Mishnah Horayot 3:7-8

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The convert and the freedman – the status of newcomers to Judaism.
200 CE to 220 CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Legal text
Title of work: 

Horayot 3:7-8


These two passages from the Mishnah present an order of prioritization in cases such as saving a life, returning lost property, clothing the naked, and securing release from captivity. Since rabbinic texts (for example, Tosefta Horayot 2:5-10) teach that individuals should first help themselves, their teachers, and their relatives, these passages probably describe public efforts. This ranking among Jews provides a window onto the internal hierarchy as conceptualized by the rabbis. For this project, the status of newcomers is of particular interest. To what degree were these new “citizens” considered integral to the Jewish community?

Section Seven describes two scenarios where a man would take precedence over a woman: saving a life and restoring lost property, suggesting that, when a choice had to be made, men and their property were of higher importance than women and their assets. However, when a woman lacks appropriate clothing, the need to restore her modesty and to avert her shame was considered more pressing. Similarly, when a woman and a man were in captivity, ensuring the woman's release took precedence, probably to protect her from sexual assault. Yet, if both a man and a woman faced such disgrace in captivity, the man's release had greater urgency. The Jerusalem Talmud, Horayot 3:7, 48b, explains this position by stating that the rape of a man goes against nature: “For the woman – this is her way, but the man – this is not his way” (שהאשה דרכה לכן האיש אין דרכו לכן), probably inferring that assaulting a man would violate heteronormative sexual conduct. However, the prioritization of a man's redemption in this case may refer to a societal hierarchy that places greater value on a men’s life and honor.

Section Eight presents seven classes within Jewish society: starting from priests, who held the highest status, and concluding with converts and freed slaves, with the lowest:

1)      Priests: the highest class within Israel, they were considered descendants of Moses’s brother, Aaron. This status was transmitted from father to son.

2)      Levites: considered members of the tribe of Levi.

3)      Israelites.

4)      mamzerim (singular mamzer): According to Mishnah Yevamot 4:13 and Qiddushin 3:12, mamzerim were born to adulterous women or from incestuous sexual relations (most of these prohibitions are listed in Leviticus 18, 20), 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).

5)      netinim (singular natin) were descendants of foreign servants who performed duties in the Second Temple. In the book of Ezra, netinim are listed among the groups that returned from Babylonia: “All netinim and descendants of Solomon’s servants totaled three hundred ninety-two” (Ezra 2:58, based on NRSV). According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Qiddushin 4:1, 65b, and Babylonian Talmud 78b-79a, netinim descended from the Gibeonites mentioned in Joshua 9. The name netinim 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).

6)      gerim (“converts” – singular ger; for more on this term, its biblical usage and meanings in rabbinic texts, see the commentary on Mishnah Bikkurim 1:4-5). The procedure for converting to Judaism was developed during the Second Temple period and became “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 locate its beginnings in the Hasmonean period or even later.

7)      Freed slaves: In rabbinic texts, the status of a freed non-Jewish slave was parallel to the ger, in part because slaves had to be circumcised to serve within a Jewish household. Servitude in that setting was considered an avenue for non-Jews to join Judaism. Yet, conversion could only be finalized after the slave was manumitted (Hezser, Jewish Slavery, p. 36-39). This process resembles many Roman practices in which freedmen of Roman citizens received Roman citizenship after their manumission. 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). 

