This midrash addresses the subject of returning possessions that have been stolen from a ger (in rabbinic literature, this term often denotes a proselyte or a convert; for information on the term ger and conversion in general, see the commentary on Mishnah Bikkurim 1:4-5). This teaching highlights the fact that, according to the rabbis, newcomers to Judaism may not bequeath property to their non-Jewish relatives and, in that respect, they do not maintain ties with their non-Jewish family.
Although this midrash expounds on Numbers 5:8, the immediately preceding verses provide the scriptural and thematic context needed to understand this rabbinic passage:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites: When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the Lord, that person incurs guilt and shall confess the sin that has been committed. The person shall make full restitution for the wrong, adding one-fifth to it, and giving it to the one who was wronged. If the injured party has no next of kin (go’el) to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for the guilty party” (Numbers 5:5-8, NRSV).
In our midrash, Numbers 5:8 prompts Rabbi Ishmael to ask: Who in Israel would lack a go’el, namely, a kinsman who would posthumously serve as the wronged party’s beneficiary? This sage then reasons that no Israelite would be without a go’el; therefore, this biblical verse must refer to converts who would have severed their prior family connections. Rabbi Ishmael then explains that this text discusses a case in which an Israelite stole from a convert. After that Israelite made a false oath, swearing that he did not steal, the ger died. The issue then arises, to whom should the thief return this lost property and pay the fine required by biblical law? According to Rabbi Ishmael, this verse comes to teach a statute that also appears in Mishnah Bava Qamma 9:11:
הגוזל את הגר ונשבע לו. ומת. הרי זה משלם קרן וחומש לכהנים ואשם למזבח שנאמר "ואם אין לאיש גואל"
The one who steals from the ger (convert) and has sworn [falsely] to him, and [that ger then] died. Behold, this one (the thief) should pay the principle (full value of the stolen goods) and [the fine of] one-fifth [of its worth] to the priests and [also bring] a guilt offering to the altar, as it is stated [in Scripture]: “If this man has no go’el” (a kinsman to whom restitution may posthumously be made if the deceased had been wronged; Numbers 5:8, NRSV).
This halakhah – which instructs that, if restitution is made posthumously for theft from a ger, the culpable Israelite should return the stolen property and pay the fine to the priests rather than to the convert’s relatives – also appears in a baraita in the Jerusalem Talmud 9:11, 7a, where this passage is attributed to Rabbi Akiva. This payment of retribution is also included among the gifts for priests listed in Tosefta Ḥallah 2:9 and Sifre Numbers 119.
These sources indicate that, for the rabbis, the relatives of converts could not inherit from them, with the exception of children who were born after their conversion. Even when the sons of a gentile converted together with their father, all rights of inheritance were nullified (see, for example ,Mishnah Shevi‘it 10:9), indicating that, upon conversion, a ger effectively joins a new family and severs fiscal ties with his biological relatives (Porton, The Stranger, p. 21). Yet, this breaking of bonds with their original family was not absolute since a convert could inherit property from his gentile father (Mishnah Demai 6:10). According to Gary G. Porton, the sages did “not rule that converts were prohibited from inheriting from their gentile parents … because this could make conversion unappealing.” This asymmetry complicates our understanding of the relationships between gerim and their families of origin. Thus, while some associations were cut, others were preserved.
Elsewhere, I have shown the striking parallels between these rabbinic laws and the Roman legislation which also associates a father’s loss of paternal authority upon gaining citizenship with his children’s loss of status as heirs (including Gaius, Institutes, 1.93-94; 3.19-20). It therefore seems that tannaitic halakhah reflects an internalization of particular features of the status of new Roman citizens that were then applied to converts (Wilfand, “A Proselyte”).
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