Friday, 28 July 2017

Meaning of Ezrach and Ger

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                               What is the Meaning of “Ezrach” and “Ger”?

               These words appear many times in the Torah. Since they often appear in the same sentence, it is appropriate to address them together.
                 As to ezrach, it seems that the root is zayin, resh, chet (=shine). But what does “shine” have to do with citizenship? In English, we have the expression “an illustrious citizen,” so I always thought facetiously that there may be some connection. But better than my facetious thought was the suggestion of the Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorashim) that the ezrach is someone who has been in the city so long that who he and his family are has already been meguleh (=revealed) to all. But this still seems farfetched.
                As further background, the word ezrach has a very unusual distribution. Sixteen times it appears in Tanakh as a category of person. But one time, at Psalms 37:35, it means a tree (“ezrach raanan,” a fresh tree). Traditionally, it has been assumed that the “citizen” meaning came first and then Psalms 37:35 is interpreted in that light, e.g., a fresh tree in its native soil.
                  More recently, however, some have been taking the opposite approach and suggesting that the “tree” meaning of ezrach came first. If so, when ezrach is used for a category of person, the meaning may be a person who is fixed or rooted to the land like a tree. See the Daat Mikra to Ps. 37:35, note 26, and to Ex.12:19.
                 Other scholars go a bit further in their analysis. Instead of hypothesizing that there were originally two separate ZRH roots: one meaning “shine” and the other “tree,” they suggest that there may have been one original root with the meaning of “sprout and appear.”
                   If the “tree” or “sprout” meaning of ezrach really preceded the person meaning of ezrach, it has been suggested that the better  English translation of the word would be “native,” rather than “citizen.” The latter focuses on the person’s relationship to the government, while “native” would more correctly focus on the person’s relationship to the land.
                    Of course, I cannot leave this root without mentioning that the word mizrach means “east” and is related to our root: zayin, resh, chet. The east is where the sun begins to sprout/rise and to shine.
                   Regarding the word ger, from the time of the Mishnah and thereafter, the word is typically used to mean “convert.”  But what did the word mean in Tanakh? We know from Gen. 15:13, “ger yihiyeh zarakha be-eretz lo lahem,” that on the simplest level the word means someone who dwells in a foreign land. Almost certainly, ger comes from the root gimmel-vav-resh, which means something like “to dwell as a sojourner.”  (I have seen other derivations but they are very speculative.)
                  Also, a key passage is Lev. 19:33-34: “When a ger lives with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The ger that lives with you shall be as the ezrach among you, you shall love him as yourself, because you were gerim in the land of Egypt.”  
                 Based on the last clause, the simplest understanding of the word ger here is the dweller who comes from a foreign land.  (See, e.g., the interpretation in the Hertz Chumash.) This is so because if one attempts to interpret ger here with a meaning like “convert,” the ger vs. gerim in Egypt parallel does not work. (This same parallel is also found at Ex. 22:20, 23:9 and Deut. 10:19.)
                Furthermore, when many of the other Biblical references to ger are examined, the meaning seems to be merely someone who comes from a foreign land to dwell within the Israelite-ruled area, under their protection. In America today, we might use the term “resident alien.”  (The ger seems to occupy an intermediate position between the ezrach and the nachri/zar. The latter were the real foreigners.)
                 But when you look further at the Biblical references to ger, you find some surprising verses.The ger contracted impurity and was governed by the rules of the parah adumah (Num. 19: 10). He was obligated to bring a sacrifice for an unintentional sin (Num. 15:29). He was subject to the incest laws (Lev. 18:26). He was subject to the prohibition of eating blood (Lev. 17:10). He was expected to observe the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10). He was expected to participate in the holidays of Shavuot and Sukkot (Deut. 16:11,14), and to observe Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:29). He was to be present at the Hakhel reading (Deut. 31:12). Can all these laws be referring to mere resident aliens? This seems difficult.
             Critically, at Ex. 12:19 we are told “Seven days there shall be no leaven found in your houses; for whoever eats that which is leavened, ve-nikhretah ha-nefesh ha-hi me-adat yisrael ba-ger u-be ezrach ha-aretz.” Here the clear implication is that the ger is one who is already part of the Israelite community.
             Based on verses such as these, the Sages understand the Torah to be referring to two different types of ger.  I.e., many of the Torah’s references to ger are to a “ger tzedek,” one who is already fully part of the Israelite community, albeit being foreign born.
               As I mentioned earlier, the plain sense of Lev. 19:33-34 is that it is referring to all  dwellers who comes from a foreign land. As S. D. Luzzatto points out, “not every ger is a ger tzedek...thus our obligation to love the ger and not to oppress him [ =Leviticus 19:33-34 ] applies to any ger in general, even if he is not a ger tzedek” (translation from Daniel Klein edition, Ex. 12:48).  (The Hertz Chumash consistently makes a point of contrasting the moral Israelite laws with those of other societies. Here, on Lev. 19:33-34, it points out that the Romans had one word “hostis” which meant both “stranger” and “enemy.”)
            I will close with a very unusual (= highly unlikely!) interpretation on our topic. We have seen that ger sometimes means “resident alien,” i.e., a protected citizen. A scholar wrote that translations generally assume that “gur” has the meaning of “dwell,” but that one can sometimes get a deeper understanding of a passage if the meaning “protected citizen” is kept in mind. He then decided that in Is. 11:6 (ve-gar ze’ev im keves) the meaning is: “the wolf is the protected citizen of the lamb”!
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. He can be reached at  He admits that his discussion of ger is an oversimplification of a complex topic. Regarding his discussion of ezrach, he would like to acknowledge the site as the source for much of the material.


No comments: