Jerusalem Talmud, Bikkurim 1:5, 64a

A convert and a daughter of converts and marriage with a priest – are converts full members of the Israelite community?

360 CE to 400 CE
Syria Palaestina
Hebrew and Aramaic
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Jerusalem Talmud
Bikkurim 1:5, 64a

These passages from the Jerusalem Talmud Bikkurim 1:5, 64a, not only expound Mishnah Bikkurim 1:5, but also discuss Mishnah Qiddushin 4:6-7. Therefore, very similar traditions can be found in both tractates Bikkurim and Qiddushin of the Talmud. The main issue here is a marriage of a daughter of gerim (converts) and a priest (for more about the term ger, or gerim in the plural, see the commentary for Mishnah Bikkurim 1:5). Whereas gerim were considered equal to other Jews in most aspects of Jewish religious and communal life, in matters related to lineage, and especially when considering a marriage of a convert woman or daughter of converts to a priest, there was much dissimilarity between these two groups. In Ezekiel, there are restrictions regarding the women whom priests are permitted to wed: “They shall not marry a widow, or a divorced woman, but only a virgin of the seed of the house of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest” (44:22, based on NRSV). In our case, the question which arises from the Talmud is in which stage a female who is the offspring of converts may be regarded “a virgin of the seed of the house of Israel.” Namely, to what extent one can adopt a new lineage and fully integrate into the Jewish people following conversion.

Mishnah Qiddushin 4:6-7 presents the views of three sages who were active in the second century CE regarding the marriage of a priest to the offspring of gerim. According to Rabbi Yehudah, when the father is a ger (a convert) his daughter (and offspring) will never be able to marry a priest. In this case, the father transmits the lineage, since in a case where the mother is a convert and the father is an Israelite, the daughter can marry a priest. Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov (whose opinion is also cited in Mishnah Bikkurim 1:5) argues that one Israelite parent is sufficient to allow the daughter to marry a priest – be this parent the mother or the father (meaning that in the case of children of gerim, to have one Israelite parent is enough for a person to be considered an Israelite in all respects). Rabbi Yose contends that even when the two parents are converts, the daughter who was born after the conversion is considered an Israelite in all respects, and is suitable to marry a priest. The Jerusalem Talmud not only refers to these three sages, but also adds a fourth, more lenient opinion of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai. Moreover, while the Mishnah presents these three opinions without favoring any of them (at least not explicitly), the Talmud concludes by mentioning which of them should be the halakhah (the law) and also cites cases that involved the marriage of a priest to a daughter of gerim.

Section A of the Talmud begins with a citation of Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov’s opinion, which appears in both Mishnah Bikkurim 1:5 and Mishnah Qiddushin 4:7, and contrasts it with Rabbi Yehudah’s view that appears in Mishnah Qiddushin 4:6 (for more on their views see the commentaries on these texts). The Talmud continues with the claim that all these tannaim discuss the following biblical verse: “but only a virgin of the seed of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 44:22), acknowledging that the issue here is to define the point at which a descendent of gerim, or even the convert child herself may be considered “a virgin of the seed of the house of Israel” (more about the way this verse is used can be found in Hayes, Gentile Impurities, p. 175). At that point, the Talmud presents the four opinions of second century sages who were active especially after the Bar Kokhba revolt (after 135 CE).

Whereas according to the version in tractate Bikkurim of the Jerusalem Talmud Rabbi Yehudah says that a female offspring of gerim cannot marry a priest unless her mother is an Israelite, in tractate Qiddushin the version reads “[She cannot marry a priest] unless her father is an Israelite.” However, it seems that the Qiddushin reading is original because of its grammar, for the previous word yehe’ is masculine. Moreover, it may also fit better with Rabbi Yehudah’s statement cited at the beginning of this text, and which originally belongs to Mishnah Qiddushin 4:6. In this teaching, Rabbi Yehudah equates a daughter of a male ger to a daughter of a male ḥalal. The term ḥalal (or ḥalalah for a female) denotes a child who was born to a priest and an unsuitable mother (for example, a divorced woman). According to this mishnah, a daughter of a male ḥalal is eternally prohibited from marriage to a priest. Not only she, but also her offspring will never marry into a priestly family. The Mishnah continues to elaborate that this law applies only in a case in which the father of this daughter is a male ḥalal, however, when the mother is ḥalalah (i.e. was born to a priest and an unsuitable mother) and the father is Israelite, their daughter is suitable to marry a priest. Similarly, according to Rabbi Yehudah, the daughter of a male ger cannot marry a priest, and, moreover, her offspring will never be able to marry a priest either. Yet, a daughter of a giyoret (a converted woman) who married an Israelite man is suitable to marry a priest. In this case, it seems that the lineage is according to the father. Therefore, it makes sense that in this explanation in the Talmud the version should be as follows: “Rabbi Yehudah says: ‘[She cannot marry a priest] unless her father is an Israelite.’” Thus, as priesthood is transmitted from father to son, only a daughter of an Israelite male can be considered “a virgin of the seed of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 44:22).

