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Notes on what we know / think we know


We will update this page periodically as we cover more material.

(Thanks to Miriam Stocker, who has volunteered to be out note taker.)

January 27, 2016

How are we supposed to treat a convert to Judaism?

1. Do not abuse verbally by bringing up his past, reminding him that we was not 
born Jewish and may have done inappropriate behavior prior to his conversion.

2. Don’t say disrespectful/hurtful things about non-Jews in general in his presence.

3. Be a role model/template for the convert by acting in a godly-manner.

4. Remember that the convert needs us – he is without a social network 
structure/protection.  He left that behind when he converted.

5. A convert is most deserving of our kindness – he chose to leave everything 
behind to devote himself to nurture his belief in God.

6.  R. Yochanan, an amora, agrees with the tana R. Yossi that conversion for a man requires both mila (circumcision) and t'vilah (immersion.)  The tanaim R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua, and R. Yehudah have configurations that require less.

7.  T'vilah for conversion cannot be done at night.

8.  T'vilah for conversion requires three (presumably adult male Jews) to witness the conversion.  These need not be experts.

9.  If the t'vilah will complete the conversion process, the point at which a non-Jew becomes Jewish, then the t'vilah may not be done on Shabbat.

What is the conversion process?  

1. Before the conversion process, Rabbi Chiya says one should discourage strongly 
the candidate and not trust him unto the 24th generation.

2. During the conversion process, the Midrash Rabah says that Rabbi Yitzchak
believes one should discourage the candidate 3 times – push him away with the 
left hand, but encourage him with the right hand.

3. After the conversion process, the Midrash Zuta says that if the convert is sincere 
God loves him and we should treat the convert with respect.

How do we react to a person when we learn he is a convert?

1. If he is an established member of the community, living a “Jewish” life and after 
a period of time admits that he is a convert, we do not treat him any differently 
than we did before.  His actions speak for him.

2. Someone who is not a member of the community and says he is a convert needs 
(2?) witnesses who can confirm his conversion, both in Israel and outside of Israel.  
In addition, if he lives in Israel, he needs to bring “proof” in addition to the 
witnesses.  Outside of Israel, the witnesses suffice.

Notes from Class on Nov 2 on the person who says "nitgayarti beini l'vein atzmi"

We begin with the assumption (the 'status quo') that the person (our ger) who comes before Rabbi Yehuda  is Jewish, and we understand that Rabbi Yehuda requires a Beis Din for conversion.
Our ger states to Rabbi Yehudah that he converted by himself (whatever that means).
Not only was there no Beis Din involved, but there are no witnesses at all, according our ger.
Our ger confirms that he has children.
Rabbi Yehuda tells him "You are believed to invalidate yourself, but you are not believed to invalidate your children".

We understand that our ger's statement doesn't affect the status of his children, since having made his statement he is estopped from claiming Jewish status and therefore is not eligible to testify about the status of his kids.  But does his statement render our ger himself to be not Jewish? (Is his statement alone enough to change the 'status quo'?)

We could argue that our ger is not Jewish, by virtue of his own admission. He has not fulfilled Rabbi Yehuda's stated requirement of conversion with a Beis Din, and Rabbi Yehuda states that "You are believed to invalidate yourself"

However, tosafot  proposes convincingly that he is still Jewish (according to the version of Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak), who quotes Rabbi Yehuda as saying "According to your words, you are not Jewish, and a non-Jew has no standing as a witness" This seems to imply that our ger's statement about his conversion alone is not enough to change the status quo.

Added March 29, 2017

1.       A candidate for conversion appears.  Say to the candidate, “What did you see that makes you want to convert?  Don’t you know the misery and hardship Jews face?”  If the candidate says “I know and I am not worthy,” then you accept him for conversion immediately.  (We are not sure what that means.)

