More on Lord Sacks and the Stranger

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by R. Yaakov Taubes

Rabbi Yaakov Taubes is the rabbi at Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights, New York. He also serves as an assistant director at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, and is a PhD candidate in Medieval Jewish History at the Bernard Revel Graduate School for Jewish Studies.

In connection with the Torah’s command to love the ger, I have read and heard numerous conversations about what the word ger means in terms of peshat as opposed to what it means in the eyes of Chazal and, by extension, debates as to which definition is more accurate. Generally, however, these have failed to consider the wider array of sources that exist on the topic. Rabbi Gil Student’s more sophisticated take on this subject and his demonstration of how it played in the thought of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z’l, is therefore a breath of fresh air. I would like to add a few comments to expand his argument.

1) Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chaim, in his Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar, an abbreviated version of Maimonides’s Sefer HaMItzvot listing only those mitzvos which are relevant in the post-Temple period, writes in Mitzvas Aseh 61 that the ger referred to in the Torah’s mitzvah to love a stranger is someone who comes from a distant land to live with us and certainly (“kol shekein”) refers as well to someone who converts. The Chofetz Chaim thus seems to have held that the primary obligation of the mitzvah is to take care of strangers, an imperative included as a kind of addendum to the mitzvah as presented by the Sefer HaChinukh (Mitzvah 431), apparently disagreeing with the Minchas Chinukh’s understanding (as noted below), while the requirement to properly treat a convert is a secondary aspect.

2) Interestingly, there are several places throughout the Sefer HaChinukh where the author adds additional components to a given mitzvah as he does here regarding the commandment to love the ger. This trend has been briefly analyzed by Rabbi Mayer Twersky in an article in Tradition, in which he collects several examples of this phenomenon. Among them are Mitzvah 414, the prohibition to appoint unqualified judges, where the Chinukh adds that the mitzvah includes the prohibition to appoint any unqualified leader in any position, and Mitzvah 429, the prohibition to receive benefit from idols, where the Chinukh adds that the mitzvah includes avoiding inappropriate business practices or other illicit means of acquiring money. As Rabbi Twersky notes, however, the Minchas Chinukh does not offer any comment in those other cases to clarify that the “extra” laws are not really part of the mitzvah as he does regarding the mitzvah to love strangers. According to Rabbi Twersky, this may indicate that, at least according to the Minchas Chinukh, this particular law about treating strangers is more of an ethical imperative, to use Rabbi Student’s language, and hence not included in the basic mitzvah, as opposed to the others which are more halakhically normative. This is, of course, somewhat of an argument from silence, and there may be other reasons why the Minchas Chinukh chose not to comment on a given mitzvah, but the distinction is certainly striking. Rabbi Twersky cites a number of other examples as well as pointing out some inconsistency in the Sefer HaChinukh’s word usage and descriptions when he introduces these expanded laws. It is also worth noting that the Chinukh does not include any of these added extrapolations in his discussion about the relevance of, and the way one violates, each respective mitzvah, which may indicate that he in fact maintains that none of them are actually normative. This issue requires further work and I hope to do a fuller analysis in the future.

3) There is another significant traditional medieval authority who understands the word ger in a manner similar to that of the Sefer HaChinukh examined by Rabbi Student. R. Bahya b. Asher was a Spanish exegete who flourished in the late 13th century and early 14th century. in addition to his commentary on the Torah, a commentary on Pirkei Avos, Shulhan Shel Arbah, a halakhic and mystical treatise on food and eating, he also authored the Kad Ha-Kemach, an alphabetically organized encyclopedic work with sixty entries on topics related to Jewish life, practice, and thought. While it cannot be said with any degree of confidence that the entries are based on actual derashos that R. Bahya gave, it is abundantly clear that the work was intended to serve as what is now known as “chomer l’drush”; a darshan looking for material to preach about could look through the Kad and find suitable material to address (see the author’s introductory poem). In the entry entitled ger, R. Bahya writes:

“… Rabbi Eliezer the Great said, in thirty-six places the Torah charged us regarding the geir. It is common knowledge (davar yadu’a) that any Israelite exiled from his hometown is called a stranger.” (emphasis added)

R. Bahya goes on to explain that a Jew who is exiled from city to city is called a ger from the root word of “gargir,” a single berry that has been separated from its source (R. Bahya provides a similar derivation in his Commentary on the Torah in the introduction to Parashas Vayesheiv). He then extols the importance of providing food to these strangers, and particularly stresses the idea of offering them a warm smile and treating them with love.

Although the rest of the entry discusses converts, as well as the idea of the ger toshav, or resident alien, it is quite significant that R. Bahya begins his piece by taking it for granted that the verses regarding the ger in the Torah are relevant to the Jew who has been exiled from place to place. During R. Bahya’s time, the Jews were expelled from France and England, among other places, and many emigrated to Christian Spain where R. Bahya himself resided. We know from various sources that these displaced Jews were not always greeted so warmly by their brethren and tensions often brewed. In fairness, it must be remembered that many of these Jews arrived with little to no money, and even those who possessed a craft might be seen as competing with the established, native Jews. Additionally, the Jewish community in Spain was taxed based upon population and the presence of more Jews resulted in higher taxes. Combine these social realities with the differences of customs and language and we can understand why even Spanish Jews who were indeed willing to help may not have greeted their brethren with a cheerful smile.[1]See Susan. L. Einbinder, No Place of Rest: Jewish Literature, Expulsion, and the Memory of Medieval France (Philadelphia, 2009). R. Bahya’s aforementioned words may thus have been in direct response to this communal development. The same may in fact have been true for the Sefer HaChinukh, the author of which, while his identity is unknown, was most likely a student of R. Shlomo b. Aderet (Rashba), as R. Bahya was, and similarly wrote his work to teach the masses the Torah ideas behind each of the mitzvos (as opposed to specific laws — see his introduction). Thus, they may have been driven by similar motivations.

In our own time, when we find such serious division and distrust in our midst, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s understanding of the Torah’s charge to love the stranger and his stressing of its importance and relevance may likewise be a response to the needs of our generation. May his memory be a blessing.

Endnotes

Endnotes
1See Susan. L. Einbinder, No Place of Rest: Jewish Literature, Expulsion, and the Memory of Medieval France (Philadelphia, 2009).

About Yaakov Taubes

Rabbi Yaakov Taubes is the rabbi at Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights, New York. He also serves as an assistant director at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, and is a PhD candidate in Medieval Jewish History at the Bernard Revel Graduate School for Jewish Studies.

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