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How should we treat potential converts?

Iyar 5783 | May 2023


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How should we treat potential converts? | Sefaria

Do we need to turn potential converts away?

In the beginning of Megillat Ruth, as Naomi leaves Moav and heads back to Beit Lechem, she tells her daughters in law, Ruth and Orpah three times to go back home:

“Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law: ‘Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May God deal kindly with you, as you have dealt kindly with the dead and with me!’”[1]

“Naomi said: ‘Turn back, my daughters. Why should you come with me?’”[2]

“Turn back my daughters, go along…”[3]

Orpah does go back home but Ruth stands strong. At that point, Naomi stops trying to dissuade her:

“When she saw that she (Ruth) was determined to go with her, she stopped arguing with her.”[4]

We are taught in Ruth Rabba:

“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yudin B’Rabbi Chanina: ‘Turn back’ is written three times corresponding to the three times that we rebuff a potential convert; but if he persists after that, he is accepted.”[5]

The Babylonian Talmud discusses the process of conversion in Yevamot, also mentioning that potential converts are not immediately accepted:

“The master said in the Braita: When a prospective convert comes to convert to Judaism, we say to him: ‘What did you see that prompted you to come to convert?’ And we inform him of some minor mitzvot and some major mitzvot. What is the reason for discouraging him? It is so that if he abandons his attempt to convert, let him abandon it!… But we do not overwhelm him and we are not too strict with him.”[6]

The gemara does not mention turning potential converts away three times, nor does Rambam or Shulchan Aruch.

According to Rambam, when a prospective convert comes to convert we inspect their motives for conversion…. If we find no ulterior motive, we inform them how difficult it is to observe the Torah. If they are still interested and we see that they are motivated by love, we accept them, as we read in Megillat Ruth, “When she [Naomi] saw that she [Ruth] was determined to go with her, she stopped arguing with her.”[7] Later he explains that it’s unnecessary to  teach them all of the particulars right away.[8]

Similarly, Shulchan Aruch teaches that if converts are sincere then we allow them to convert and teach them the laws:

“When a person comes to convert we ask them, ‘What motivated you to convert? Don’t you know that at this time Israel is lost and overwhelmed and persecuted, afflicted by suffering?’ If they say, ‘I know and I am not deserving to join with them,’ then we receive them immediately and teach them the principles of the religion… and a few minor mitzvot and a few weightier mitzvot and let him know some of the punishments…”[9]

The Shach (Siftei Kohen) explains that the convert is not informed of all of the details of the punishments, but rather they’re given a general idea. They’re told that before conversion if they ate chelev (prohibited animal suet) or violated shabbat they were not liable for death, but after they will be. He explains that they don’t need to know all the details of the prohibitions “because their intention may be for the sake of Heaven,” indicating that too many details might scare off even pious converts, and that is not the intention.[10]

What about in the future? Will we continue to accept converts in the days of the Mashiach?

We learn in the Talmud:

“It was taught in a Braita: Rabbi Yossi said: In the future to come, the idolaters will come and convert. The Gemara asks: But will we accept converts from among the nations at that time? It was taught in a Braita: We will not accept converts in the Messianic era. Similarly, they did not accept converts, neither during the time period of King David nor during the time period of King Solomon.”[11]

Rambam teaches that a potential convert’s motives are examined to make sure that they are not coming for the sake of financial gain, in order to receive a position of authority, or to enter our faith because of fear. He explains that the court did not accept converts in David’s time because of a suspicion that they were motivated by fear, as David won many battles and conquered lands; in Solomon’s time the suspicion was that they were motivated by the prosperity which Israel enjoyed. A gentile should want to convert for the right reasons. If they are motivated by the fleeting pleasures of this world  they are not a righteous convert.[12]

According to Rashi, those who were part of the Jewish people during the difficult times of the galut (exile) will merit to be with them during the geula (redemption). If someone converts to Judaism when times are difficult, it is clear that they did not convert in order to become part of a prosperous nation.[13] When there are no this-worldly benefits to conversion it’s clearer that the conversion is lishma, for its own sake.

It is understandable that we want the Jewish nation to be made up of those who are with us through thick and thin and not just in it for the good times.

Does Judaism have something against converts?

The braita brings a reason for trying to dissuade converts:

“…As Rabbi Ḥelbo said: Converts are as harmful to the Jewish people as a scab of tzara’at (sappaḥat of a spiritual disease) on the skin, as it is written: ‘And the convert shall join himself with them, and they shall cleave (venispeḥu) to the house of Jacob.” .[14]

This braita views converts negatively. Why?

