to a convert, has undergone a significant semantic shift over time and our daf grapples with what it means:

And the stranger” (Exodus 23:12). This is a gentile who observes certain mitzvot [ger toshav]. Do you say that this is a ger toshav, or only a righteous convert [ger tzedek]? When it says elsewhere: “And your stranger that is within your gates” (Deuteronomy 5:13), a righteous convert is already mentioned. How then do I uphold the verse “And the stranger”? It must be that this is a ger toshav.

We learn in Exodus that a ger is entitled to rest on Shabbat, and the rabbis here suggest it could refer to two types of strangers. A ger tzedek (“righteous convert”) is someone who has gone through a conversion process and become a part of the Jewish people. They are Jewish, full stop, and as such are bound by the same commandments as other Jews. But with respect to Shabbat observance, a ger tzedek is also specifically mentioned in the second recitation of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy. So the verse in Exodus must be referring to another type of ger, the ger toshav.  

The definition of a ger toshav is a little less clear. We understand from this passage that a ger toshav observes some (but implicitly not all) of the commandments. Elsewhere in the Talmud, the concept is rounded out further to specify which commandments are required and which rights and responsibilities a ger toshav carries. Bundled together, the enumerated attributes describe what’s often translated as a “resident foreigner,” someone who isn’t Jewish, but is part of the Jewish community and engages in certain rituals and practices.

Some modern Jewish leaders have suggested that the concept of the ger toshav can serve as a contemporary paradigm for how we think about people who aren’t Jewish but have a deep connection to Jewish individuals, community and practice. Whether it’s because they’re married to Jews or because their circle of friends or family of choice is predominantly Jewish or just because they regularly attend Saturday morning services, these individuals are often an integral part of our lives. Applying an ancient term to their status can celebrate the contributions they make to Jewish life and recognize the valued place they hold.

Acknowledging and honoring these individuals requires us to recognize that Jewishness isn’t necessarily an either/or identity. Today’s daf shows us that, even in talmudic times, the rabbis were aware of the ways in which Jewishness could be more of a spectrum than a binary and that age-old constructs can help us name and welcome those who might not be Jewish but are still looking for a seat at the Shabbat table.

Read all of Yevamot 48 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 24th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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