Talmud Tips

For the week ending 16 July 2022 / 17 Tammuz 5782

Yevamot 107 - 113

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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A Righteous Convert

Rabbi Yitzchak explained, “This refers to the tragedy upon tragedy which results from accepting converts to Judaism.”

This is one concept, among others, which Rabbi Yitzchak derives in our sugya while interpreting a verse from Sefer Mishlei (11:15). The verse states, “He who is arev zar will cause disaster after disaster.” While Rashi’s commentary to Mishlei explains arev zar as being one who worships idols, Rabbi Yitzchak also connects this verse to the disastrous consequences of accepting converts. Rashi in our gemara explains arev zar as meaning “mixing foreigners into Judaism.” He understands the word arev as meaning “mixing,” similar to the use of erev as a word for “early evening” since it is a time of mixture of day and night. Likewise, the word eiruv, the method for permitting carrying in a shared courtyard or alley on Shabbat, conveys the idea of “mixing together various domains,” in a sense. The Maharsha offers an additional interpretation to connect the phrase arev zar to accepting the converts. He writes that it comes from the root that means “guarantor,” and ties in with the principle that “All of the Jewish People are guarantors for each other (i.e. to ensure that each person is faithful to Hashem and His Torah).” If converts are accepted, each current member of the Jewish nation would be responsible to prevent the converts from transgression and would be held accountable for their shortcomings. In this manner, a person’s ledger of punishment might keep growing larger on account of converts without any actual personal wrongdoing.

One who learns our daf might have the mistaken impression that Rabbi Yitzchak is teaching — based on the verse in Sefer Mishlei — that conversion should never be allowed. However, we clearly know, today and historically, that Judaism accepts converts who wish to become part of the Jewish People to accept the Torah and take refuge under the wings of Hashem’s Divine Presence.

In Tanach, there are numerous well-known gerei tzeddek — righteous converts. A partial list: Ruth (in Megillat Ruth, often referred to as the “mother of royalty”) and Rachav (in Sefer Yehoshua) who risked her life to save the spies and who later became the wife of Yehoshua ben Nun.

Tosefot on our daf cites the view of one the most oft-quoted ba’alei Tosefot — the RI (Rabbi Yitzchak, a maternal descendant of Rashi) — who distinguishes between undesirable and desirable converts. He explains that the former category includes potential converts who are persuaded and encouraged to convert rather than be motivated by internal, pure desire for righteous conversion. This undesirable category also includes immediate acceptance of converts without proper “background checks” to determine the potential convert’s sincerity and motivation. However, he explains, it is not only okay but also correct to accept a potential convert who demonstrates a genuine desire to become part of the Jewish People and live according to the Torah.

Tosefot offers a powerful argument for the concept of accepting converts, in general. He cites a gemara in writes that the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov endured great suffering meted out by Amalek, a descendant of the non-Jewish princess named Timna, as punishment for the forefathers' rejecting Timna’s attempt to convert.

It is important to note that there is an exception to each of these two “categorical rules” in determining whether to convert a person or not. Exception one: despite normally accepting proper candidates, converts were not accepted during the time of King Shlomo in the glory days of the First Beit Hamikdash; and they were also not accepted following the downfall of the wicked Haman of Purim fame. At those times, the Jewish People were seen by the other nations as being “on top of the world” and the sincerity of potential converts could not fairly be determined.

Another exception to the rule expressed in Tosefot is the case in masechet Shabbat (31a) of a person who came to Hillel and demanded to be converted immediately, on condition that he would be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel agreed and accepted the convert as a righteous convert. The commentaries explain that Hillel had sufficient Torah wisdom and insight to be able to determine on the spot that the person would be a genuinely righteous convert.

  • · Yevamot 109b

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