“Making a Reckoning”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Behar, the first of this week’s double parashiot-– Behar-Bechukotai, the Torah teaches a remarkable law intended to protect the rights of non-Jews who live among Jews.

In Leviticus 25, we find a series of laws that apply to a resident-alien. The resident-alien, a non-Jew who resides in Israel, is known in rabbinic literature as a “Ger To’shav.” The Torah, in Leviticus 25:35, states: “Ger v’to’shav, v’chai ee’mahch“, a proselyte or a resident–-so that he can live with you. The rabbis interpret this verse to mean that whether a non-Jew fully converts to Judaism or is of the status of a Ger To’shav, it is necessary to treat non-Jews properly.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), defines the “Ger To’shav,” as someone who has accepted upon himself to abide by the seven Noahide principles. Given the special status of the Ger To’shav, the resident-alien must abide by some Torah laws even though he is not Jewish. Consequently, Jews may give the non-kosher food that they may not eat to resident-aliens who live within their gates (Deuteronomy 14:21), but the Ger To’shav is forbidden to eat blood (Leviticus 17:13).

With regard to Shabbat observance, Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) teaches in Hilchot Shabbat 20:14 that a resident-alien is permitted to work for himself on Shabbat, even publicly. However, if his services are retained by a Jew, he may not work on Shabbat. Remarkably, a Ger To’shav has many of the rights and privileges of a full citizen of Israel.

In Leviticus 25:47, we learn of the fascinating case of a Jewish citizen who has become so impoverished that he must sell himself to a Ger To’shav as a worker/slave. The Torah insists that the Jew’s family redeem him. If his immediate family fails to do so, then his uncles or his cousins must redeem their impoverished family member.

In Leviticus 25:50, the Torah explains the rules governing redemption of the indentured Jew. Given the fact that the transaction takes place in the land of Israel where the laws of the Jubilee and the Sabbatical cycles apply, the maximum period for which a person may be sold is 50 years. The same applies to real estate transactions–land could only be transferred for a maximum of 50 years. The amount of compensation depends upon which year of the Jubilee the person or land was sold. If there are many years left until the Jubilee, then the compensation must be greater. If there are fewer years, then a lesser amount is paid. In Leviticus 25:50, we read, “V’chee’shav im ko’nay’hoo, mish’naht hee’mach’ro lo, ahd sh’naht ha’yo’vayl,” He shall calculate with his purchaser from the year that he was sold to him until the Jubilee year.

The commentary of the Artscroll Chumash on this verse offers a cogent summary of the treatment due non-Jews:

“He shall make a reckoning with his purchaser.” From this requirement, that the owner must be paid fair value, the sages prove that it is forbidden to steal from a non-Jew (Bava Kamma 113b). The Tosefta teaches that it is worse to steal from a non-Jew than from a Jew, because if the Jew is victimized by his fellow, he will not condemn all Jews or lose his faith in G-d. [He will say that the individual who cheated him is dishonest, but not that he is a reflection on the Torah or its Giver.] But if a Jew cheats a non-Jew, the victim will rail against the Torah and G-d. Such dishonesty will result in the cardinal sin of desecration of the Name [see Leviticus 22:32]. For this reason, Jacob instructed his sons to return the money that he found in their sacks when they returned from Egypt (Genesis 43:12); he wanted to sanctify G-d’s name by demonstrating the integrity of his people (R’ Bachya).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry), explains that even if the poor Jew has sold himself, not just to a Ger To’shav, but to a non-Jewish idolater, or even if the impoverished Jew sold himself directly to the service of the idol or to serve as a temple slave, to chop wood or draw water for the idolatrous temple, his family has an obligation to redeem him. Since redeeming the enslaved Jew may be regarded as a matter of saving a Jewish life and the non-Jewish master is an avowed idolater living in the Jewish land, one might think that we need not be particularly scrupulous with regard to compensating the non-Jew. Nevertheless, the Torah declares it incumbent upon Jews to behave in the most truthful and upright manner by paying the full, fair price to the non-Jew, and dealing properly with them, even to the last penny.

It is rather amazing, you must admit, that in the xenophobic environment of biblical times, the Torah expresses its concern for non-Jews and their property in such a dramatic manner.

May you be blessed.

Please note:
This year Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day, is observed on Tuesday evening, May 11th through Wednesday night, May 12th. This year marks the 43rd anniversary of the reunification of the city.