2.       You start to explain a few “light” mitzvot and a few “difficult” mitzvot.  You have to educate the candidate to share with the poor; you must talk to the candidate about not violating leket, peah, shich’chah and ma’aser ani.  You have to explain that if you are not Jewish you are not responsible for Jewish rituals, but now if you become Jewish you will have to observe things like Shabbat and chelev (fats that are not to be eaten by Jews.) Punishment is severe – death penalty for desecrating Shabbat. However, there are rewards for following and observing the mitzvot – but it is not a one-way ticket to the World to Come.

3.       When giving the candidate explanations, you do not go on in length – do not drag it out and you are not overly punctilious.

4.       If the candidate accepts to be converted, he is circumcised immediately.  If the circumcision is not halachically adequate, do it over.  When the wound heals he is taken to the mikvah for immersion as soon as possible.

5.       At the mikvah, three talmidei chachamim stand over him and explain a few of the “light” mitzvot and a few of the “difficult” mitzvot. He immerses himself, and when he emerges he is considered Jewish in all aspects, in everything he does.

6.       If the conversion candidate is a woman, she enters the mikvah and immerses p to her neck.  She has a woman to supervise her immersion.  The three talmidei chachamim speak to her from outside the mikvah and they explain a few of the “light” mitzvot and a few of the “difficult” mitzvot. She immerses herself completely, and when she emerges she is considered Jewish in all aspects, in everything she does.

7.       Conversion requires kabalat ol mitzvot.  Rashi identifies the act of the talmidei chachamim informing the candidate who is in the mikvah about a few “light” mitzvot and a few “difficult” mitzvot with kabbalat ol mitzvot.

8.       The candidate can opt out any time until immersion in the mikvah.  You do not delay doing a mitzvah; at the point the candidate says “I accept” immersion is his mitzvah and has to be done immediately.

9.       Conversion is irrevocable.  Even if we know the convert has reverted to his or her previous lifestyle the convert remains Jewish.

10.   All convers and freed slaves need immersion.  The same mikvah used for niddah is used for conversions.  Anything that is a barrier for immersion after niddah is a barrier for immersion for a convert of freed slave.


Things we don’t yet know:

1.        What parts of the process are absolutely necessary such that without them the conversion is not valid?  What is meakev and what is not?

2.       What is the role of the talmidei chachamim?  Why three?  Who counts as a talmid chacham?  What discretion or investigation should they engage in?

3.       What is the role of ulterior motives of the conversion candidate?  Consider the cases of the freed slave and the captive woman, both of whom are more concerned with their survival than with anything else.  Are these cases exceptions designated by the Torah from the general rule that converts with ulterior motives are no acceptable?  Do these cases support the idea that even in cases where we come to doubt the sincerity of the convert the convert is still accepted?  Or do these cases support the idea that even in cases where we come to doubt the sincerity of the convert, if the conversion is completed it is nevertheless valid?

Added 7/24/27, with thanks to Batya Schreiber:

A small piece from Yevamot 45b:

Consider a case of someone being taunted that his/her mother or father isn't Jewish.  The claim appears to be that the parent in question is a convert but that the conversion happened without immersion in a mikveh.  Rav Asi says, "Who doesn't immerse for  niddah?"  Rav Yehoshua ben Levi says, "Who doesn't immerse because of keri?"  Focusing on Rav Asi, his opinion can be understood in two ways.  "Rav Asi #1" is to assume that Rav Asi thinks that if the parent is living as an observant Jew and doing thing Jews do and non-Jews do not, there must have been a conversion in the past although we do not know the details.  "Rav Asi #2" is to assume that Rav Asi thinks that even if there was no proper conversion in the past, if the parent is living an observant Jewish life, that parent is immersing in a mikvah for other reasons, and that immersion is enough to constitute the conversion.  Rav Yosef considers a case where an eved cna'ani takes his non-Jewish girl friend to the mikvah in order to marry her.  (It is not clear why the eved thinks this is necessary.)  Rav Yosef asserts that the woman can be considered Jewish based on Rav Asi.  According to Rav Asi #1 this is difficult since we know the woman in question did not have a proper conversion.  It fits better with Rav Asi #2; if the woman is living an observant Jewish life, her subsequent immersion for niddah would constitute a proper conversion.