Rambam  explains that because many converts convert for an ulterior motive they later lead Jews astray. However, once they have converted they are a part of the Jewish people that can’t easily be separated. He brings the example of the Eirev Rav, the mixed multitude who left Egypt with the Children of Israel; they initiated most of Israel’s sins in the wilderness.[15]

According to Rashi, the issue is that other Jewish people may learn from the habits and customs of the past lives the convert “holds on” to or the convert may not be knowledgeable enough to properly observe mitzvot and other Jews may accidentally transgress because they relied on this convert’s flawed mitzvah observance. While Rambam indicates that sincere converts are not an issue, Rashi seems to have a problem with sincere converts as well, at least those who have trouble leaving their past behind or mastering halakhic practice.[16]

Avraham HaGeir (the Convert) was a polemicist against Christians;  he was killed al Kiddush HaShem (sanctifying God’s name). He is quoted once in the commentary of Tosafot, who bring his explanation of this statement. It seems he was offended by previous interpretations. He explained that sincere converts are often more knowledgeable and meticulous in their mitzvah observance than those who are born Jewish. They are excited about taking on new mitzvot and do so with gusto. This makes people who are born Jewish look bad since it reminds God that they don’t always do His will.[17]

How does this impact conversion in Israel today?

Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum explains:

“Although Mashiach has not yet arrived, the sovereignty of Israel lives and endures. Israel is a military, scientific and economic powerhouse and many good people would like to become citizens and residents. On the one hand it seems that we are already in the process of redemption and the Days of Mashiach. On the other hand, there are also many people living in the State of Israel who are not Jewish according to halakha but they came to Israel and bear the burden of the nation- they serve in the army, they suffer when we do, they feel a part of the nation and the land, and most importantly – they feel Jewish in every way. With their body and soul they observe the words of Ruth : ‘For wherever you go, I will go” on behalf of the God of Israel and the Torah of Israel, and even “where you die, I will die” on behalf of the nation and homeland.”[18]

The topic of conversion in Israel today is a very complex issue. There are those who agree with Rabbi Birnbaum and feel that those living in Israel are not just here for the good times and should therefore be given easier access to the conversion process and there are those who are hesitant to accept anyone who do not already show immense dedication, thorough knowledge of Torah and Judaism, and meticulously observe all mitzvot.  The world we live in today is very different to that of Ruth and Naomi, Rabbi Helbo, Rambam, and Rabbi Yehuda HaGer. It’s clear that the standards for converts are very different now than they were in the past, and the bar is set much higher. Setting the bar too high may lead to major demographic issues in Israel, setting the bar too low may lead to major spiritual issues within the Jewish People. But as Rav Birnbaum points out, there are aspects of being part of the Jewish People beyond Shabbat and kashrut that should be taken into consideration when making these decisions.


[1] Ruth 1:8

[2] Ruth 1:11

[3] Ruth 1:12

[4] Ruth 1:18

[5] Ruth Rabba 2:16 (translation Soncino Press p. 36)

[6] Yevamot 47b (translation Artscroll Schottenstein)

[7]  1:18

[8]  Rambam, Hilchot Isurei Biah 13:14 (translation Sefaria Eliyahu Touger Moznaim Publishing)

[9] Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:2 (translation Sefaria community)

[10] Shach on Sulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:2

[11] Avoda Zara 3b (translation Artscroll Schottenstein) and there is a similar statement in Yevamot 24b

[12] Rambam, Hilchot Isurei Biah 13:14-15 (translation Sefaria Eliyahu Touger Moznaim Publishing); verse Yishayahu 14:1

[13] Rashi, Yishayahu 54:15

[14] Yevamot 47b (Translation Sefaria, The William Davidon Talmud Koren-Steinsaltz)

[15] Rambam, Hilchot Isurei Biah 13:18

[16] Rashi, TB Yevamot 47b

[17] Tosafot Kidushin 70b-71a

[18] Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum “HaGeirim Shelo Yitkablu Bi’Yimot HaMashiach Shabbaton HaShavua Oct. 6, 2021

Sharona Margolin Halickman

is a graduate (2019) of the Matan Bellows Educators Institute. She is currently studying in Hilkhata - Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute. Sharona is the founder and director of Torat Reva Yerushalayim and teaches at Machon LeMadrichei Chutz La’Aretz.