If someone is going to deliver good news and bad news, which would you rather get first?
If you’re like most people, you’d rather hear the bad news first. When pressed, people like this think moving from bad to good will leave them happier, more optimistic and less worried. (Interestingly, people were evenly split when asked if they’d rather deliver good or bad news first. Go figure.)
In a variation on this theme, today’s daf lays out a scenario in which someone approaches a court looking to convert to Judaism. Let’s just say the initial response is not one of encouragement:
The sages taught: A potential convert who comes to convert, say to him: What did you see that motivated you to come to convert? Don’t you know that the Jewish people at the present time are anguished, suppressed, despised and harassed, and hardships are visited upon them?
If he says: I know, and although I am unworthy (of joining the Jewish people and sharing in their sorrow, I nevertheless desire to do so, then the court) accepts him immediately.
Judges are told to respond to a prospective convert by stressing the negative aspects of being Jewish, pointing out the myriad ways in which Jews have it rough. If the inquirer acknowledges these challenges and their own unworthiness of joining a people experiencing such travails, then they are accepted.
Embedded here is a presumption of unending oppression. While the passage speaks from a particular moment in Jewish history, it lays down a position that expects an ongoing state of suffering, one in which a person’s desire to yoke their fate to that of the Jewish people would be unexpected and curious, to say the least.
Sadly, the explication of hardships doesn’t end there:
And the judges inform him of some of the lenient mitzvot and some of the stringent mitzvot, and they inform him of the sin of gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and produce in the corner of one’s field, and about the poor man’s tithe. And they inform him of the punishment for transgressing the mitzvot.
They say to him: Be aware that before you came to this status, had you eaten forbidden fat, you would not be punished by karet, and had you profaned Shabbat, you would not be punished by stoning. But now, if you have eaten forbidden fat you are punished by karet, and if you have profaned Shabbat, you are punished by stoning.
In essence, the judges want to make sure the potential convert is aware of how difficult things really are, laying out the specific religious strictures borne by Jews — and only Jews — and the consequences for transgressing them. Only after all this do the judges finally describe some of the benefits of being Jewish.
They say to him: Be aware that the World to Come is made only for the righteous, and if you observe the mitzvot you will merit it, and be aware that the Jewish people, at the present time, are unable to receive their full reward in this world; they are not able to receive either an abundance of good nor an abundance of calamities, since the primary place for reward and punishment is in the World to Come. And they do not overwhelm him with threats, and they are not exacting with him about the details of the mitzvot.
In other words, there are some great things about being Jewish, at least eventually. And if you’re able to abide a bit of delayed gratification, there’s a payoff in the end. But the final lines are striking: Even with all of the explicit warnings of the awfulness of Jewish existence in this world and the consequences of violating the commandments, the Talmud cautions not to get too detailed about the bad stuff.
Our daf follows the pattern most people prefer: the hard stuff followed by the good stuff. That said, even the good stuff isn’t exactly great, making you wonder if, at least in this case, leading with the bad news really makes all that much of a difference.
Read all of Yevamot 47 on Sefaria.