The Non-Jew in Jewish Law

Rabbinic authorities have used different arguments to redress inequities in the way halakhah treats non-Jews.

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One approach reinterpreted specific laws. According to Rabbenu Tam (c. 1100-1171), the particular prohibition of commerce on idolater's holidays was not to support the idolatrous sacrifice. Regular business, even lending money that might be used as an offering in the Church, was permitted since Christians did not sacrifice (Tosafot, Avodah Zarah 2a, s.v. asur).

Similarly, Rabbenu Tam permits partnerships with Christians because when they make oaths, "their intent is on the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and they just associate 'something else' [with God]" (Tosafot Bekhorot 2b, s.v. shema). This argument, called shittuf  (association), did not deny Christian idolatry, but avoided prohibiting Christian oaths, thereby permitting business partnerships between Jews and Christians.

A second approach, followed by Rabbenu Gershom (c. 960-1028), applies the Talmudic statement that "non-Jews outside of the Land [of Israel] are not idolaters; it is just an ancestral custom" (Hullin 13b). On this basis, Rabbenu Gershom continues "We who live outside of the Land… do not have to prohibit business with them on their holidays" (Responsa of Rabbenu Gershom, 21, s.v. hakhmei).

The third approach, argued by R. Menahem haMeiri (1249–1316) redefined idolatry as a general lawlessness. Meiri considered Christians among the "nations bound by the ways of religion," not idolaters, and so there should be no legal restrictions governing Jewish-Christian relations.

Reciprocity and Non-reciprocity

Aside from the laws that seek to distance Jews from idolatry, there are other laws that discriminate between Jews and non-Jews based on presumptions of reciprocity: gentiles are presumed to behave in a certain way, so Jews treat them according to the same principles.

For example, the Torah requires one to return lost property to its owner (Deuteronomy 22:1-3), and the rabbis require the finder to announce the lost item. Since non-Jews did not announce to Jews when they found lost items, Jews did not announce to non-Jews when they found lost items.

Sometimes, however, Jews afforded privileges to non-Jews despite the lack of reciprocity. The Jewish community took care of its own poor, and charity from non-Jews was not accepted. And yet, Jews provided charity to the non-Jewish poor and buried their dead, for the sake of peace (Mishnah Gittin 5.8; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 254, 256).

Other rules assume that gentiles are, at best unreliable and at worst malevolent and violent. For this reason, a gentile is grouped together with dishonest butchers, gamblers, usurers and thieves who cannot act as witness (Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 34). Jewish law also preserves a prohibition against an individual Jew being alone with idolaters lest they act with violence (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 153:2,4). This law was probably not in effect when it was published in the Shulhan Arukh since Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili (1250-1330) had already pointed out that non-Jews had their own law enforcement (Hiddushei haRitba, Avodah Zarah 26a).

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.