The next two opinions occur also in the Mishnah. According to Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov, one Israelite parent – mother or father – allows their daughter to be regarded as “a virgin of the seed of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 44:22). For Rabbi Yose, even a daughter of two gerim may be included in that category if she was born after their conversion. In this case, it seems the issue is less about genealogical lineage, and more about whether the daughter was born within the sanctity of Israel or not. The fourth opinion is that of Rabbi Shimon. In his view, until the age of three the virginity (hymen) is developing, and so if a girl was converted before she passed that age, she may be regarded as “a virgin of the seed of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 44:22), although she is a giyoret – a converted woman. This view fits the assumption of many tannaitic sources that up to the age of three the hymen of a girl could grow again even if it was damaged (Kahana, Sifre on Numbers, vol. 4, p. 1279). At this stage the Talmud cites a tannaitic teaching from the same Rabbi Shimon. In this teaching, he learns from Numbers 31 that following the war against Midian, young Midianite girls may marry Israelite men, since Moses commanded “Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves” (Numbers 31:17-18). Another teaching which testifies that Rabbi Shimon learnt from this verse that a woman who converted by the age of three is permitted to marry a priest appears also in the tannaitic midrash Sifre Numbers (pisqa 157, Kahana edition, p. 85). The fact that the words “keep alive for yourselves” apply also to priests and not only to Israelites is learnt from the fact that Phineas, the priest, was also among the warriors against Midian (“Moses sent them to the war, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phineas son of Eleazar the priest; Numbers 31:6, NRSV). However, whereas for Rabbi Shimon the words “keep alive for yourselves” mean marriage, according to the Talmud, for the sages these words refer to taking these children as slaves. Thus, this verse does not prove that a woman who converted by the age of three is regarded as “a virgin of the seed of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 44:22) and is allowed to marry a priest.

These four opinions are presented in a logical order from the most stringent to the most lenient. The passage begins with Rabbi Yehudah, who emphasizes the role of the father in transmitting lineage, then moves to Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov, who allows the mother, in addition to the father, to transmit the lineage. It then moves to Rabbi Yose, who allows even the daughter of two converts to marry a priest if she was born after the conversion, and finally we have Rabbi Shimon, who argues that “a giyoret (a converted woman) who converted before the age of three […] is suitable (ksherah) for [marriage into the] priesthood.” After presenting these views, the Talmud states in Section B that the halakhah (the law) is set according to Rabbi Yose, yet the priests used to rule for themselves according to Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov beyond the halakhic requirement. The word silsul has a few meanings, including “importance,” “praise” and “honor” (see Baitner, Priests are Irritable, p. 44-48).

