The convert and the freedman – the status of newcomers in Judaism.
This mishnah discusses ten genealogical classes who came back to the land of Israel after the exile and rules concerning which of these genealogical stocks may marry one another. The idea of examining the genealogical lineage (yoḥasim) of those who came up from Babylonia is found in Nehemiah 7:5: “My God put it into my mind to assemble the noble, the prefects, and the people, in order to register them by family (lehityaḥes). I found the genealogical register (sefer hayaḥas) of those who were the first to come up, and there I found written: […]” (JPS). According to this mishnah, since that time the people of Israel have been divided into ten classes. Usually, the status was transmitted from the father to his children, yet according to Mishnah Qiddushin 3:12, when the union is not valid or there is a transgression in it, the status is decided according to the one with the lower status. For our purposes, the cases of gerim (converts) and freed slaves are of most importance. Let us look first at these ten classes which are probably listed according to the importance of their lineage:
1) Priests were the first class in Israel who were considered descendants of Moses’s brother, Aaron. Jewish priesthood was transmitted from father to son. According to Leviticus 21:7 there are restrictions regarding the women priests can marry: “They shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled; neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband. For they are holy to their God” (NRSV). Also, in Ezekiel 44:22 we read: “They shall not marry a widow, or a divorced woman, but only a virgin of the stock of the house of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest” (NRSV).
2) Levites were considered descendants of the tribe of Levi. Besides the priests, they also served in the Temple.
3) Israelites may marry priests, Levites, ḥalalim, converts and freed slaves.
4) ḥalalim are those who were born to priests from women disqualified from marrying a priest, according to Leviticus 21:7 and Ezekiel 44:22. According to this Mishnah, ḥalalim cannot marry priests, but they can marry Levites and Israelites as well as converts and freed slaves.
5) Converts – the gerim (ger in the singular; more about this term and the different meanings it had in the bible and rabbinic texts can be found in the commentary for Mishnah Bikkurim 1:4-5): The procedure for converting to Judaism developed during the Second Temple period, and was “a fully established institution among the Jewish people by the time of the Rabbis” (Novak, “Gentiles in Rabbinic Thought,” p. 660). Some scholars trace the origin of conversion to the Babylonian exile, while others suggest that it originated in the Hasmonean period or even later. Yet, despite the fact that this mishnah lists converts as one of the classes that came from Babylonia after the exile, it is more likely that conversion as a mechanism to become a member of the Israelite community did not exist at that stage, otherwise we may have seen more references to this practice in Second Temple biblical literature. In any case, while in rabbinic texts one can find several opinions about the marriage of a daughter of gerim with priests, this text suggests that converts and their offspring cannot marry priests (see these opinions in the commentaries on Mishnah Qiddushin 4:6-7 and Jerusalem Talmud, Bikkurim 1:5, 64a), but they can marry all the other classes.
6) Freed slaves: In rabbinic texts, a freed non-Jewish slave holds a status similar to the ger (a convert), for he had to be circumcised in order to serve within a Jewish household. Slavery of non-Jews within Jewish households was considered an opportunity for slaves to join Judaism. Yet, the process of conversion was concluded only after the slave became a freedman (Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 36-39). Converts and freed slaves are often paired together in rabbinic texts, and their status is often similar. The rabbinic process of manumission resembles Roman practices in which freedmen of Roman citizens received Roman citizenship after their manumission. Yet, as Catherine Hezser writes: “Manumission did not automatically lead to Roman citizenship. Only those slaves who were manumitted in a particular way, by vindicta, by the census, or by a testament became Roman citizens.” She also adds that “The disqualification of servile origin would at least legally disappear with the second generation: the children born after manumission were considered freeborn and could become magistrates” (Jewish Slavery, p. 110-111). However, in this mishnah it seems that also descendants of freed slaves cannot marry priests. While free slaves are presented among the classes that came up from Babylonia, it seems that their descriptions in rabbinic texts fit better with a Roman context than the biblical one. As Natalie B. Dohrmann points out, “manumission of Gentile slaves is part of rabbinic law when it had no obvious place in the Bible.” Thus, rabbinic laws of manumission reflect the Roman model (“Manumission,” p. 56).
7) mamzerim (singular mamzer): According to Mishnah Yevamot 4:13 and Qiddushin 3:12, mamzerim are those children who were born to adulterous women (most of the prohibitions are listed in Leviticus 18 – 20) or children who were born out of incestuous sexual contact. Following Deuteronomy 23:3, “A mamzer shall not be admitted to the congregation (qahal) of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (based on v. 2 in NRSV), rabbinic texts conclude that mamzerim up to the tenth generation cannot marry priests, Levites, Israelites and ḥalalim. However, they are permitted to marry netinim, shtuqim and ’asufim,as well as converts and freed slaves.
8) netinim (singular natin) are descendants of Second Temple foreign servants. In the book of Ezra, the netinim are listed among those who came from Babylonia: “All the netinim and the descendants of Solomon’s servants were three hundred ninety-two” (Ezra 2:58, based on NRSV). According to the Jerusalem Talmud Qiddushin 4:1, 65b, and Babylonian Talmud 78b-79a, the netinim are descendants of the Gibeonites mentioned in Joshua chapter 9. The origin of the name is based on Joshua 9:27: “But on that day Joshua made them (va-yitnem) hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to continue to this day, in the place that he should choose” (NRSV). In rabbinic texts, the natin is often paired with the mamzer in issues related to marriage. According to our mishnah, they are permitted to marry mamzerim, shtuqim and ’asufim,as well as converts and freed slaves.
9) shtuqim (“silenced ones”) are children of whom the identity of the father is unknown. They are permitted to marry mamzerim, netinim and ’asufim,as well as converts and freed slaves.
10) ’asufim (sing. ’asufi) are children of whom the identity of the father and mother are unknown. The origin of this term is based on Psalms 27:10: “Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me (ya’asfeni). The same Hebrew root ’/s/f which denotes ‘to gather’ or ‘to be picked up’ is used in rabbinic texts to refer to those who were abandoned by their parents (more about this category can be found in Catherine Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 137-138). ’asufim are permitted to marry mamzerim, netinim and shtuqim,as well as converts and freed slaves.
As noted above, at the top of this list are the priests who are permitted to marry other priests, Levites and Israelites. After them come Levites and Israelites who may marry priests, one another, but also ḥalalim, converts and freed slaves. Next are the ḥalalim who cannot marry priests but can marry Levites and Israelites, converts and freed slaves. The gerim (converts) and freed slaves hold an intermediate station when considering lineage. On the one hand, they can marry Israelites, Levites and ḥalalim (though they cannot marry priests), but on the other hand, they are permitted to marry the four lower classes: mamzerim, netinim, shtuqim and ’asufeim. These four classes are not allowed to marry priests, Levites, Israelites, and ḥalalim, but they are permitted to marry each other, as well as converts and freed slaves.
This mishnah displays care for lineage. Converts and freed slaves who are new to the Jewish community are not integrated immediately into the Israelite section, but rather form their own categories. While converts (and freed slaves) were considered Israelites in most aspects of Jewish religion, when it comes to lineage (which is a requirement for marrying into the priestly stock) they are different.
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