Rashi assumes that the convert in our case didn't immerse specifically for conversion, but for niddah.
In the case of someone who didn't have an immersion for the purpose of conversion, Rashi's opinion is that     
if the convert is living an openly Jewish life (and presumably immersing in a mikvah on appropriate occasions), 
it is one of these subsequent immersions that effects the conversion. (Rav Asi #2)
In Rashi's opinion, we see that immersion is still required, (although not necessarily l'shem geirut), and I believe he also 
would find 'kabbalat mitzvot' in the fact that the ger is observing the mitzvoth (even though there is no mention of 'kabbalat
mitzvot' with talmidei chachamim pronouncing mitzvot kalot and mitzvot chamurot.)

According to the Rif, if the person is conducting himself as a Jew, we assume that he had a proper conversion in the past.
(Only a Jew would behave this way, therefore he must be Jewish). (Rav Asi #1)
If the person doesn't act in the way we would expect a ger to act, then the Rif requires immersion in a mikvah with
3 witnesses before he would allow that person to marry a Jewish woman.
The Rif does not mention kabbalat haMitzvot in this context. I

Tosafot has the difficult task of trying to harmonize all of the requirements we have been learning about, and resolving
apparent difficulties and contradictions. 
First, he deals with 'a ger needs three [witnesses?] because he is subject to judgement', and he notes that women don't
generally take a man (much less a beit din) along with them to the mikvah. The mikvah lady who supervises the immersion
is not qualified to judge (nor by extension, to act as a witness), which poses a problem if we assume that the beit din needs
to witness the immersion.
Tosafot resolves this difficulty by stating that three are needed for kabbalat haMitzvot (which consists of reciting
mitzvot kalot and mitzvot chamurot in front of the prospective ger), but not for the immersion itself.
While it is preferable for the tevilah to take place at the same time as kabbalat haMitzvot ('two talmidei chachamim stand
over her from outside'), this is l'chatchilah, and in the case where it is 'known to all' that she has immersed, it is considered 
'as if' they were actually present. (Tosafot Y'sheinim does stipulate that having the tevilah separate from kabbalat
haMitzvot only works if kabbalat haMitzvot occurs first; otherwise her immersion for niddah doesn't also count as
the tevilah needed for conversion.) This opinion that kabbalat haMitzvot may happen separately also resolves the 
problem of the woman's immersion for niddah occurring at night- Kabbalat haMitzvot must occur by day, and with at
Beit Din ('mishpat k'tiv'), but the immersion itself doesn't constitute judgement, and therefore it may take place at night.


TWO POSITIONS on the topic of the "three judges."

a. 3 Yisraelim  are needed for the repetition of mitzvot to
the conversion candidate, followed immediately by tevila in the mikva.
We do not know what Rashi would say if there is a separation of the 2 procedures.
We do not know if the candidate would indeed be Jewish.
We also do not know if the same Yisraelim have to recite the mitzvot and then be the
witnesses to the tevila.

a. 3 Talmidai Chachamim (not defined what is a Talmid Chacham) are needed for the
repetition of mitzvot to the conversion candidate before tevila.
b. The 3 Talmidai Chachamim are NOT needed to witness the tevila at the same time.
c. Tevila can be separated from recitation of the mitzvot.
d. No period of time has been defined between recitation of the mitzvot and the actual
immersion in the mikva.
e. If the conversion candidate is leading a Jewish life, then the immersion for
conversion can be accomplished with any mikva immersion, i.e. for nidda or for kerri.

