Rabbi Eldad Zamir
Former shaliach in Cape Town (1997 -1998)
Currently Senior Instructor at the Nativ ’Giyur” program in the IDF
Harmful As Sapachat?
The complicated and exhausting course finally came to an end, and I had the merit of serving as a witness/dayan (rabbinical judge) at the “promotion” ceremony.
We were eight guys – all alumni of assorted yeshivot hesder – and we had made our way south to Cape Town, South Africa, a place at the nexus of scenic postcards and a richly colored painting, of the cold Atlantic Ocean and the shark-infested Indian Ocean, and of the community rabbi and a “yeshiva bachur” who a mere eighteen months ago was still shouting, “yahalom yahalom pa’al.” (the command to disembark an armored vehicle in battle)
Long months of thoroughly investigating any underlying motives as well as introducing numerous “simple” mitzvot – and plenty of severe ones – led to this unusual and remarkable step.
The city boasts nearly 20,000 Jews, but in practice, only three local rabbis serve as dayanim. One of the latter is the sofer (scribe) of the beit din (rabbinical court) and a shochet (ritual slaughterer); another one is a mohel and oversees kashrut in the city; and the third is the rosh yeshiva. In addition, each one carries an active rabbi’s heavy load; they must each administer and ensure the smooth functioning of their individual neighborhoods’ congregations and community life.
Every few weeks, the Av Beit Din arrives from the big city – Johannesburg – and that is when the beit din sits and arbitrates. All cases are scheduled for that day.
The yoke of Torah and mitzvot is particularly onerous, and their observance involves considerable effort and bother. Moreover, we must not forget that great suffering is the lot of the Jewish nation. Yet, “there is reward for your activity.” (Yermiyahu 31:15) A wise person who studies these mitzvot and observes them will merit chayei ha’olam haba (literally, life of the World-to-Come).
In Cape Town, we, the yeshiva guys, were the closest to the Rav. Upon many occasions, one of us would be asked to substitute when one of the dayanim needed to travel to perform a brit milah or, lihavdil, for shechitah (this was especially true before one of the festivals). In general, we would be asked to sign a get (divorce), but this case was extraordinary…
After three years of rigorous study and drill and after convincing the beit din that she would observe Jewish law and a Jewish way of life, the young woman was invited to the mikvah. Asked to come as well, I never imagined how moving the experience would turn out to be.
I stayed with the Av Beit Din – the Rav of an important community – outside the walls of the mikvah’s inner chamber. We heard a tiny splash as the giyoret (proselyte) entered the water. The attendant, whose job it was to ensure that not a single strand of hair remained out of the water, stood at the mikvah’s edge.
When the giyoret was immersed up to her neck, the Av Beit Din said, “My daughter, it is not the way of Yisrael to live in a house without a mezuzah.”
“Wherever you lodge, I shall lodge,” the young woman replied.
“We have many punishments and admonishments,” he warned.
“Your people shall be my people,” she rejoined.
“Taryag (613 mitzvot), and among them are even very difficult ones such as Shabbat or basar bichalav (the laws of meat and milk),” the dayan continued relentlessly.
“Your God is my God.”
She came out, toweled off, was provided with loose clothing, and reentered the water. But this time, she immersed in front of the dayanim. Standing in the water, she recited, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us regarding immersion.”
By this time, it was no longer clear if her face was wet from the mikvah- – or from the emotional tears streaming down her face. I finally understood the extra love which is given to geyrim. After all, there are thirty-six (and some say, forty-six) places where the Torah warns us about the ger, and the Rambam concludes simply that HaKadosh Baruch Hu loves geyrim.
In fact, my occasional visits to remote locations throughout the world has proven that, by definition, geyrei tzedek often support entire communities. During their conversion processes, these geyrim manage to accumulate knowledge that far surpasses their fellow congregants who are Jews-by-birth. Furthermore, the geyrim are remarkable for their pure faith and their intense desire to connect to their Creator.
Thus, my turn as a dayan at the giyur of the aforementioned Bat Avraham (daughter of Avraham) was an unforgettable experience. If only, I said to myself upon that memorable occasion, I too could aspire to reach those lofty heights of pride in being a Jew and that same exhilaration and delight in observing Hashem’s mitzvot, as I observed in that giyoret’s eyes.