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“The Stranger Within Your Gates” – Foreign Workers in Israel Today

There are two types of gerim in Jewish law – a ger tzedek who converts to Judaism from another religion, and a ger toshav or resident alien who lives in Israel, but does not formally convert to Judaism.

Last year (Insight Israel, Vol. 1, No. 3, February 2001) I wrote about the conversion controversy in Israel which relates to the first type of convert. On February 20, 2002, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the Interior Ministry must register Conservative and Reform converts converted in Israel as Jews. The Conservative and Reform movements immediately declared victory but, as is frequently the case in Israel, things aren’t as simple as they seem. Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Shas party has refused to register the converts and is in danger of being cited for contempt of court. Sadly enough, both Chief Rabbis have urged him to continue to defy the Supreme Court decision.

What will happen next? Some have suggested eliminating the “nationality” entry from Israeli identity cards, so that no-one’s religion will be listed. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has asked Communications Minister, MK Ruby Rivlin, to formulate a conversion bill that will outlaw Conservative and Reform conversions and thus effectively nullify the Supreme Court decision and placate Shas. The Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism, which includes the Schechter Institute, has called on the Prime Minister to abandon the attempt to formulate such a law.

It is too soon to predict the final outcome, other than to say that this controversy will probably continue for many years to come.

This month, however, I would like to discuss the other type of ger, the ger toshav or resident alien. I have chosen this topic because it is related to Pesach and to the Exodus from Egypt (see below) and because it relates to the 160-250 thousand foreign workers (no–one knows the exact number) currently working in the State of Israel. Of that number, over half are here “illegally”. They work in construction, agriculture and geriatrics. The main problem is that work permits are issued to the employers instead of to the workers, who hand over their passports to the employers. If they leave their employer for a better job or because he has not paid them, they are immediately rendered “illegal”. This system has led to much abuse and to many workers being deported.

A. Ger Toshav – A Resident Alien

The Bible is not familiar with a ger tzedek or righteous convert. In the Bible, a ger is a stranger or resident alien of non-Israelite origin living in Israel. Such a ger is not an ezrah (citizen) and not mei’ahekha (from your brothers) and the rabbis call him a ger toshav or resident alien.

II) General Attitude to the Ger Toshav

The Bible repeatedly stresses that a ger toshav must be treated like a citizen, must be loved, and is loved by God:

  1. Exodus 12 (48-49) says that if a ger wants to offer the Passover sacrifice he must first undergo circumcision. “He shall then be as a citizen of the country… there shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you” (cf. Numbers 9:13-14).
  2. Numbers 15 (14-16) says in connection with voluntary sacrifices that “there shall be one law for you and for the stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord. The same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you” (cf. Lev. 22:17 ff.).
  3. Leviticus 19 (33-34) states that Israelites may not wrong the stranger (lo tonu oto) “you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, I the Lord am your God”.
  4. Deuteronomy 10 (17-18) adds that God “loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing”, while Psalms 146:9 says that God “watches over the stranger”.

III) Specific Laws Which Protect the Ger Toshav

Yet the Bible does not satisfy itself with generalizations. It lists a whole series of specific rights to which Gerim are entitled:

  1. “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20) The rabbis interpreted this to mean that you may not oppress a ger toshav either verbally or monetarily (Maimonides, Hilkhot Mekhirah 14:15-16; Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 228:2).
  2. Gerim must rest on Shabbat, exactly like Jews (Exodus 20:10; 23:12).
  3. Gerim may collect the gleanings (leket) from the field, alongside of poor Israelites (Lev. 23:22).
  4. Gerim must be treated equally in a court of law (Deut. 1:16 and cf. Lev. 24:22; Numbers 35:15).
  5. Gerim may eat from the tithe exactly like the widow and the orphan (Deut. 14:29).
  6. Gerim who are day-laborers may not be abused. You must pay them their wages on the same day (Deut. 24:14-15).
  7. This positive attitude continued in rabbinic literature. Massekhet Gerim which was written in the Geonic period (ca. 500-1000) summarizes some of the basic laws: “You may not cheat him (ona’ah), abuse him (oshek), or keep his wages overnight… You may not lend him money or borrow money with interest… You do not settle him on the border or in a bad district, but rather in a good district in the middle of Eretz Yisrael where his trade may develop (Gerim 3:2-4, ed. Higger, pp. 73-74).
  8. Maimonides (Melakhim 10:12) rules: “And it seems to me that one treats gerei toshav with the consideration and deeds of lovingkindness due to a Jew, for we are commanded to sustain them…”.
  9. Nahmanides (in his addenda to Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Commandments, No. 16, ed. Chavel, p. 254) goes one step further on the basis of Leviticus 25:35. He says that we must save the life of a ger toshav if he is drowning or if he is sick even on Shabbat, for pikuah nefesh overrides the Sabbath restrictions.

Thus we see that the Bible defends the rights of gerei toshav not just in general terms but through an entire list of specific mitzvot.

IV) Specific Obligations of the Ger Toshav

But the biblical attitude towards the ger toshav is a two-way street. Society owes him various things, but he owes society various things as well. There must be reciprocity:

  1. Gerim must not eat hametz during Pesach (Exodus 12:19).
  2. Gerim must “afflict their souls” and refrain from work on Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:29).
  3. Gerim must not worship other Gods (Lev. 17:8-9).
  4. Gerim must not eat blood, just like Israelites (Lev. 17:10).
  5. Leviticus 18 lists an entire series of sexual prohibitions and concludes that they apply both to the citizen and to the ger (Lev. 18:26).
  6. Gerim may not sacrifice their children to Molekh (Lev. 20:1-5).
  7. Gerim may not curse God (Lev. 24:16).
  8. Gerim who become ritually impure must be purified (Numbers 19:10).
  9. Gerim may not commit murder (Numbers 35:15 ff.)
  10. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 64b) follows a similar line of thought, stating that gerim must accept upon themselves specific mitzvot. Maimonides codified (Issurey Biah 14:7) that they must accept the prohibition of idol worship along with the “seven commandments of the sons of Noah” (see Genesis Chapter 9 and Sanhedrin 56a), which include the prohibitions against cursing God, murder, forbidden sexual relationships and theft.

V) Current Applicability

To what extent do these laws apply today? Should the foreign workers in Israel today be considered gerei toshav? There is no clear-cut answer. Maimonides (ibid.) says that the laws of the ger toshav only apply when the Jubilee year is in effect. Since there is no Jubilee year in our time, there is no law of gerei toshav. The Ra’abad of Posquieres (ibid.) disagrees and would consider at least some of these laws valid today.

We do not need to resolve this argument. It is enough for the State of Israel to adopt the spirit of these biblical and rabbinic laws, as follows:

  1. Foreign workers should not be oppressed verbally or physically.
  2. They must be allowed to rest on our Shabbat or theirs.
  3. They must be treated equally in a court of law.
  4. They must be paid fair wages on time.
  5. They must be given health insurance.
  6. They, in turn, must reciprocate by observing the laws of the State of Israel.
  7. Many of these laws are already “on the books”, but we must ensure that they are enforced.

As we celebrate Pesah, the festival of freedom, we must remember the words of Exodus 22 (v. 20): “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.


I) Foreign Workers in Israel Today

1.Jerusalem Post, August 21, 1998, p. 16

2.The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Sept. 8, 2000. pp. 16-19

3.Jerusalem Post, December 29, 2000, p. B5

4.Ibid., January 4, 2002, p. A5

5.The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Feb. 1, 2002, pp. 10-13

II) Gerei Toshav

R. Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, Philadelphia, 1990, Excursus, 34, pp. 398-402

R. Ariel Picar, Deot/Amudim 12 (December 2001), pp. 4-5

R. Naftali Routenberg, Or Hamizrah 39 (Tammuz 5751), pp. 259-264

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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