Converts and the declaration of the first fruit offering – are converts full members of the Israelite community?
200 CE to 220 CE
Title of work:
These sections of the Mishnah list the people who may bring an offering of first fruits from their land, but cannot recite the declaration of this offering (described in Deuteronomy 26:1-10). The ger (pl. gerim) is included in this group, and the Mishnah discusses some additional issues relevant to gerim before completing the list. In the Tanakh, the word ger refers to “a man who (alone or with his family) leaves village and tribe because of war, famine, epidemic, blood guilt etc. and seeks shelter and residence at another place, where his right of landed property, marriage and taking part in jurisdiction, cult and war has been curtailed” (Koehler and Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, vol. 1, p. 201). In contrast to this biblical usage, in rabbinic texts the word almost exclusively denotes “one who converted to Judaism.” In other words, while in the Hebrew Bible ger denotes a stranger or a resident alien, in rabbinic texts it often refers to a proselyte or a convert. 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. In any case, these passages allow us to look at the rabbinic institution of conversion and to ask whether the gerim were considered full members of the Israelite community.
In section 4, after the Mishnah lists the ger among those who may bring an offering of first fruits from their land, but cannot recite the declaration, the Mishnah explains that the ger is not able to recite the declaration since he cannot state: “[I have come into the land] that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us” (Deuteronomy 26:3, based on NRSV). Thus, although the ger is required to bring an offering of first fruits to the Temple, he cannot refer to the fathers of Israel, the patriarchs, as his fathers, since he has different lineage. However, the Mishnah adds that when the ger’s mother is an Israelite he can recite the declaration, since his lineage may be considered linked to the ancestors of Israel through his mother. This case is interesting since the father of this ger is a gentile and his mother an Israelite, yet he has had to convert to Judaism in order to be considered a Jew. If this is the meaning of this mishnah, it contradicts Mishnah Yevamot 7:5 and Tosefta Qiddushin 4:16, according to which a son of an Israelite mother and a gentile or a slave father is a Jew, thus a non-Jew cannot have a Jewish mother. Because of this contradiction, for Shaye Cohen the best explanation of this mishnah is that the father is a convert (Cohen follows a reading of Rabbi Solomon Sirilio who died c. 1558). Thus, the mishnah here reflects the perspective that the son follows the status of the father, namely, the son of a convert is considered a convert (Tosefta Qiddushin 4:15). However, if the mother is an Israelite and the father is a convert, the son, although considered a ger, can recite the declaration of the first fruit offering (Beginnings of Jewishness, p. 310-312; see Porton, The Stranger within Your Gate, p. 231-232, note 32, about these two possibilities for understanding this mishnah). Yet, the problem with this explanation is that the Mishnah begins with a discussion about a first generation convert (“The ger brings but does not recite”), then moves to talk about the second generation (“But if his mother were an Israelite, he brings and recites”), but the sentence discusses the same person! Then immediately after this in the next sentence (discussed below) the Mishnah moves back to discuss the first generation convert (yet all along the passage has the same person as the subject).
We have therefore two possibilities for understanding the following words: “But if his mother [of the ger] were an Israelite (lit. from Israel), he brings and recites.” First, it could refer to a son of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father who converted to Judaism, or, second, it could refer to a son of an Israelite mother and a ger father who is also considered a ger. We may conclude that the question here is whether at the stage of the composition of this mishnah, it was obvious (as it is clear in the Jerusalem Talmud) that a child of a Jewish mother did not need a conversion. In other words, do tannaitic texts reflect a systematic ruling about this issue? If this is the case Cohen’s reading (following Rabbi Solomon Sirilio) may be correct, but if not, it is possible that in this stage a son of a Jewish mother and a gentile father (a goy) still had to go through conversion. This option is reflected in Sifra Emor, parasha 14, chapter 1 (104c).
At this point, the Mishnah moves to deal with a related issue: what may a ger recite when Jews pray “O God of our fathers”? The Mishnah distinguishes between a private prayer and a communal prayer in the synagogue. While in private a ger may state “O God of the fathers of Israel,” in the synagogue he may say “O God of your fathers.” In both cases, the ger is not included in the Israelite lineage, yet, in the synagogue this difference is emphasized in public, indicating that the conversion did not erase all of the differences between the ger and other Jews. Thus, although the ger participates in the synagogue services he should publicly mention that he is not part of the Israelite lineage. However, as in the case of the ceremony for the offering of first fruits, if his mother is an Israelite, he may say “O God of our fathers.”
