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.

Nevertheless, as Shaye Cohen argues (The Beginnings of Jewishness, 232), this initial speech of "dissuasion" may not indicate a negative attitude in the original tannaitic conversion ceremony. Cohen likens this part of the ceremony to an admissions interview, which may be "tough," but does not mean that the interviewers really have any negative feelings towards the potential convert. As evidence, Cohen points out that there is no trace of R. Helbo's interpretation in tractate Gerim; rather, Gerim explains, "Those words that we said to you, we only said to increase your reward."

For Cohen the purpose of the initial examination (at least in the baraita itself) would not be to dissuade the convert but to clarify the convert's motives. He quotes the Talmud Yerushalmi:

"Someone who converts for the sake of love…[or for political advantage or out of fear], they do not accept them. Rav said, 'The law is that they are converts, and they do not push them away as they do with converts at the outset, but they accept them, for [converts] need to be welcomed; perhaps they converted for pure reasons (lit. for the Name [of God])'" (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4:1 65b).

According to both the anonymous first opinion and the opinion of the third-century amora Rav, the motives of the potential convert matter (although they may not be determinative for Rav). Similarly, the initial question in the baraita, "Why did you come to convert?" and the follow-up question may simply be a way to identify the motives of the convert--not really an attempt to dissuade.

Instruction of the Convert

After passing the initial examination, the convert engages in some formal instruction. The baraita continues:

"He is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments. He is informed of the sins of [neglecting charity through agricultural gifts]. He is also told of the punishment for violating the commandments. Furthermore, he is told that [he would now be liable for the dire punishments that would be incurred if he were to eat unkosher suet or violate the Sabbath]. As he is told of the punishment for violating the commandments, so is he told of the reward granted for fulfilling them.… But they do not say too much to him or go in to too much detail."

The instruction described in the baraita does not resemble the years of detailed study often required of modern converts; neither is it a “quickie conversion.” An effort is made to make sure that the principal categories of Jewish law are both understood and accepted; details are also provided about some of the "lesser" commandments so that the potential convert understands the depth and specificity of Jewish law. The version of the baraita in tractate Gerim adds that women are instructed to take care in observing the laws of ritual purity concerning menstruation (niddah), the separation of a portion of dough as an offering (hallah), and kindling lights for the Sabbath (hadlakat nerot).

Although all of the details are not covered, commitment to Jewish law in general and in specific was the essential requirement for conversion. As the tannaitic source Tosefta Demai 2:6 and others state, "A convert who accepts all of the Torah except for one word is not accepted. R. Yossi b. R. Judah says: 'Even one small detail of rabbinic law.'"

The later amoraic discussion of the convert's instruction draws upon rabbinic interpretations of the biblical Ruth, seen as the archetype for conversion. The Talmud interprets the various clauses of Ruth's declaration of fidelity to her mother-in-law Naomi as responses to Naomi's basic instruction on Jewish law:

"'We are forbidden,' [Naomi told Ruth], '[to travel beyond the] Sabbath boundaries.' 'Whither thou goest, I will go' (Ruth 1:16).

'We are forbidden to be alone with a man.' '…Where thou lodgest, I will lodge.'

'We have been commanded 613 commandments!' '…Thy people shall be my people.'

'We are forbidden idolatry!' '…And thy, God my God.'

'Four modes of execution were entrusted to the Jewish court.' 'Where thou diest, there will I die' (Ruth 1:17)."

The emphasis on details of Sabbath law and concerns about sexual mores, idolatry, and criminal jurisdiction might serve the baraita's requirement of providing instruction in some of the major commandments, but it is clear that this text is primarily a creative exegesis of verses from the book of Ruth. Significantly, the exegesis of these Biblical verses offers a model for the social integration ("Whither thou goest, I will go") and theological initiation ("and thy God, my God") of the convert into the fabric of Israel; this is a marked development from the tannaitic ceremony described in the baraita.

Rituals Formalizing the Conversion

The baraita concludes:

"If he accepts, they immediately circumcise him. Should any shreds that render the circumcision invalid remain, they circumcise him a second time. When he has healed, they immediately immerse him [in the mikveh, ritual bath].  Two disciples of the sages stand over him and inform him of some of the minor commandments and some of the major ones. When he comes up from immersing, he is like an Israelite in all respects."

For women, the formalizing ritual includes only immersion.

The baraita insists that circumcision take place immediately and immersion as soon as possible thereafter:

"'If he accepts, they immediately circumcise him.' What is the reason? The performance of a commandment must not in any way be delayed."

Perhaps the Talmud intends that the witnesses are not to delay in facilitating the conversion. Alternatively, one could see the convert himself as obligated [not to delay] through his acceptance of Torah--having himself circumcised promptly would thus be his own obligation.

The baraita requires two sages to serve as instructors and witnesses. The Talmud asks:

"Did not R. Hiyya, however, state in the name of R. Johanan that the initiation of a convert requires the presence of three?--But, surely. R. Johanan told the tanna [who was the human recorder of the baraita] to read 'three' [instead of two]."

The baraita requires sages to be present to instruct the convert and to attest that the proper procedures were followed; these sages regulate the conversion process. For R. Johanan (and later Jewish law), the sages are not witnesses--they constitute a Jewish court (beit din), representing the Jewish community and beginning the process of the convert's social integration.

Taken as a whole, the tannaitic conversion ceremony serves, in Cohen's words, to regulate conversion by establishing three clear elements: acceptance of the commandments, circumcision (for males), and immersion. The convert is informed both of the situation of Israel in the world as well as aspects of Jewish observance, and the rituals formalizing the ritual are performed and attested to by rabbinic sages. The amoraic expansion of the verses from Ruth and the sages' new role as constituting a public court rather than simply being witnesses indicate the beginnings of a transformation of the conversion procedure from a private citizenship ceremony to a more comprehensive theological and social initiation rite.

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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.