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Acceptance of the mitzvot: On Shavuot, we are all proselytes

If you thought Jews are supposed to push away would-be converts, you'd be right -- and also wrong (in-depth analysis)

As we count the days towards the holiday of Shavuot and celebrating kabbalat ha-mitzvot, acceptance of the Torah’s commandments, it is a good time to discuss the conversion process which requires that the prospective proselyte accept upon himself observance of the mitzvot; if he fails to do so, his conversion is invalid. In this lecture we shall deal with the proselyte’s obligation to accept the mitzvot, both ideally (lekhatchila) and after the fact (bedi’eved).

Acceptance of the mitzvot as a requirement for conversion follows from the Gemara in Yebamot:

Our Rabbis have taught: If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, we say to him as follows: “What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte; do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?” If he replies: “I know and yet am unworthy,” he is immediately accepted, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments. He is informed of the sin [of the neglect of the commandments of] gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, the corner and the poor man’s tithe.[1] He is also told of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments. Furthermore, we say to him as follows: “Be it known to you that before you came to this condition, if you had eaten forbidden fat you would not have been liable to excision, if you had profaned the Sabbath you would not have been liable to death by stoning; but now were you to eat forbidden fat you would be liable to excision; were you to profane the Sabbath you would be liable to death by stoning.” And as he is informed of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments, so is he informed of the reward granted for their fulfillment… He is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much. If he accepted, he is immediately circumcised… As soon as he is healed, he undergoes immediate immersion [in a mikve]. Two Torah scholars must stand by his side and acquaint him with some of the minor commandments and with some of the major ones. When he comes up after his immersion he is deemed to be a Jew in all respects. (Yevamot 47a-47b)

It follows from this Gemara that the prospective proselyte is twice informed about acceptance of the mitzvot: once when he first comes to become a proselyte, in order to examine how well he understands the significance of joining the Jewish people and how prepared he is to do so; and a second time when he immerses in a mikve, as part of the conversion process itself.

The Gemara in Bekhorot says that if the prospective proselyte refuses to accept some of the mitzvot, he cannot become a proselyte:

A idolater who comes to accept the [entire] Torah except for one thing – we do not accept him. R. Yose bar Yehuda says: Even a single detail of rabbinic law. (Bekhorot 30b)

We see then that, at least lekhatchila, acceptance of the mitzvot is an indispensable requirement for conversion. What, however, is the law bedi’eved, if a person already underwent the conversion process, but failed to accept upon himself observance of the mitzvot? Let us open the discussion with what the Rambam says on this issue:

Do not think that Shimshon, the savior of Israel, or Shelomo, the king of Israel, who was called ‘the beloved of God,’ married foreign, gentile women. Rather, the truth of the matter is as follows: The proper procedure is that when a male or female convert comes to convert, we check him to see if perhaps he has come to join the religion because of money that he will receive or for a certain position that he will attain, or because of fear. If he is a man, we check him to see if he desired a certain Jewish woman, and if she is a woman, we check to see if perhaps she desired a man among Jewish men. If no ulterior motive is found, we inform them of the weight of the yoke of Torah and the burden involved in its performance among the masses, in order that they will renege. If they accepted and did not retreat, and we saw them return [from idolatry] with love, we accept them, as it says, “She saw how determined she was to go with her, and she ceased to argue with her.”

Therefore, the court did not accept converts throughout the period of David and Shelomo: during the time of David — lest they returned out of fear; during the time of Shelomo — lest they returned because of the kingship and the goodness and greatness with which Israel lived, for whoever returns from idolatry for any of the vanities of the world is not among the righteous converts. Nevertheless, there were many converts who converted during the period of David and Shelomo before untrained [courts]. The High Court was suspicious of them: they did not reject them, as they had, after all, immersed [for purposes of conversion], nor did they embrace them until they would see what would eventually happen.”[2]

Since Shelomo converted women and married them, and Shimshon, too, converted [women] and married [them], and it was known that these [women] returned [from idolatry] only for a specific motive, and they were not converted by the authorization of the court, Scripture considered them gentiles who remained forbidden [for a Jew to marry]. What more, the way they turned out proved their initial motives, for they worshipped their gods and built for themselves private altars, and Scripture considered him [Shelomo] as having himself built them, as it says: “Then did Shelomo construct an altar.”

A convert who was not checked or was not informed of the commandments and their punishment, and was circumcised and immersed in the presence of three standard judges is a convert, even if it becomes known that he converted for some ulterior motive. Since he was circumcised and immersed, he is divested of the status  of gentiles, and we are suspicious of him until his righteousness is affirmed.[3] Even if he again worships idols, he is like a Jewish apostate whose betrothals are valid and whose lost items there is a mitzva to return. Since he immersed, he becomes the same as a Jew. Shimshon and Shelomo therefore kept their wives even though their true nature was revealed.