In section 5, before completing the list of people who may bring the first fruit offering, yet cannot recite the declaration, the Mishnah cites Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov, who states that a woman who is a daughter of gerim, i.e. both her parents are gerim, cannot marry a priest. There are two tannaim with the name Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov; the first was active during the Second Temple period and had priestly family relations (Mishnah Middot 1:2), and the other was active in the second century CE. We cannot be sure which of them is cited here and whether he came from a priestly family. Jewish priesthood was inherited from father to son and priests could marry women who belonged to three categories: Israelites, priests and Levites (with additional prohibitions such as a divorced woman for a regular priest, and a widow for a high priest, following Leviticus 21:7, 14). According to Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov this rule applies to the offspring of gerim up to the tenth generation. Only if the mother is an Israelite may an offspring of a family of gerim marry into priestly families before the tenth generation. Mishnah Qiddushin 4:7 cites this opinion of Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov in a more elaborate way. In this text, Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov teaches that in the case of an Israelite man who has married a converted woman, their daughter may marry into a priestly family, and so too may the daughter of a converted man who has wed an Israelite woman. It is only when two converted people marry each other that their daughter cannot marry a priest. This implies that in order to be considered fully Israelite, one only needs to have one native Israelite parent, no matter whether it is the mother or the father. Mishnah Qiddushin 4:6-7 cites also the opinions of Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose. According to Rabbi Yehudah, when the father is a ger 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 Israelite, the daughter can marry a priest. Rabbi Yose contends that even when the two parents are converts, the daughter who was born after the conversion is considered Israelite in all respects, and is suitable to marry a priest. Yet it seems that Mishnah Bikkurim 1:5-6 endorses the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov, omitting the two other views.
In both Mishnah Bikkurim 1:5 and Qiddushin 4:7 this rule applies also to freedmen. In rabbinic texts, a freed non-Jewish slave holds a status similar to the ger, 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 join Judaism. Yet, the process of conversion was concluded only after the slave became a freedman (Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 36-39). This process resembles many 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).
In any case, in section 4 of our text the differentiation between the gerim and Israelites only explicitly applies to the ger himself and not to his offspring (but compare with Shaye Cohen’s reading), who may recite the declaration of the offering of first fruits (the issue is not explicitly stated but nothing implies otherwise). Yet, when a marriage of gerim or freedmen into priestly families is discussed in section 5, the process of full integration into the Jewish people (without marrying into an Israelite family) may be extremely long, at least according to Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov.
Another issue to consider is the role of the mother versus the father in our sections of the Mishnah. In the three situations mentioned in these sections of the Mishnah, 1) reciting the declaration of the offering of first fruits; 2) saying “O God of our father” during a prayer; and 3) marrying into a priestly family, an Israelite mother allows this ger to be considered equal to a Jew born from two Israelites. On the one hand, one may claim that a Jewish mother is more important here in determining the “Jewishness” of the ger. On the other hand, since the land is inherited through the father and so is one’s lineage, one may claim that for the authors of this text, it may be obvious that a ger whose father is a Jew may be considered an Israelite in these three situations, and therefore, the Mishnah does not mention the father. This second possibility seems to be more likely when considering Mishnah Qiddushin 4:7, which cites a more detailed opinion of Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov, and includes the two possibilities: a ger with a Jewish father and a ger with a Jewish mother.
Section 5 concludes with others who may bring an offering of first fruits but cannot recite the declaration: the guardians (or executors, from the Greek epitropos), the slave, the agent, the woman, the tumtum (one whose sex is unknown) and an androgynous person (having both male and female characteristics and qualities). The reason that they cannot recite the declaration is that they are not the owner of the land. The first three, the guardians, the slave, and the agent, may represent the owner. The others, women, the tumtum, and an androgynous person, are not males and therefore cannot own land according to the rabbinic halakha. All of them therefore cannot say “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me” (Deuteronomy 26:10, based on NRSV). This reason is different from the one that excludes the ger from reciting the benediction. While a ger may own land, but cannot refer to “our fathers,” these six categories of people do not own land.
Novak, David, “Gentiles in Rabbinic Thought” , in The Cambridge History of Judaism: Volume IV: The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period (ed. Steven T. Katz; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 2006), 647-662