In Parashas Eikev the verse instructs us to “love the ger” (Devarim 10:19). This is understood as reference to the convert to Judaism: Beyond the general instruction to love all fellow Jews, we have a special obligation to love the convert.
Indeed, this is not the only place in the Torah where the special relationship with the convert is noted. In thirty-six instances the Torah notes the obligation to love the convert or to refrain from causing him any anguish or pain (see Bava Metzia 59b).
This seems to be difficult. If we are in any case instructed to love our fellow-Jew—as the Torah states, “love your fellow-Jew as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18)—why is there a need to instruct us to love the convert? Is the instruction not redundant, since after conversion the convert is as much a Jew as any other?
Commentaries give different answers to this question. The Ibn Ezra explains it is because a convert generally has a weaker social status. This makes him more vulnerable to the pitfalls inherent to any society, and there is therefore a need to reinforce our care for him. The Sefer Hachinuch (431) also states that the reason the Torah adds a specific prohibition is the difficulty encountered by a convert who left his natural surroundings to join a foreign nation.
These explanations square well with the reason the Torah gives for the instruction to love the convert: Since you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Rambam (Aseh 207), by contrast, notes the respect the convert deserves for the effort he made in accepting Hashem’s Torah—something that a Jew by birth did not exert. As we will discuss below, he goes so far as to compare the love of a ger to love of Hashem Himself.
In the current article we will reflect on the mitzvah to love the convert. What is the nature of this mitzvah of love? Does the mitzvah to love the convert also include an obligation to accept converts? And does the mitzvah give a convert preference in charity donations? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Rambam’s Love of the Convert
In his letter to Obadiah the convert (Shut Harambam 293), the Rambam opens with words of praise that are generally not found in his other writings: “I received the question of the master Obadiah, the wise and learned convert, may Hashem reward him for his work, may a perfect recompense be bestowed upon him by the G-d of Israel, under whose wings he has sought cover.”
The Rambam was asked by Obadiah if he may say the words, “the G-d of our fathers” in his prayers, and therefore avoid the shame of being different. The Rambam replied that a convert may use the same text as everyone else.
While the Mishnah (Bikkurim 1:4) writes that the convert cannot use the same liturgy as the born Jew when bringing Bikkurim (a ruling also mentioned in the Tosefta 1:2), the Rambam prefers the ruling of the Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 1:4), which cites rules that the convert may mention “our forefathers,” for Avraham Avinu is the father of all converts. The Rambam rules this in his Mishnah Torah (Bikkurim 4:3), and writes the same answer to Obadiah the convert.
After ruling that the convert may pray with the same words as a Jew by birth, the Rambam concludes with the following: “Do not consider your origin inferior. While we are the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created.”
In another letter to Obadiah, Rambam reveals the core of our relationship with converts: a relationship of love. He explains that the obligation that the Torah has placed upon us concerning converts is great: “With respect to father and mother, we have been commanded to honor and to be in awe, and with respect to prophets, to obey them, and it is possible for one to honor, hold in awe, and obey one whom one does not love. But with respect to converts, we have been commanded to love, something which is given over to the heart.” He adds that the obligation to love the convert is parallel to the instruction to love Hashem, and adds that even Hashem loves the convert, as it says, “and loves the convert, in giving him food and clothing” (Devorim 10:18).
The comparison of love of the convert with the love of Hashem, which the Rambam repeats elsewhere (see also Hilchos De’os 6:4), is striking. What is so special about the love of the convert? Indeed, how is the love of the convert different from the love that we are commanded concerning every Jew?
Two Forms of Love
Commenting on the mitzvah to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the Ramban writes that the obligation cannot be understood as literal. It is impossible for a person to love another to the degree that he loves himself. Rather, the intention of the instruction is that a person should act towards his fellow with love, just as he acts towards himself: “The instruction of the Torah is to love one’s fellow in every matter, just as he loves himself with all goodness.”
The Ramban proceeds to base this understanding on the wording of the verse: “It is possible that since the verse says ‘to your neighbor’ (lere’acha) … to make the love of both comparable in his mind. For sometimes one loves his neighbor with the things that are known to enhance his material happiness, but not with wisdom and similar qualities.” He explains that the expression of love for others should not be tinged with the jealousy often present between neighbors, and that a person “should not limit his love.”
The distinction made by the Ramban can help us understand Rambam’s statements concerning love of the convert. The scriptural command to love one’s neighbor expresses an obligation to act with love, but does not describe an instruction to love with one’s heart—for it is impossible to love another as one loves oneself. Concerning a convert, however, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (Emes Le’Yaakov, Vayikra 19:17) pointed out that the verse uses a different expression: not love “to the convert,” but love “of the convert” (es hager). One must love the convert in the full sense of the word: not merely a love expressed in deed, but a profound love of the heart.
In this, the love of the convert is comparable to love of Hashem, for which the Pasuk uses the same terminology: “You shall love (es) Hashem, your G-d.” Just as there is an obligation to love Hashem, which the Rambam describes as attaining closeness with and knowledge of G-d (Hilchos De’os, Chap. 2)—so we are instructed to love the convert. We must value his sacrifice. We are obligated to embrace his entry beneath the wings of the Shechinah, and our hearts must be full of love towards him.