For this reason the Sages have said: Converts are difficult for Israel like a plague of leprosy. For most of them return for some ulterior motive, and deceive Israel, and it is difficult to separate from them after they have converted. (Rambam, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’a 13:14-18)

Some of the Rambam’s commentators have understood from what he says here that, bedi’eved, acceptance of the mitzvot is not an indispensable requirement for conversion.[4] It may perhaps be suggested that, according to the Rambam, acceptance of the mitzvot is not an element of the conversion process itself, but only a preparatory stage, intended to test the proselyte’s motivation. Other authorities have understood that, even according to the Rambam, acceptance of the mitzvot is indispensable. What is not necessary, bedi’eved, is offering the proselyte detailed information and explanation regarding the mitzvot.[5]

In any event, other Rishonim have explicitly ruled that acceptance of the mitzvot is indeed an indispensable requirement for conversion. Thus writes the Shulchan Arukh:

All matters pertaining to a proselyte — informing him of the mitzvot that he may accept them, circumcision, as well as immersion — must be [performed] in the presence of three who are fit to judge and during the day. This, however, is only lekhatchila, but bedi’eved, if [the proselyte] underwent circumcision or immersion in the presence of two or at night… he is a [valid] proselyte and may marry a Jewess. This is with the exception of accepting the mitzvot, which invalidates the conversion if not performed during the day and in the presence of three [judges]. (Shulkhan Arukh 268:3)[6]

In actual practice, more recent authorities have been inclined to rule that acceptance of the mitzvot is an indispensable requirement for conversion. Rav Goren relied on this ruling even when it led to a leniency. He ruled that a certain set of siblings were not to be considered mamzerim, because their father, who claimed to be a convert, had never properly accepted the mitzvot, and so he was not a Jew.

Mention should be made of a sole dissenting opinion of Rav Uziel, who went as far as to say that acceptance of the mitzvot is not required even lekhatchila (lekhatchila, the prospective proselyte must be informed about the mitzvot, but he is not required to accept their observance):

From here it explicitly follows that we do not require of him to observe the mitzvot, and the court need not even know that he will observe them. For were this not true, converts would never be accepted, for who can guarantee that this non-Jew will be faithful to all the mitzvot of the Torah. We inform him about some of the mitzvot so that he may abandon [the conversion], if he so desires, and so that he not be able to say later that had he known, he would never have converted. This is lekhatchila, but bedi’eved, the failure to inform him does not invalidate [the conversion]. We learn from al that has been stated that accepting the observance of the mitzvot is not an indispensable requirement for conversion, even lekhatchila. (Piskei Uzi’el, no. 65)


We have seen above that if a proselyte accepts that he will observe all the mitzvot except for one, this is not regarded as a valid acceptance of the mitzvot.[7] Responsa Achi’ezer limits the application of this law:

It appears that this law — that if a non-Jew who wishes to become a proselyte accepts all the mitzvot except for a single detail of rabbinic law, we do not accept him — only applies where he stipulates that he does not accept [that one detail] and that it should be permitted to him by right. In such a case, we do not accept him, for conditions may not be attached to conversion, and there is no half conversion. If, however, he accepts upon himself all the mitzvot, but he intends to violate [a certain law] to gratify his appetite, this is not regarded as a deficiency in his acceptance of the mitzvot. (Responsa Achi’ezer, III, no. 26).

Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses the case of a woman who at the time of her conversion had considered the possibility of working on an upcoming Yom Tov, for fear that otherwise she would be fired. He too presents a similar argument:

It stands to reason based on the implication of certain passages that if a proselyte accepts all the mitzvot, but tells the court that while he accepts all the mitzvot, he knows that he would not be able to stand the test and suffer martyrdom were he coerced to violate a prohibition, for which one is required to suffer martyrdom rather than violate – this is regarded as acceptance of the mitzvot. For she accepted the obligation to observe the mitzvot when she can, namely, when she is not being coerced otherwise. The fact that she will violate a prohibition is because she does not have the strength to stand the test, even though she would like to observe the mitzva and not commit a transgression… It stands to reason that the same law applies in the case where he says that he will not be able to stand the test of financial loss. (Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Yore De’a, III, no. 108)

The Iggerot Moshe has another novel position regarding conversion. In the course of a discussion regarding a woman who underwent conversion before a Conservative court, the Iggerot Moshe writes as follows:

Furthermore, there is room to say that the fact that her husband, for the sake of whom she underwent conversion, desecrates the Sabbath and acts in a wanton manner regarding various prohibitions, causes her to think that there is no real obligation to observe the mitzvot. Thus, she is like a proselyte who converts [to Judaism] while among idolaters, whom the Gemara in Shabbat (68) says is regarded as a convert, even though he still practices idolatry. The reason is that he accepts to be like all the Jews, this being regarded as acceptance [of the mitzvot], even though he knows nothing of the mitzvot. For knowing the mitzvot is not indispensable for conversion… Therefore, even though the court told her that she must observe the Sabbath, she thinks that this is merely an added adornment, but even one who does not observe the Sabbath or the like, she mistakenly believes to be a kosher Jew. (Iggerot Moshe, Yore De’a, I, no. 160)[8]

According to the Iggerot Moshe, the essence of accepting the yoke of the mitzvot is the desire “to be like all the Jews” – that is, “to be a good Jew.” If the proselyte believes that even a good Jew is not required to observe all the mitzvot, there is no deficiency in his acceptance of themitzvot. Clearly, however, this argument cannot stand on its own; it is brought merely as a supporting argument in a bedi’eved situation.

The Seridei Esh relates to the case of a Jew who had been living with a non-Jewess by way of a civil marriage, and now his wife wishes to convert. While he is inclined to be stringent, the Seridei Esh writes that such a case should be regarded as a situation of great need [she’at ha-dechak], and there are authorities upon whom to rely for leniency, under certain conditions:

…Nevertheless, many authorities incline toward leniency where he had married her civilly, for she can prevent him from marrying another woman, if she does not want to be divorced from him, and so it is a situation of great need, which is treated like a case of bedi’eved… The main thing is that they must know that at the very least she will accept upon herself to observe the laws of family purity, the Sabbath, and forbidden foods, and that she will commit herself in writing to observe all these things. In such a case, they may convert her. (Responsa Seridei Esh, II, no. 75).


Yet another acute issue that arises in this context is that of “thoughts of the heart.” What is the law in the case of a proselyte who proclaims his intention to observe the mitzvot, but in his heart does not really intend to do so? The Gemara states that even if it becomes clear that a proselyte had converted for some ulterior motive, his conversion is nevertheless valid:

Both a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a woman and a woman who became a proselyte for the sake of a man, and, similarly, a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a royal board, or for the sake of joining Shelomo’s servants, are no proper proselytes; these are the words of Rabbi Nechemya. For Rabbi Nechemya used to say: Neither lion-proselytes, nor dream-proselytes nor the proselytes of Mordekhai and Esther are proper proselytes unless they become converted at the present time. How can it be said, “at the present time?” Say “as at the present time!” Surely concerning this it was stated that Rabbi Yitzchak bar Shemuel bar Marta said in the name of Rav: The law is in accordance with the opinion of him who maintains that they were all proper proselytes. (Yevamot 24b)[9]

It would seem that we should conclude from this passage that we do not consider the ulterior motives of proselytes who convert for some other reason and have no intention of observing the mitzvot. For our part, if they have undergone the process of conversion, they are regarded, bedi’eved, as full-fledged Jews. The author of Responsa Bet Yitzchak, however, writes differently:

Regarding the matter itself that if a proselyte converted for the sake of some benefit, the law is that they are all proper converts – the Ritva writes in the name of the Ramban that the reason is that since they converted and accepted [the mitzvot] upon themselves, the presumption is that because of their compulsion, they decided to accept [the mitzvot]… this proves that in any event they must accept the mitzvot with a genuine heart. This is not the case where a person converts only on the outside, but his heart is not with him to maintain observance of the mitzvot, and we know that he intends even afterwards to have relations with a menstruant woman, to profane the Sabbath, and to eat non-kosher food. His conversion is not valid, and the idea that “thoughts of the heart are of no consequence” does not apply… For it is different there, where it is an interpersonal matter… and in interpersonal matters, thoughts of the heart are of no consequence. This is not the case where a proselyte converts and accepts upon himself the yoke of mitzvot. If in his heart, he has no intention to observe them, the Merciful One seeks the heart, and the conversion is invalid. (Responsa Bet Yitzchak, Yore De’a, II, no. 100)

According to the Bet Yitzchak, the Gemara is dealing with the case of a proselyte who converts for some ulterior motive, but once he converts fully intends to observe the mitzvot. But if at the time of his conversion, the proselyte knows that he has no intention of observing the mitzvot, his conversion has no validity whatsoever. And indeed, on the theoretical level, it is very easy to distinguish between the motivation for conversion and the question whether the proselyte accepts upon himself to observe the mitzvot.

