The Rabbinic Conversion Ceremony

The different layers of the rabbinic discussion of conversion reveal the beginnings of a transformation from a citizenship ritual to a theological initiation rite.

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The rabbinic description of how a non-Jew converts to Judaism naturally breaks into three sections: the examination of the potential convert, the instruction that the convert receives, and the rituals that formalize the conversion. The source for this ceremony is a baraita, a tradition attributed to the tannaim, rabbinic sages from the first and second centuries C.E., and preserved in the Babylonian Talmud. A parallel, somewhat expanded version of the baraita is also preserved in the medieval tractate Gerim (converts), a noncanonical treatise on the laws of proselytes, appended to the Talmud. In this article, the author discusses the various sections of the baraita and relevant expansions and interpretations from the amoraic stratum of the Talmud (which records sages of the third through sixth centuries C.E.), tractate Gerim, and later rabbinic texts. Biblical and tannaitic sources appear in bold type when quoted in later documents.

Examining the Potential Convert

The baraita opens:

"Our Rabbis taught: One who comes to convert at this time, they say to him: 'Why did you come to convert? Do you know that Israel at this time is afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, and rejected, and that tribulations are visited upon them?' If he says, 'I know, but I am unworthy,' they accept him immediately…" (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamot 47a). 

ancient mikvahMost commentators understand this initial effort to dissuade the potential convert as evidence that converts were not welcome. Indeed, many rabbinic sources, both early and late, attest to negative attitudes toward converts. One example is an anonymous amoraic commentary to this portion of the baraita: "If he [hears this speech and] desires to withdraw, let him do so; for R. Helbo said: 'Proselytes are as hard for Israel [to endure] as scabs'" (Bavli Yebamot 47b).

Some later interpreters of the Talmud understand R. Helbo's comment as casting converts in a negative light, while others analyze why native-born Jews may be uncomfortable with converts. The most common interpretation, expressed in different forms by the medieval interpreters Rashi, Tosafot, and Maimonides, is either that the converts referred to by R. Helbo are not careful with their observance of Jewish law or that they will "backslide" and engage in their former customs; in either case, their behavior may negatively influence native Jews.

Tosafot, on the other hand, also suggest that Israel is challenged by the presence of converts. Since all of Israel is responsible one for the other (Sifra Behukkotai 7:5), conversion increases the burden of responsibility on native Jews. More pointed explanations of R. Helbo appear in a different comment of the Tosafot (to Bavli Kiddushin 70b-71a): Israel is warned not to mistreat the convert 24 times in the Torah, and it seems impossible for native Jews to avoid discriminating against converts. (Tosafot reads the Torah's use of the word ger as convert, and not as a more contextually appropriate "stranger.") Finally, R. Abraham the convert argues that converts are extremely strict and punctilious with their observance; in comparison, native Jews are seen as less exacting.

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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.