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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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.

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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.