Thus, in his letter to Obadiah the convert, Rambam writes that whereas one is not obligated to love one’s father and mother, one is obligated to love the convert. The love towards a Jew can be expressed in deeds; but the love of the convert must find expression in the depths of the heart. They are different forms of love. The Rambam concludes that only the latter is comparable to the love of Hashem.
Order of Saving Lives
The Mishnah in Horios (Chap. 3) teaches us the order of priority in which lives are to be saved. In a situation where several lives are in danger, and a person is able to save only some of those endangered, to whom should he give preference? The Mishnah writes that “a Kohen comes before a Levi, a Levi before a Yisrael, a Yisrael before a mamzer, a mamzer before a nessin, a nessin over a convert, and a convert over a freed slave.” The Mishnah concludes that this order is applied only when they are equal. However, when one is a Torah scholar, and the other is not, then even a mamzer who is a scholar takes precedence over an ignorant Kohen.
The order given by the Mishnah seems difficult. If there is a mitzvah to love the convert, a love that goes beyond that of regular Jews, how can it be that the convert is lower in the order of rescue than regular Jews?
However, based on our explanation above, there is no contradiction. The convert has made a special sacrifice. His journey into the Jewish people is unique, and for this we are commanded to love him with a special love. But this does bring him to the highest level in the Jewish nation. While there might be good reason to love a certain Yisrael more than a certain Kohen, the Kohen retains his hierarchical advantage, and must be saved first.
All Jews form the limbs of a single body. Yet, this does not mean that there are no distinctions between one limb and another, and for this purpose the convert (who is also disqualified from being a king, for instance) is not at the top of the ladder. Our obligation is to love the convert, with a degree of affection reserved for him alone. But this does not give him preference in saving his life.
Concerning preference for business dealings, Rabbi Eliyahu Kushlevsky (Davar Shebeminyan, mitzvah 207) wrote that one should prefer a convert over a born Jew.
Discussing a case in which both a Jew by birth and a convert require a specific item that a person can give as a gift, or a case in which a person has a choice of who to conduct his business dealings with, Rabbi Kushlevsky writes that the convert should be preferred. Although we are obligated to love all Jews, the obligation to love the convert is doubled, giving him preference over his Jewish brethren.
Rabbi Kushlevsky proceeds to cite an example of this in the tale of Ruth, where we find that Boaz preferred Ruth the convert to Jewish poor. However, this rationale would apparently apply even to the question of whom to save first—while the Mishnah, as cited above, teaches that for saving lives the convert is not the first priority.
It seems then that the Jew by birth, who is given preference concerning sustaining life, is also given preference concerning donations, gifts, and business dealings. Moreover, this is stated in the words of Rambam (Matnos Aniyim 8:17) and Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 251:9), who rule as follows: “If several poor people are before him, or several captives, and there is insufficient funding to sustain, clothe, or redeem all of them, a Kohen precedes a Levi, a Levi precedes a Yisrael, a Yisrael precedes a chalal … and a nessin precedes a convert.”
The same order of preference will presumably apply to all other forms of giving, for which preference is given to born Jews (unlike the above ruling of Davar Shebeminyan). We are obligated to love the convert, and to refrain from causing him pain and anguish. However, this does not mean that when giving charity money, the convert takes precedence over others.
Is there a mitzvah to accept converts?
The Torah mentions no such mitzvah. However, in discussing the judicial process of accepting converts the Gemara (Yevamos 47b) states that “one does not delay a mitzvah.” This implies that accepting converts does fulfill a mitzvah—a point made by the Rashbatz (Zohar Harakia). If no mitzvah is mentioned by the Torah, which mitzvah does the Gemara refer to?
Several approaches are suggested to this question (see Mishnah Halachos, Vol. 16, Yoreh De’ah 92; Sefas Emes, Shabbos 147b; Glosses of Rav Yosef Engel, Yevamos ibid; commentary of Rabbi Yehudah Perlow to Rasag, end of mitzvah 19). In fact, the Mishnah Halachos writes that there is no mitzvah to accept converts, and the mitzvah refers to those incumbent on the convert himself, once he converts. Since he cannot do this alone, we must assist him in doing so as quickly as possible. This seems to be the case since the Gemara (ibid 48b) states that the reason why geirim have many difficulties after converting is because they tarried in converting.
However, an approach mentioned by Ri Albargaloni (cited by Rabbi Perlow) is that the acceptance of converts who truly desire to become part of the Jewish nation and keep the Torah is a mitzvah upon Jews, and is included in the obligation to love the convert.
However, no one maintains that there is a mitzvah to seek converts.
The sensitivity with which the Torah approaches the ger—the stranger who has become a part of the Jewish people, leaving his home environment—is indicative of the society that the Torah wishes to create.
Those who are weak and vulnerable—the convert, the orphan and the widow—are consistently singled out for preferential treatment, for special attention and for love.
While it is important to understand the halachic boundaries of this love, what it obligates and what it does not obligate, the fundamental principle is key: We need to be sensitive to and aware of the weaker elements of our own society, to those whose social status places them at special risk of oppression and strife—and know how to show them our love and offer them our assistance.