There is, however, another novelty in the position of the Bet Yitzchak, namely, that the rule that “thoughts of the heart are of no consequence” does not apply to conversion. This is by no means necessary. Thus, even if the Gemara in Yevamot does not prove that bedi’eved, even if a proselyte had no inner intention to observe the mitzvot, his conversion is nevertheless valid – there is still room for leniency based on the principle that “thoughts of the heart are of no consequence.” Indeed, many authorities, including R. Kook, reject this novel position of the Bet Yitzchak:

As long as the [proselyte’s] verbal acceptance was proper, we are not concerned by his inner thoughts, which are of no consequence whatsoever. Even if he comes before us and tells us that his inner thoughts were different than what he had expressed with his mouth, we do not care about his inner thoughts. (Responsa Da’at Kohen, no. 153)

According to this understanding, there is room for great leniency on the practical level in cases where the proselyte declares that it is his intention to observe the mitzvot, even if it is later proven that he had lied. This, however, is only true when the proselyte’s reservations about observing the mitzvot fall into the category of “thoughts of the heart.” There are, however, cases where it is clear that he is lying, and in our “clear assessment” (umdena demukhach), he has no intention to observe the mitzvot. In such a case, the Iggerot Moshe rules that his conversion is invalid:

Regarding the matter about which you were in doubt, whether a proselyte who failed to accept the mitzvot is regarded as a proselyte – it is clear and simple that he is not at all a proselyte, even bedi’eved, and so ruled my father and master, ztz”l, in actual practice… Even if he states that he accepts the mitzvot, if we are witnesses [anan sahadi] that he is not truly accepting [the mitzvot], it is nothing. The case of conversion for the sake of marriage which, bedi’eved, is valid is where for the sake of marriage he truly accepts upon himself the mitzvot. (Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Yore De’a, I, no. 157)

However, R. David Tzvi Hoffmann classified a similar case as “thoughts of the heart” that have no legal consequence. He was dealing with a case of a non-Jewess who had married a kohen, and now wishes to convert. The question arose whether she may be accepted as a convert, when we know that she will continue to live with the kohen, to whom she is forbidden:

Truly, if she states explicitly that she does not want to accept this mitzva, it is forbidden to accept her. But in the case under discussion, she does not state this explicitly. Thus, even though we know that she will violate this prohibition, nevertheless, for the benefit of the kohenand for the benefit of his children, we accept her. (Responsa Melamed Leho’il, III, no. 8)

When R. Goren was asked about a proselyte who wished to live in a secular kibbutz, he sent his representatives to examine whether it was technically possible for the proselyte to obtain kosher food and observe the mitzvot on the kibbutz. Since it is technically possible, we cannot apply the principle of anan sahadi – we are witnesses, since there is no absolute certainty that she is lying.[10]

Translated by David Strauss

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VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har EtzionThis article was reposted with permission from the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. It is part of a  series “Topics in Halakha“. To sign up for this series or other VBM courses, click here.

If you found this shiur interesting, you may also enjoy Rabbi Chaim Navon’s article on Prophecy and the Revelation at Sinai 


[1] Rashi explains that since financial considerations are very important to a non-Jew, the prospective proselyte may decide not to convert when he hears that he will have to give the various gifts to the poor.

[2] In light of what he says in the continuation, this should perhaps be understood to mean that we do not embrace them, but nevertheless they are regarded as Jews.

[3] Here too we may interpret “we are suspicious of him” to mean, not that we invalidate his conversion bedi’eved, but that we examine him to see whether he is a good Jew, without this having any ramifications regarding the validity of his conversion. This does have ramifications regarding his credibility regarding forbidden foods, and the like. See Respona Da’at Kohen, no. 153.

[4] See, for example, Maggid Mishne, ad loc., halakha 17.

[5] Responsa Chemdat Shelomo, Yore De’a, no. 29, letter 22; Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Yore De’a, I, no. 159. The author of Chemdat Shelomo writes that, according to the Rambam, immersion in a mikve before a rabbinic court for the purpose of conversion constitutes implicit acceptance of the mitzvot. The Iggerot Moshe understands that the wives of Shelomo and Shimshon returned to their idol worship only much later, and so their later conduct proved nothing about their original intentions. This is not true regarding a proselyte who immediately turns to idol worship, in which case the conversion is invalid (Iggerot Moshe, Yore De’a, III, no. 108).

[6] Afterwards, the Shulchan Arukh cites also the words of the Rambam, a fact that supports the Acharonim who understood that the Rambam agrees that acceptance of the mitzvot is an indispensable requirement for conversion, even bedi’eved.

[7] The Acharonim disagree about such a case whether or not the conversion is valid bedi’eved. See: Techumin XIX, p. 120.

[8] See what he says in Iggerot Moshe, Yore De’a, III, no. 106.

[9] Later in the passage, it is stated explicitly that this allowance is bedi’eved, but lekhatchila, they should not be accepted as converts in such a case.

[10] R. Yisrael Rosen, Techumin XXIII, p. 200.


About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Navon teaches Gemara and Jewish thought in Herzog College at Yeshivat Har Etzion and at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an author of several series of shiurim online at the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. Rabbi Navon authored a number of books including: Caught in the Thicket: An Introduction to the Thought of Rav Soloveitchik. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion from 1992 to 2004 and received rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.
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