Acceptance of the Yoke of the Commandments

Kabbalat ol ha-mitzvot (acceptance of the commandments) combines faith and action with an intent to evolve as a practicing Jew.

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The following is a look at the traditional practices regarding a potential convert's acceptance of the commandments; contemporary practices may differ, depending on the community, denomination, and personal beliefs of individual rabbis who are working with potential converts. Excerpted with permission from Becoming a Jew (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

The prospective convert's commitment to practice Judaism must be articulated at two stages in the conversion protocol: in the initial statement of intent to enter the Jewish covenant--prerequisite to the total process--and in the declaration recited at the climax of the conversion ceremony, immediately prior to immersion in the ritual pool.


Joint Commitment to Belief and Action

Because the Jews constitute a covenant-community rather than a faith-community, the decision to convert is a decision not only to believe in the Jewish idea of God, but to act on that belief. When one "enters into the covenant"--the convert's personal Sinai [the mountain where the Jewish people accepted the covenant]--one accepts the divine mandate requiring distinctive behavior. This is called "acceptance of the yoke of the commandments."

What does this entail as a practical program? First, it necessitates acknowledgment of the authority of Torah, the five books of Moses, and the oral interpretation of that law by the sages of the Talmud and the codes of the halakhah [Jewish law]. These two components are called the "Written Torah" and "Oral Torah" and together they comprise the body of Jewish law.

The rabbis rule that the candidate for conversion may not willfully reject even one of these laws. By this they mean, basically, that the convert may not deny the rabbis' authority to establish a particular law. Thus, the commitment to practice is referred to as kabbalat ol ha'mitzvot the "acceptance of the yoke of the commandments," rather than by the more tepid phrase "observance of the mitzvot [commandments]." It is a recognition that, although the laws may sometimes be restrictive, they need to be accepted as authoritative notwithstanding any difficulty in keeping them.

Second, accepting the "yoke" entails a decision that goes beyond acknowledging the authority of the law. That acknowledgment must be translated into practice and acted upon. The convert's commitment to Judaism must include a commitment to observance. This is true not only for moral laws, but also for the laws of ritual practice.

Starting Small With Intent to Grow

Of course, the conversion candidate may feel disposed to observe the tradition, but lack the emotional stamina to keep it and not just let it slip out of consciousness. This does not by itself cast doubt on the conversion. There is an inherent recognition in the laws of conversion that people can and do grow. What is important, therefore, in addition to the desire to keep the covenant, is to design living conditions that will be conducive to growing in the observance of Torah--such as a willing mate, a vibrant Jewish community, a nearby synagogue, positive Jewish friends, a caring rabbi. On the other hand, if there is no intention to keep the Sabbath or the dietary laws, it indicates no desire to grow after entering into the covenant, and the conversion may not be validated.

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.