In this essay we will explore three Hebrew words used to describe somebody who lives in a specific place. Such a person can be variously called a ger, toshav or ezrach. In Modern Hebrew, ezrach means “citizen,” toshav means “resident (without citizenship),” and verb cognates of ger simply mean “dwelling” (although ger itself retains a religious connotation). The Torah sometimes stresses that certain commandments apply to the ezrach and the ger alike (Lev. 16:29, 18:26, Num. 15:29, 15:30), both of whom live within the established community. In other cases, the Torah uses the terms ger and toshav to denote alien residents who ought to be pitied (Gen. 23:4, 25:35, 25:47). In the ensuing paragraphs we will discover the core roots of these Hebrew terms to help us trace their exact meanings and better sharpen our understanding of the differences between these apparent synonyms.
The Malbim explains that ger primarily refers to a person who lives in a land other than his original homeland—whether he is far away from his original hometown (Gen. 15:13, Ex. 18:3) or nearby (Judges 19:1, 19:16).
Similarly, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 12:14, 23:4) notes that the biliteral root GIMMEL-REISH yields words with four distinct meanings: ger, gur (“lion cub”), gur (“fear”), megurah (“storage container”). Rabbi Hirsch finds the core meaning of this root to refer to “the detachment from one’s roots,” and that all four of these meanings relate back to a common theme. A ger is a sojourner who has settled elsewhere and detached himself from his place of origin. Gur as a lion cub denotes a newly-weaned animal that is now detached from its mother and must fend for itself. Fear refers to the sense of being thrust into the unknown, as if the very ground on which one stood had been yanked out from underneath. And finally, megurah (or megirah, “closet/drawer” in Modern Hebrew) refers to a silo used for storing harvested grain that had already been detached from the ground. [See also Ibn Ezra (to Gen. 15:13, 23:4, Ps. 37:35) who also explains ger as an expression of “disconnection.”]
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) offers two etymological explanations of the word ger: First, he connects ger to the word megirah/agurah in the sense of “gathering.” This highlights the aspect of a ger in that he has now “gathered” himself into his newfound land and community. Second, Rabbi Mecklenburg connects ger to the word girui (“irritation” / “instigation”), and refers to the ger’s knack for “instigating” a fight against his natural desires and overcoming them.
Rabbinic Tradition understands that the word ger (or, more accurately, the infinitive verb la’gur)connotes living in a certain place under a temporary arrangement. This is seen from Gen. 47:4, wherein Joseph’s brothers use the word la’gur to tell Pharaoh that they have come to “live” in Egypt. The Haggadah ShelPesach understands this terminology to imply that Jacob’s family came to Egypt only as a temporary measure, to avoid the famine that had been ravaging the Land of Canaan, but they never intended to permanently settle in Egypt. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) points out that Jacob uses similar verbiage (garti) to denote his living in Laban’s house for fourteen years (Gen. 32:5), as Jacob never intended to stay there long-term but was forced to do so due to the circumstances.
The Hebrew ger is typically translated into Aramaic as dayar (see Targum Onkelos to Deut. 10:19 for a notable exception). This word has relatives in Biblical Aramaic (Ps. 84:11, Dan. 2:11 4:9 4:32 5:21), and is also a cognate of the later Mishnaic Hebrew words madoor/dirah (Eruvin 2:5, 5:1, Ketuvot 12:3, Bava Batra 1:5, Avodah Zarah 1:9), which refer to places of residence/domiciles. (See Rashba Meyuchas L’Ramban 257, which discusses whether a communal ban that forbids a person from establishing his dirah in a specific place also precludes him from opening a store there.)
As opposed to the ger who lives in a given place short-term, the toshav settles in a given place for the long haul. Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235), also known as Radak, in Sefer HaShorashim traces the root of toshav to the triliteral root YOD-SHIN-BET, which means “sitting” and “settling long-term.” Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970) traces the word toshav to the biliteral root SHIN-BET, which Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) explains primarily means “returning” / “reverting” to a previous place or status. Yeshiva denotes a permanent dwelling place, which obviates a sojourner’s need to ever “return” elsewhere, and a toshav is a permanent resident who engages in yeshiva.
Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Algazi (1680-1757) cites a fascinating responsum by Rabbi Shmuel Modiliano, who argues that toshav/yeshiva denotes settling in a place in which one owns/has rights to the real estate, while gar/dirah denotes living in a place where one simply has the right to live there but does not actually own the property on which his home stands. He cites multiple Biblical prooftexts to this effect.
