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Torah Sparks

February 21, 2004 – 29 Sh’vat 5764

Annual: Ex. 21:1 – 24:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Triennial Cycle 3: Ex. 23:20 – 24:18 (Etz Hayim p. 474; Hertz p. 319)
Maftir: (2d Scroll) Exodus 30:11-16 (Etz Hayim p. 523; Hertz p. 350)
Haftarah: (a) II Kings 12:1-7 (s) II Kings 11:17 – 12:17 (Etz Hayim p. 1276; Hertz p. 992)
[Many add the first and last verses of the haftarah for mahar hodesh - I Samuel 20:18 and 20:42]

Prepared by Kenneth S. Goldrich, Esq.
Author of the USCJ/RA Luah and Yad LaTorah

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Mishpatim is rich in mitzvot. Of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, there are 53 in Parashat Mishpatim – 23 positive and 30 negative.

21:1-11 – Laws regarding the male and female Hebrew slave.

21:12-17 – Capital crimes – penalties for intentional murder, unintentional murder and kidnapping.

21:18-22:3 – Laws of personal injury, property damage, theft, and negligence, including lex talionis, i.e., an eye for an eye.

22:4-14 – Laws governing different kinds of property custodians: unpaid, paid, and borrowers.

22:15-26 – Laws against the seducer, occult practices (witchcraft), and forbidding the oppression of the powerless and the weak, including the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the poor; also, lending without interest.

22:27-30 – Miscellaneous laws concerning respect for authority, gifts to the priests, and the prohibition of eating torn flesh (trefah).

23:1-9 – Laws concerning righteous behavior toward others, including some basics of the justice system.

23:10-19 – Laws concerning the Sabbatical year, Shabbat, and Festivals.

23:20-33 – An epilogue exhorting the Israelites to follow God's law, emphasizing the rewards they will receive if they do so.

24:1-18 – The Covenant is ratified at a formal ceremony of acceptance. Moses and the elders eat a meal and see a vision of God. Moses alone ascends the mountain to receive the stone tablets, remaining there for forty days and nights.

Selected Text

Do not harass the ger and do not oppress him, because you were gerim (pl. of ger) in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:20)

Discussion – So What If You Don't Look Jewish?

The term ger, which remains untranslated in the Selected Text, has several meanings. While the word appears earlier in the Torah, Rashi defines the term in his comment on this verse: “Ger refers to one who was not born in the same country (he now resides in) but came from another country.” This explanation corresponds to the usual translation of ger as “stranger.” This is clearly the plain meaning of the term in our Selected Text. However, the Talmud interprets at least the first instance of the term ger to refer to a convert (ger tzedek, as the term later developed), i.e., one who converted to Judaism. Thus, our Selected Text is understood to read: “Do not harass the convert (ger) and do not oppress him, because you were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt.”

Based upon a discussion in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b), the Sefer ha’Hinukh synthesizes a significant amount of rabbinic material and begins its explanation of the mitzvah found in our Selected Text as follows:

“Not to oppress the convert with words. We are forbidden from harassing the convert, even if only verbally. If one comes from among the nations and converts by entering our faith (i.e., Judaism), it is forbidden for us to humiliate him, even verbally. As it is said: ‘Do not harass the convert (ger).(Ex. 20:22) Even though we were warned about this regarding a Jew (based on Lev. 19:18), and since he (i.e., the convert) has entered our faith, he is (treated) as a Jew (and thus the warning in our Selected Text would seem superfluous) the Torah has provided this additional warning, a warning repeated again. (Lev. 19:33) This is so because (the convert) is more likely (to be susceptible) to harassment than the (born) Jew who (if he is harassed) will seek to avenge his disgrace.” (Sefer ha’Hinukh, Mitzvah 63)

The ger – whether a stranger or a convert – is more susceptible to suffering harm and requires from the law a high level of protection. As the Talmud notes, the Torah repeats the variously worded warnings regarding treatment of a ger no less that 36, and others say as many as 46, times. (Bava Metzia 59b)

Perhaps because of the difficulties the convert might face for his/her choice, perhaps because of the difficulties the Jewish community might face (e.g., as a minority in a predominantly non-Jewish culture), or perhaps for other reasons, Judaism has, for much of its history, actively discouraged conversion. Based on the example of Ruth (the most famous convert and ancestor of King David and, ultimately, the messiah), converts were discouraged up to three times before even being accepted for study in the first step leading to conversion. Yet, at the same time, we find hints of, perhaps, a different approach: “According to Rabbi Elazar, Israel was not sent into exile among the nations except for the purpose of increasing the number of converts among them.” (Pesahim 87b)

However one viewed the possibility of non-Jews converting to Judaism, once a convert joined the Jewish people, rabbinic literature tells us that efforts were to be made to assist and encourage the full integration of the convert into the Jewish community. Thus, for example, one is not permitted to remind the convert of his past. Similarly, the ger is encouraged not to see herself as different. Rambam was asked by the convert Ovadiah whether he could recite the prayers which contain references like: “our God and God of our ancestors,” “the mitzvot which we were commanded,” “You have chosen us from among the nations,” or “the miracles You made for our ancestors.” In a famous response addressed to “Ovadiah the wise and learned convert,” Maimonides instructed him to “recite everything in the prescribed order without the slightest change. In the same manner that every Jew by birth recites each berakhah and tefilah you should recite them as well, whether you are alone or praying together with the congregation.” Rambam instructed that “whoever adopts Judaism and acknowledges the Unity of God (i.e., monotheism) as prescribed in the Torah, is among the disciples of Abraham our father.” (Rambam, Letter to Ovadiah the Proselyte) If nothing else, the Book of Ruth and rabbinic tradition teach that destiny is not a matter of biological predetermination.

One hundred years ago, the Jewish Encyclopedia stated: “In modern times conversions to Judaism are not very numerous.” Certainly, since the completion of that Encyclopedia in 1906, the number of conversions has risen dramatically, as has the presence of intermarried families in our community. Clearly we are presented, perhaps with greater frequency than at any time in the past, with the opportunity to treat the ger with the sensitivity that the Torah and rabbinic tradition requires.

Sparks for Further Discussion

  1. Several related terms include ger toshav (translated as “resident stranger” and used to refer to one who lives among and according to the traditions of a population) and ger tzedek (a “righteous convert”) or “convert.” Can you sense a connection between these terms? How can our Selected Text be understood if we assume that the term ger has two meanings in the same verse, i.e., why should our experience as oppressed strangers in Egypt make us more sensitive to the convert?
  2. Several contrary statements (e.g., “converts are difficult for Israel” – Talmud, Yevamot 109b) can be found in rabbinic literature discouraging conversion and focusing on the challenges converts can present to the Jewish community. What types of difficulties might the Jewish community face in welcoming converts? How might such challenges be addressed?
  3. How might the lessons our tradition teaches about how we are to treat the ger also apply to those born Jews who are newly observant (hozrei / ba’alei teshuvah) or to those who are new or less active members in our synagogue?

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