Converts and the declaration of the first fruit offering – are converts full members of the Israelite community?
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This passage from the Tosefta discusses persons who may bring an offering of first fruits grown on their land but cannot recite the declaration associated with this offering (described in Deuteronomy 26:1-10). The ger (pl. gerim), one who has converted to Judaism, is included in this category (for more about this term and conversion, see the commentary on Mishnah Bikkurim 1:4-5). This source offers us an opportunity to look at the rabbinic institution of conversion and ask whether gerim were considered full members of the Israelite community.
This tosefta presents a teaching attributed to Rabbi Yehudah, who was active in the second century CE, particularly after the Bar Kokhba revolt. Here Rabbi Yehudah rules that a ger may not recite the declaration for offering first fruits unless he is a descendant of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, in accordance with the promise that he received upon joining the people of Israel:
Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you’; come with us, and we will treat you well; for the Lord has promised good to Israel.” But he said to him, “I will not go, but I will go back to my own land and to my kindred.” He said, “Do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us. Moreover, if you go with us, whatever good the Lord does for us, the same we will do for you.” (Numbers 10:29-32, NRSV)
From this tosefta, and especially from its concern toward the descendants of Jethro, it is clear that, for Rabbi Yehudah, the term ger does not only apply to a convert but also to his offspring. Thus as Shaye J. D. Cohen states: “According to R. Judah the status of convert (ger) is inherited in precisely the same way as the status of priest (kohen), Levite, and Israelite: just as the status of priest, Levite, and Israelite is inherited from the father, so too the status of convert is inherited from the father. The legal and social disabilities that apply to the convert father also apply to the offspring” (Beginning of Jewishness, p. 310).
Rabbi Yehudah’s perspective in this tosefta is consistent with his view in Mishnah Qiddushin 4:6, which addresses the marriage of a daughter of gerim and a priest. The Jewish priesthood was transmitted from father to son and its members were permitted to marry women who belonged to three categories: Israelites, priests and Levites (Mishnah Qiddushin 4:1; with additional prohibitions like a divorced woman for a regular priest, and a widow for a high priest, following Leviticus 21:7, 14). Whereas the prevailing view in rabbinic texts is that priests cannot marry female converts, no consensus is conveyed regarding the daughters of converts. Mishnah Qiddushin 4:6-7 presents three opinions on this issue, with Rabbi Yehudah holding the most stringent position among them. He rules that such a womancannot marry a priest and, moreover, none of the ger’s offspring will ever be able to marry a priest. According to this view, Israelite lineage is transmited from a father to his offspring; thus, full membership in Israel requires an Israelite father. By contrast, the other rabbis mentioned in this mishnah offer rulings that allow easier integration of gerim: Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya‘aqov claims that, in the case of children of gerim, one Israelite parent is enough for an individual to be considered an Israelite and for a woman to be eligible to marry a priest; Rabbi Yose takes a more lenient position by contending that even a daughter who is born to two gerim is recognized as an Israelite in all respects and is suitable to marry a priest. Therefore, Rabbi Yehudah presents the most stringent view (however, an entirely different view is attributed to Rabbi Yehudah in Jerusalem Talmud Bikkurim 1:4, 64a). If we read Rabbi Yehudah’s statement from this tosefta in the context of Mishnah Qiddushin 4:6, it seems that the male descendants of a male convert could never fully be considered Israelites.
It is interesting to compare this tosefta with Mishnah Bikkurim 1:4, which addresses the same issues:
Tosefta Bikkurim 1:2
Mishnah Bikkurim 1:4
ר' יהודה אומ' כל הגרים כולן מביאין ולא קורין בני קיני חתן משה מביאין וקורין שנ' והיה כי תלך עמנו
אלו מביאין ולא קורין. הגר מביא ואינו קורא. שאינו יכול לומר "אשר נשבע י'י לאבותינו לתת לנו". ואם היתה אמו מיש' מביא וקורא.
Rabbi Yehudah says: All gerim bring [an offering of first fruits] but they do not recite [the declaration for that offering]. The descendants (lit. sons) of Kenite, Moses' father-in-law, bring [an offering of first fruits] and recite [the declaration for that offering] since it is written [in Scripture]: If you go with us, [whatever good the Lord does for us, the same we will do for you]” (Numbers 10:32, NRSV).
These [persons] bring [an offering of first fruits] but do not recite [the declaration for offering first fruits, based on Deuteronomy 26:1-10]. The ger brings but does not recite since he cannot say: “[Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land] that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us” (Deuteronomy 26:3, based on NRSV). But if his mother were an Israelite (lit. from Israel), he brings and recites.
Whereas the tosefta cites Rabbi Yehudah, whose instruction restricts all gerim (plural) – first generation and their offspring – from reciting the declaration (with the exception of Jethro’s descendants), using an anonymous voice, the Mishnah articulates the opinion that a ger (singular) cannot recite the declaration but stipulates that, if his mother was an Israelite, he can recite that declaration. Thus, the Mishnah asserts that both lineage and connection to Israelite ancestry may be transmitted via the mother.
Another issue raised in the Tosefta is its reference to Jethro and his descendants as gerim. In several rabbinic texts, he is described as a convert, often in a very positive light (see, for example, Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Yitro, masekhta de Amaleq, parashah1 and 2; ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 193 and 200).This text discusses the process of integrating non-Jews into Israel. The ability of new “citizens” to fully participate in the life of the community was relevant to Romans and Jews (as well as Greeks). The personal status of newcomers and their lineage are closely scrutinized. With respect to the subject of lineage, we see that – relative to the Mishnah – this tosefta tends to block the incorporation of converts into Israel.