When Abraham presented himself before the Hittites to buy property to bury Sarah, Abraham referred to himself as both a ger and a toshav (Gen. 23:4). Radak’s brother, Rabbi Moshe Kimchi (1120-1190), explains that Abraham called himself a ger in the sense that he was an émigré from his original homeland, but he also called himself a toshav in the sense that his family had settled the Land of Canaan and made it their new home, such that even if he were to die, his descendants would still remain there.
Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) writes that the word ger primarily refers to one who repudiates idolatry, and accepts upon him or herself to not engage in that vile practice. This may be derived from the understanding that a ger primarily refers to he who has disconnected himself from his homeland. From a halachic perspective, there are two such types of gerim: A ger-toshav is a gentile who simply rejects idolatry and is thus granted residency in the Holy Land (although some authorities require that he also accept the Seven Noahide Laws, see Avodah Zarah 64b and Nachmanides to Ex. 20:10), while a ger-tzedek (“proselyte”) refers to a gentile who accepts upon himself the entire Torah and its commandments, thus converting to Judaism and joining the Jewish People (see Yevamot 48b, Gittin 57b, Kiddushin 20a, Bava Kama 113b, Bava Metzia 71a, 111b, Sanhedrin 96b, Erachin 30b).
Interestingly, the term ger-toshav never appears in the Bible. Rather, a person of this status is sometimes referred to as a toshav (Rashi to Ex. 12:45) and sometimes as a ger (Rashi to Ex. 23:12, Deut. 14:21). That said, when the Bible refers to “ger v’toshav” (Lev. 25:35), Mizrachi explains that this means a ger-toshav, and the letter vav should not be understood in the usual sense of “and.”
Although Menachem Ibn Saruk designates the four letters that comprise the word ezrach as its own root, Ibn Janach and Radak understand that ezrach is derived from the triliteral root ZAYIN-REISH-CHET (“shining”). Radak (to Psalms 37:35 and Sefer HaShorashim) explains that ezrach relates to “shining,” because just as when the light shines everything becomes visible and revealed, so is the ezrach somebody whose identity and family is out in the open and revealed to all. This contrasts with the ger, whose true identity and origins always remain a mystery.
According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 15a), Abraham contributed to the Book of Psalms under the pen-name Eitan the Ezrachite. Targum (to Ps. 89:1) explains that Abraham was given the appellation “Ezrachite” because he came from the “east” (mizrach). Mizrach, in turn, also derives from the same root ZAYIN-REISH-CHET because the sun rises in the morning from the east, from where it begins to “shine.”
Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920-2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, takes this a step further, expanding on this idea to account for the use of the term ezrach as “citizen.” He explains that in ancient times the boundaries of civilization were broadly understood to be in the “east.” As such, a legitimate citizen who was properly oriented in society is likewise called an easterner, i.e. ezrach. On the flip side, one who leaves the confines of civilization and sojourns beyond the pale of settlement is branded a “stranger” or “occidental.” In Hebrew, this designation would be marked with the words ger or zar.
[Rabbi Chelouche attempts to prove this point by noting that in Arabic maghreb means “west” and ghurayb means “stranger,” assuming that both of these words are cognates of the Hebrew ger. However, from a linguistic perspective, this theory does not hold true, because the letter that represents the gh- sound in Arabic is actually related to the Hebrew AYIN, such that maghreb cognates with the Hebrew maarav (“west”) and erev (“evening”), as opposed to ger.]
To capsulize our discussion, Rabbi Wertheimer writes that ger is the opposite of ezrach and the opposite of toshav, as a ger denotes a sojourner who is neither a full-fledged citizen of this particular land (ezrach), nor is he an alien resident (toshav). He is simply living here as one stop in his greater journey.
Interestingly, the Radak’s father, Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (in Sefer Zikaron), and the Radak himself (to Yechezkel 25:7) note that the letters ZAYIN and GIMMEL can be interchangeable. While they do not specifically cite this example, we can apply their rule to the words zar and ger to understand some affinity between them — so just as zar means “stranger,” so does ger. Case in point: Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), known as Shadal, named his commentary to the Pentateuch as Ohev Ger (“Lover of Strangers” in Hebrew), and similarly named his Philosseno (philo = “lover,” xeno = “stranger/alien” in Latin), thus also presuming a connection between ger and zar.