Rabbi Yisrael Shachor
Former Rosh Kollel in Chicago
Many people study the topic of geyrut (conversion) on Shavuot, because at Har Sinai, Am Yisrael underwent a tahalich giyur(conversion process), as specified in the Gemara (BT Yevamot 48a), consisting of all the halachot of giyur: milah(circumcision), tevilah (immersion), kabalat ol mitzvot (accepting the yoke of the mitzvot), and korban (sacrifice).
How could Am Yisrael be considered to be geyrim when they are all descendents of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov? The answer is that each giyur includes two main elements: First, the ger must detach himself from his birth family and become a member of Am Yisrael. Second, the ger must accept kedushat Yisrael (literally, the sanctity of Yisrael). Clearly, the first element did not apply to Am Yisrael prior to Matan Torah, but the second element was necessary – namely, the acceptance ofkedushat Yisrael.
On Shavuot, we read Megillat Rut, which concerns Rut’s giyur and her adherence to Am Yisrael.
Conventional wisdom holds that the tahalich hagiyur creates a new entity. As Chazal teach us, “a ger who converts is like akatan shenolad (literally, a child who is born).” This is more than just a mere slogan; it has far-reaching halachic implications. For example, two relatives who both convert are no longer considered to be related. Moreover, according to the Torah, issurei arayot of relatives no longer apply to them, as noted in the Gemara (BT Yevamot 24a). Yet, not all the Amoraim concur.
The Gemara (BT Yevamot 62) cites two opinions about these relatives. The first question is: what is the status of the ger’s children who were born prior to his giyur and who converted together with him? Is he still obligated to fulfill the mitzvah ofpiryah v’rivyah? According to Reish Lakish, he is obligated, because he resembles a katan shenolad and is no longer connected to his past. However, R’ Yochanan disagrees, and the halachah is in his favor. R’ Yochanan’s reasoning is that, in actuality, he does have children, and therefore, the mitzvah has been fulfilled.
The second question refers to a case where he had children prior to his conversion and then had a son after his conversion. Is the son considered to be the bechor who inherits a double portion? Once again, Reish Lakish insists that a new leaf was turned with the giyur, and therefore, the son is the bechor. Nonetheless, R’ Yochanan disagrees yet again and asserts that since there are, in actuality, older sons, the younger son is not the bechor.
A different Gemara (BT Sanhedrin 71) states that a non-Jew who sinned and then converted is still liable for his sins – as long as there is no change in the din and the halachah with respect to that sin. Yet, if he is considered to be a new entity, why is he liable for the sins he committed prior to his giyur?
In Chavat Yair (79), Rav Yair Bacharach discusses a ger tzedek from Amsterdam who stole from a Jew prior to his giyur. Must he now return the items he stole? According to Rav Bacharach, the ger does have to return the items. In his opinion,giyur resembles the teshuvah process, which does not exempt a person from any sins committed prior to the teshuvah.
How can we resolve these sugiyot?
The answer is that giyur does not create a new entity. Rather, the ger is still the same person, but he has now undergone a process of entering kedushat Yisrael and disconnecting from his original family. We are taught that – unlike a slave – a non-Jew is orphaned from his father. Hence, giyur implies that the ger disconnects from his father and, as a result, from the rest of his family as well. Instead, he becomes part of a new family. He now has a new father, and, as the poskim rule, he is now referred to as “ben Avraham” (the son of Avraham). As we know, the letter hei which was added to Avraham’s name signifies “av hamon goyim” (“the father of a multitude of nations” – Breishit 17:5) – in other words, the father of geyrim. The gerresembles a katan shenolad; he is a son who has received a new family identity.
The Chatam Sofer wonders where does the Torah hint that a ger resembles a katan shenolad? The Baal HaTurim observes that in Parshat Ki Teitzei, the pasuk says, “for the ger for the orphan” (Devarim 24:19) rather than “for the gerand for the orphan”. This teaches us that a ger resembles a katan shenolad. In other words, he is not considered to be a new entity. He still becomes an orphan after his father’s death. However, although he loses his non-Jewish father, he does not lose his own personal identity.
In a case cited by Rabbeinu Tam (BT Ketuvot 3), a Jewish woman sleptwith a non-Jew and renounced her Judaism. She later did teshuvah, and the non-Jew converted. May she now marry him? (Her husband had either divorced her or was dead.) Usually, such a woman is forbidden to both her husband and the one with whom she sinned. However, in this case, Rabbeinu Tam permits them to marry, but others dispute his ruling and forbid the marriage.
The Mordechai explains that Rabbeinu Tam rules as he does, because a ger resembles a katan shenolad. Thus, he is considered to be a new entity and has no connection to the non-Jew with whom the woman sinned.
At first glance, the Mordechai’s explanation is puzzling. Did not all the Rishonim who preceded him know this rule as well? The answer is that they all held that he is not considered to be a new entity. In other words, the ger has some connection to the non-Jew he once was, and therefore, this halachah cannot be used to permit such a marriage.
Our beit din was once confronted with the case of a ger tzedek who, as it turned out, had committed several grievous family-related sins before his giyur. As a result, his wife wished for a divorce. But was he not a new man – someone who had turned a new leaf – from the moment of his giyur? According to what we have learned here, we can see that it is not so simple and that there were grounds for a divorce based on his actions prior to the giyur.
In conclusion, we will refer to a midrash agadah (BT Yevamot 48) which asks why today, geyrim suffer and endure distress? One answer given is that they did not observe the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach (the Seven Noahide Laws) before their conversions. In response, R’ Yosi points out that a ger is like a katan shenolad. (Two other explanations are that they act out of yirah – fear – rather than out of ahavah – love – and that they delayed entering tachat Kanfei HaShechinah.)
Here, too, we see two approaches to the ger. One opinion considers the ger to be the same man before and after the giyur. However, R’ Yosi holds that we must draw a line through everything the ger has done prior to his giyur, which is when he was transformed into a new person.