The Beit Din

The Jewish court of law.

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Conversion

Before a person converts, she must appear before a beit din and answer a series of questions about the sincerity of her desire to convert, the likelihood of her continued religious observance, and whether the degree of knowledge she has accumulated will be adequate to live a Jewish life. The beit din is also present when a convert dunks in themikveh, completing the conversion process. In order to ensure privacy and modesty, if the convert is a different sex from one or more members of the beit din, a screen is erected so that the beit din hears the splash from the mikveh immersion, but does not see it.

Halakhic Status Determination

A beit din may also be convened before a couple gets married, in order to confirm that both parties are in fact Jewish (a Jew cannot legally wed a non-Jew according to traditional Jewish law). Inquiries may be made into the background and lineage of each party. If a man who is akohen, a member of the priestly family, is engaged to be married, a beit din may be consulted to ensure that the woman he is going to marry is not a convert or a divorcee, both of which are prohibited for a kohen to marry according to Jewish law.

Once a status has been confirmed, a beit din can issue a certificate confirming such status. These certificates are required by some rabbis in Israel before they will perform a marriage ceremony.

Dissolving Oaths

Before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur many communities convene batei din in order to allow people to formally dissolve any oaths they may have made during the year. This is called hatarat nedarim. The ritual requires that a man or woman recite a certain text in front of a beit din, publicly absolving themselves from any vows or customs they took on during the previous year. This allows the person to go into the high holidays with a clean slate. In the case of hatarat nedarim, the beit din is essentially acting as a witness or notary to the statement of the individual. In contrast to other batei din, a beit din convened in order to dissolve oaths is not usually made up of experts, but just any three Jewish men.

Other Functions of a Beit Din

In addition to marriage-related issues, and conversions, some batei din oversee the certification of many Jewish legal professions, such as a mashgiach, who ensures the kashrut of a restaurant or facility, a mohel, who performs circumcisions, and other communal institutions, such as Jewish burial societies, and mikvehs.

A beit din can also be consulted for settling issues of damages and business disputes, provided that the parties involved are Jewish and want their conflict to be resolved according to the principles of Jewish law. In adjudicating civil issues, some batei din conduct their proceedings in a manner that is consistent with the requirements of secular arbitration law, so that their rulings are legally binding and enforceable in the secular court system.

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Tamar Fox

Tamar Fox is a writer and editor living in Philadelphia. Her children's book, No Baths at Camp, was published in 2013 by Kar-Ben, and her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, Tablet Magazine, TheJewniverse.com, and many other publications.