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Hebrew word of the week: Gerim

Gerim, is, in a way, a term equivalent to all of our modern “immigrants, foreigners, aliens, guest workers, shelter seekers, etc.” of biblical times. Pentateuch laws emphatically protect them. They have to be treated with justice and as equals to native citizens (Leviticus 24:22),* reminding the Children of Israel that they, too, were once gerim, strangers in Egypt (Exodus 22:20; 23:9). Even Abraham, who is commanded by God to become the first ’oleh (immigrant), calls himself ger ve-toshav “alien resident” (Genesis 23:4); and when there was a famine in the Promised Land, he becomes the first yored, “emigrating” to Egypt la-gur sham “to sojourn there” (Genesis 12:10).

The Semitic root g-y-r means to be or become resident, related to gur “reside, dwell”; Arabic ja(wa)ra “be neighbor; provide asylum, treat as neighbor.” Hence, the rabbinic ger (tzedeq), “a convert, one who seeks asylum in Judaism”; perhaps related to the Hebrew-Arabic h-g-r “migrate,” from which is derived Hagar, the name of Ishmael’s mother, and the Arabic hijrah “emigration” (of the first Muslims in 622 C.E., and the start of the Muslim era).

*“You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike (ka-ger ka-ezraH), for I the Lord am your God.”


Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

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