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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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).

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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.