What the Talmud says about converts

In an extract from Norman Solomon’s new Penguin Classics edition of The Talmud, the rabbis discuss some of the requirements for conversion


The Talmud, A Selection, a new translation with an introduction by Norman Solomon, Penguin Classics, £16.99

Rabbi Solomon writes:

The anecdotes about Hillel and Shammai in Shabbat 31a indicate a strongly encouraging attitude towards converts, but the baraita below suggests caution, perhaps necessary when converts to Judaism lapsed and slandered Jews to the occupying authorities, or if they joined Christian or heretical sects and made a nuisance of themselves. This may be what lies behind Rabbi Chelbo’s caustic yet ambivalent comparison of converts to a “scab”.

From TRACTATE YEVAMOT CHAPTER FOUR

GEMARA:

The rabbis taught: When someone nowadays presents himself for conversion, we say to him: Why do you wish to convert? Are you not aware that nowadays Israelites are careworn, stressed, despised, harassed and persecuted? If he responds, “I know, and I [feel] unworthy [to share their troubles]”, we accept him at once. We instruct him in some of the easy mitzvot and some of the hard ones, and inform him of the sin [incurred through neglect] of leqet, shikhcha, pe’ah and the poor tithe, and of the punishment for [infringing] the commandments.

We say to him, “Be aware that before you reached this stage you were not liable to karet for eating prohibited fats, nor to stoning for breaking the Sabbath; now, if you eat prohibited fats you are liable to karet, and if you break the Sabbath you are liable to stoning.”

Just as we inform him of the punishment for [infringing] the commandments, we inform him of the reward [for obedience]. We tell him, “You should know that the world is made for the righteous, but that Israel nowadays cannot endure either too much well-being or too much suffering.” We don’t [alarm him] excessively, nor do we enter into too much detail.

If he accepts, we circumcise him at once; if strips [of foreskin] are left that invalidate the circumcision, this is corrected {*see note 1}. When he has recovered, he is immersed in the pool without delay. Two learned men stand nearby, reminding him of some of the easy mitzvot and some of the hard ones. As soon as he emerges and dries himself, he is an Israelite in all respects.

If [the convert] is a woman, women support her in water up to her neck, and two learned men stand outside, reminding her of some of the easy mitzvot and some of the hard ones. The same procedure applies to a proselyte as to a slave who is being freed; {*2} both proselyte and slave may immerse in any [pool that is valid for purification of ] a menstruant; moreover, whatever is an impediment [to immersion]{*3} is an impediment [equally] for proselyte, slave and menstruant.

A teacher said: If someone presents himself nowadays for conversion we say to him: Why do you wish to convert? . . . We instruct him in some of the easy mitzvot and some of the hard ones. What is the reason for this? [It is] so that if he wishes to leave he may [easily do so], for Rabbi Chelbo said, Proselytes are as bad for Israel as a scab, as it is written, "And strangers shall join them and shall cleave to the House of Jacob” (Isaiah 14:1) {*4}

And inform him of the sin [incurred through neglect] of leqet, shikh’cha, pe’ah and the poor tithe. Why? Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, Because Noahides are executed for the theft of even less than a peruta, and cannot [avoid punishment by] restoring [the stolen property]. {*5}
We don’t [alarm him] excessively, nor do we enter into too much detail. Rabbi Eleazar said, Where do we find this in Scripture? It is written [of Ruth], “When [Naomi] saw how determined she was to go with her, she ceased to argue with her” (Ruth 1:18). [Naomi said,] We are forbidden to cross the Sabbath boundaries; [Ruth replied:] "Wherever you go, I will go.” We are forbidden to remain alone with men; [she replied:] “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.” We have 613 commandments [to keep]; “Your people shall be my people.” We must not worship idols; “And your God is my God.” We have four kinds of death sentence; “Where you die, I will die.” The court has two graveyards [for criminals]; ““and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16, 17).

If he accepts, we circumcise him at once. Why? One does not delay a mitzvah.

If strips [of foreskin] are left that invalidate the circumcision, this is corrected. This is to comply with the Mishnah, which states: The following strips [of foreskin] invalidate the circumcision: flesh that covers the majority of the glans; if these are not removed he may not eat terumah {*6}. Rabbi Jeremiah bar Abba said in Rav’s name, [This means] flesh that covers most of the glans lengthwise.

When he has recovered, he is immersed in the pool without delay. When he has recovered, but not before he has recovered. Why is this? Because water irritates the wound.

Two learned men stand nearby ... But didn’t Rabbi Chiyya say in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, A proselyte requires three [assessors]? [Indeed,] Rabbi Yochanan instructed his Tanna, Say “three”! {*7

As soon as he emerges and dries himself he is an Israelite in all respects. How does this affect the law? If he reverts, and then marries an Israelite woman, he has the status of an apostate Israelite and any marriage he contracts is valid.

The same procedure applies to a proselyte as to a slave who is being freed. You would assume this means with regard to formally committing himself to the mitzvot {*8}. As against that [assumption, a baraita states]: To whom does this apply? To a proselyte. But a slave who is being freed does not need to make a formal commitment to the mitzvot.

Rav Sheshet said, No problem! One is the opinion of Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, the other the opinion of the [majority of ] Sages. A baraita states: ““She shall weep for her father and her mother (Deuteronomy 21:13){*9} – When does this apply? If she has not accepted [the mitzvot]. But if she has accepted, she immerses herself and is permitted to [marry her captor] immediately. Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar says, Even if she has not accepted [the mitzvot], she is immersed to establish her slave status, then immersed again to free her, and when he has freed her he is immediately permitted [to take her as his wife].

*1 literally, we circumcise him a second time

*2 on receiving his freedom a non-Israelite slave automatically becomes anIsraelite.

*3 ie anything that physically interposes between the water and the bather.

*4 the Hebrew v’nisp’chu (“they shall join’) is derived from the same root as sapachat (scab’ – an attachment to the skin), one of the symptoms of the affliction (“leprosy”) described in Leviticus 13. By citing a verse that clearly regards conversions as a blessing, Rabbi Chelbo gives a double edge to his remark; it is in any case contradicted by Rabbi Meir’s comment that “even a Gentile who engages in the study of Torah is like the High Priest” (Bava Qama 38a).

*5 we explain that when he is no longer a Noahide but an Israelite he will be subject to laws with clearly defined limits (theft is not a capital offence, it is actionable only if exceeding a peruta in value and there is the possibility of redress); nevertheless, depriving the poor of their due is a grievous offence before God.

*6 Mishnah Shabbat 19:6 (137a).

*7 that is, he adjusted the text of the baraita to fit his opinion that three were required.

*8 literally, “accepting the yoke of the mitzvot”.

*9 the topic is the beautiful woman taken captive in war.

TERMS

baraita material from Mishnaic period not incorporated into
the Mishnah

karet biblical punishment of excision, being "cut off"
from the people

peah,leqet and shikhcha various agricultural produce to
be left for the poor

Tanna "repeaters", the Sages of the Mishnaic period

terumah food offering a sixtieth of which was set aside
for the priests

    Last updated: 3:38pm, March 3 2010