 ‘With the exception of one thing’

A non-Jew who comes to accept the Torah with the exception of even one item is not accepted as a

convert (in the first place). [This is parallel to the case of the Am haAretz who comes to accept the standards of chaverut. If he doesn’t agree to even one item (at the outset), he is not accepted as a chaver.] Rabbi Yossi ben Yehuda adds “even if he objects to an enactment of the rabbis” (a “chumra d’rabbanan” according to Rashi)

It would seem that a prospective ger who doesn’t accept even one mitzvah min haTorah isn’t accepted as a convert. Does everyone agree with Rabbi Yossi that failure to accept even a mitzvah d’rabbanan would  make the candidate ineligible? Does this rule apply only to ‘behavioral’ mitzvot, or also to philosophical or theoretical elements of belief? How thoroughly (if at all) does the Beit Din examine the conversion candidate?

Our later cases involving Hillel and Shammai seem to allow for a lot of discretion on the part of the

‘facilitator’ of the conversion.

Shammai rejects the candidates out of hand, based on the ruling of ‘chutz mi davar echad’ and

his own assessment of the candidates as being unsuitable because of their ridiculous demands.

Hillel accepts these same three candidates, and (surprisingly) allows them to convert even

though in one case, the convert doesn’t accept Torah she b’al Peh, and in the other two the

candidates seem to misunderstand what they are getting into. Hillel doesn’t even bother to

educate the candidates prior to conversion, to disabuse them of their misconceptions, but

instead converts them first, and relies on education after the fact to get them in line.

Even though this contradicts what we might have originally thought, the gemara praises Hillel’s

approach of leniency and openness.


We also see from our recent topic of ‘A Major Principle Regarding Shabbat’ that there is no minimum

amount of knowledge required in order to convert- (theoretically a convert could be completely

unaware that Shabbat exists or that avodah zarah is forbidden), and so ‘miktzat mitzvot kalot and miktzat mitzvot chamurot may mean

exactly that; nothing more than a brief smattering of mitzvot could be enough in order to convert.

According to Rav and Shmuel, this is possible (to not know about Shabbat at all) if you were a

convert and lived in a non-Jewish community, with no reminders about the Jewish practice of

Shabbat or if you were born Jewish and from infancy lived in a non-Jewish community, with no

access to Jewish learning of Shabbat.

Do ulterior motives invalidate a conversion?

1) Someone who converts in order to marry a Jew, the conversion is valid.
      (they are encouraged NOT to marry because it will provide grist for the rumor mill, but the convert is fully
      Jewish, and if they DO marry, the marriage is valid.)

2) Rabbi Nechemiah gives multiple examples of conversions for ulterior motives of different kinds, and says that such conversions
      are all invalid. The gemara specifically contradicts his opinion, and states that in all of these cases, the conversions are still valid,
      (at least after the fact). We might wonder if L'chatchilah (at the outset) it is improper to perform such conversions, if the motive of the
      convert is known prior to the conversion, however once the conversion has already taken place, it still stands.

3)Tosafot brings up a case of a conversion under duress (Gerei Arayot) where the candidate converted out of fear of his life, 
      and then continued in his idolatrous practices after the conversion. In this case, Tosafot seems to indicate that such a conversion
      is considered invalid, but that the convert may still come back at a later time and convert under proper circumstances and be accepted.

4) It is possible to interpret the gemara's discussion to mean  that ulterior motives do matter, but the Beit Din has the discretion to override improper motives, as it sees fit.

The final piece states that in the times of Mashiach and 'other similar times to that', converts aren't accepted.
        (We don't know what times are 'similar' to Yemot haMashiach. Perhaps when the Jewish nation is sovereign, in its own land, and
        on the ascendancy?) It also states that converts weren't accepted during the reigns of David and Shlomo (and then explains away
        possible objections, because either the converts were already worthy of being in the king's household eating at the royal table and
        therefore had nothing to gain, or in the case of a mass conversion of 150,000 people during the reign of David, it explains that
        perhaps these people 'converted themselves' like the frightened masses in the days of Mordechai and Esther.) 

Recall from earlier texts that the eved c'naani and the eyshet y'fat toar end up as converts although they clearly are operating with motives other than pure spirituality.