In sections C and D, the Talmud presents stories that describe cases of marriage between a priest and a daughter of gerim. In the first story, this woman probably had two convert parents, thus according to the sages’ rule which follows Rabbi Yose (and also according to Rabbi Shimon), she was allowed to marry a priest. However, according to the priests’ ruling which follows Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov (and also according to Rabbi Yehudah), she was not permitted to marry a priest. In this story, we meet a priest who married a daughter of gerim as well as Rabbi Abbahu and Rabbi Bibi, both third generation amoraim who were active at the end of the third century through to the beginning of the fourth. The story describes Rabbi Abbahu’s intention to flog this priest. While the priest was already laid down on the bench for flogging, Rabbi Bibi questioned Rabbi Abbahu’s decision by reminding him about his words: “Didn’t Rabbi teach us: ‘Halakhah (Jewish law) is according to Rabbi Yose?’”After a short dialogue between the two, Rabbi Abbahu decides against flogging the priest. At this point, there are two options for understanding the following sentence. The first is that Rabbi Bibi has asked whether he himself is permitted to marry such a woman. If this reading is correct, then Rabbi Bibi must be a priest (otherwise there is no issue in his marriage with a daughter of gerim), and his words convey the allure of such women. The second option is that the priest asks this question to affirm that he is not required to divorce his wife. In any case, this story may indicate that centuries after the destruction of the Temple, the issue of marriage between a priest and a daughter of gerim continued to be relevant. Moreover, the tendency of the Jerusalem Talmud is to show that Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov’s ruling should not be followed, and while in the previous section (B) the priests are those who rule for themselves in order to increase their honor, we see in this narrative (C) that a priest actually does not want to follow these restrictions. Moreover, in both sections the Talmud presents the adherence to Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov’s ruling as a mere custom.

Section D presents a story about a family from the south (of Judea, the Hebron Hills) whose lineage was questioned, thus, it was not clear whether their daughters were suitable to marry priests. The story features Rabbi Yehudah, the patriarch who was active at the end of the second century and the beginning of the third, and Rominus (or Rominos) whom Rabbi Yehuda sent to investigate this family’s lineage. However, the tradition was transmitted by Rabbi Ya‘aqov bar Idi, a second or third generation amora who was active in the second half of the third century, in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who was a first generation amora active in the first half of the third century. According to this story, Rominus (which sounds like Romanus, possibly indicating a Roman connection) found that the grandmother of this family converted to Judaism before she was three years old. Following this finding, the daughters of this family were declared suitable to marry priests. At that point, the Talmud cites Rabbi Hoshaya who was a third generation amora (active at the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth) saying that this declaration is according to Rabbi Shimon, namely the grand-mother herself was considered as suitable to marry a priest. According to this claim, Rabbi Yehudah the patriarch actually supported Rabbi Shimon’s opinion. Thus, as Christine E. Hayes writes, “This sugya charts a clear progression towards increased leniency: The law is said to be according to R. Yosi…a story…suggests that the priests sometimes gave up their more stringent customs and followed R. Yosi’s view. In addition, early Palestinian authorities appear to adopt the most lenient view—that of R. Shimeon—in an ex post facto determination of personal status” (Gentile Impurities, p. 176).

However, according to Rabbi Ze‘ira, also a third generation amora, this declaration may fit the views of all these tannaim. Since the grandmother is considered fit, the permission may correspond to the opinion of Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov. Yet, it is not clear how Rabbi Yehudah’s view that an Israelite father is required may fit here. Indeed, there is variation in the transmission of his view. Whereas in Qiddushin 4:7, 66a, we read “Rabbi Yehudah says: ‘[She cannot marry a priest] unless her father is an Israelite’” (ר' יודה או'. עד שיהא אביה מיש'), in tractate Bikkurim we find “Rabbi Yehudah says: ‘[She cannot marry a priest] unless her mother is an Israelite (lit. from Israel).’” In any case, while the version of Bikkurim is not completely certain, it fits better with Rabbi Ze‘ira’s assertion.

The story (D) suggests that lineage of a convert’s family was examined in order to make sure that priests marry only “a virgin of the seed of the house of Israel.” Significantly, these two stories (in sections C and D) present the sages who are involved in preserving the lineage of priests. They do not only academically expound the biblical law, but also certain prominent rabbis, as Rabbi Yehudah the patriarch and Rabbi Abbahu are described as involved in particular cases. Moreover, as was stated above, the Talmud does not follow the stricter opinion of Rabbi Yehuda or even Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov, but follows Rabbi Yose. According to this view, children of gerim who were born after their parents’ conversion are considered Israelite in every aspect of Jewish life, including marrying into priestly families.

This text discusses the integration process of non-Jews into Israel. The ability of new “citizens” to fully participate and especially integrate into aristocracy was relevant to both Romans and Jews. The personal status of newcomers and their lineage are particularly questioned. We see that the Talmud’s tendency is to facilitate the integration of converts into Israel and to make it as easy as possible within the confines of the halakhah

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