This text first presents the hierarchy of groups within Israelite society but then states that this framework was only applicable if everyone being considered had equivalent standing; for example, if a mamzer had been educated in Torah but the high priest was not, the mamzer would take precedence. Through this comparison, the Mishnah draws from the extreme ends of this heritage-driven ranking system. Two qualitative designations that are based on knowledge and practice of Torah have greater weight than lineage:  the talmid ḥakham,a disciple of the sages or a sage himself; and, the ‘am ha-aretz, a description that is extensively discussed in rabbinic discourse on the relationship between sages and other Jews. In some texts, ‘am ha-aretz denotes a person who did not practice the laws of ritual purity or tithing; in other (often later) texts, this term became synonymous with one who lacks knowledge of Torah. The mishnah that contrasts a talmid ḥakham with an ‘am ha-aretz seems to convey the second meaning, especially since Tosefta Horayot 2:10 places this passage in a context that highlights the importance of studying and teaching Torah. Thus, although lineage is significant, this text claims that engagement with Torah is prioritized in cases where choices must be made regarding saving a life, restoring lost property, clothing the naked, and release from captivity. As Christine E. Hayes puts it: “Already in the Mishnah, knowledge of the Torah and rabbinic learning are represented as subverting the customary social order, so that scholarly merit may not only offset but also completely overcome genealogical blemish” (Gentile Impurities, p. 188).

The most striking element in this source is the placement of converts and freed slaves at the bottom of this list, especially by comparison with analogous texts that discuss eligibility for marriage. For example, Mishnah Qiddushin 4:1 enumerates ten genealogical classes who returned to the land of Israel after the Babylonian exile. While Mishnah Horayot 3:7-8 and Mishnah Qiddushin 4:1 both rank priests, Levites, and Israelites in the highest positions, in Qiddushin, gerim and freed slaves hold intermediate placements when considering lineage (they may marry Israelites and Levites but not priests), followed by mamzerim and the netinim (who cannot marry priests, Levites or Israelites). By contrast, the mishnah from Horayot, assigns converts and freed slaves the lowest status, even below mamzerim.  Despite this ordering, this mishnah interestingly contrasts the high priest (who was not previously mentioned) with a mamzer, not with a freed slave (who appears in the bottom of its hierarchy). In Tosefta Qiddushin 5:1, Rabbi Meir categorizes converts and free slaves together with mamzerim and netinim, as the classes who cannot marry priests, Levites, and Israelites, but he offers no indication that converts and freed slaves have a subordinate status to mamzerim and netinim. The difference between Mishnah Qiddushin 4:1 and Mishnah Horayot 3:8 may be explained in two ways: First, these differential rankings may be related to the circumstances that they address, with Qiddushin placing converts and freed slaves in an intermediate position with regard to marriage and Horayot ranking them at the lowest level for community actions to rescue members from peril. Second, it could be proposed that these contrasting orders simply reflect the absence of a consensus in tannaitic literature on the status of these persons within the Jewish community.

As stated above, converts and freed slaves are often paired together in rabbinic law yet, here, the need to define communal priorities compels the authors to place one before the other. Although the Mishnah does not attempt to justify why a convert takes precedence over a freed slave, a parallel in Tosefta Horayot 2:10 offers an explanation:

“Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar says: The law should be that a freed slave takes precedence over a convert (ger) because this one (the freed slave) grew up (gadal) in holiness (according to MS Erfurt; ‘is great (gadol) in holiness’ in MS Vienna) and this one (the ger) did not grow up (gadal) in holiness (according to MS Erfurt; ‘is not great (gadol) in holiness’ in MS Vienna), but since this one (the freed slave) is included in ‘Cursed [be Canaan; slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers’ (Genesis 9:25; based on NRSV), he comes after the ger].”

The Tosefta explicitly critiques ranking a convert over a freed slave, citing Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar, a fifth-generation tanna who was active in the last third of the second century. He asserted that a convert should takes precedence over a freed slave, for the latter is subject to the curse in Genesis 9:25: “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (based on NRSV).

We may conclude that, with respect to saving a life, returning lost property, clothing the naked, and securing release from captivity, this section of the Mishnah gives lowest priority to newcomers to the Jewish community. However, it also states that Torah study bolsters one’s standing under such circumstances, irrespective of heredity. This assertion suggests that praxis is valued over pedigree, providing a vehicle for elevating status within the Jewish community. 

Bibliographical references: 
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
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Mishnah Horayot 3:7-8
Author(s) of this publication: Yael Wilfand
Publishing date: Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:52
URL: https://www.judaism-and-rome.org/mishnah-horayot-37-8
Visited: Fri, 03/01/2024 - 18:58

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