Many reasons are given why it is customary to read Megillas Ruth on Shavuos. Some note that Shavuos is noted in the Torah as the Festival of Harvest (Chag Hakatzir), and the story of Ruth took place in thus period of the year (Abudraham). Others mention that the union of Ruth and Boaz initiated the immediate lineage of King David, as the Megillah itself mentions. Since David was born and died on Shavuos, it is the appropriate time to read about Ruth.
A third reason relates to the conversion of Ruth. The Gemara describes Matan Torah at Sinai as a mass conversion, and derives certain halachos of conversion from Sinai. The Gemara writes, citing Rebbi: “Just as your ancestors entered the covenant [at Sinai] through circumcision, ritual immersion and sacrifice, so too [future converts] enter the covenant through circumcision, ritual immersion and sacrifice” (Keritut 9a).
Ruth is presented by the Gemara (Yevamos 47b) as the archtypical convert, and several halachos are derived from the episode, such as the duty to attempt to dissuade the potential convert from his intention to convert, as Naomi tried to dissuade Ruth. Indeed, the whole conversation between the two is interpreted in halachic terms:
“When [Naomi] saw how determined she [Ruth] was to go with her, she ceased to argue with her (Ruth 1:18). Said Naomi: ‘We are forbidden to walk beyond the limit (techum) on Shabbos.’ Ruth replied ‘Where you walk, I will walk!’ (Naomi) ‘Yichud is forbidden to us.’ ‘(Ruth) Where you sleep I will sleep!’ (Naomi) ‘We have been given 613 commands.’ (Ruth) ‘Your people are my people!’ (Naomi) ‘We are prohibited from idol worship.’ (Ruth) ‘Your G-d is my G-d!’ (Naomi) ‘The Beis Din can issue the death sentence.’ (Ruth) ‘Where you die I shall die!’”
The present article will focus on some of the laws related to converts. To what degree must a person “love the convert”? Is there a mitzvah to accept converts? What are the family ties of a convert? What is his obligation to honor his biological parents? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Prohibition against Oppressing the Ger
The Pasuk in Shemos (22:20), and later in Vayikra (19:33-4) forbids us from oppressing the Ger: “You shall not wrong the Ger and you shall not oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” According to the Talmudic interpretation, this refers to a Ger Tzedek—a non-Jew who fully converted to Judaism. Thus, “Somebody who oppresses a Ger transgresses three prohibitions” (Bava Metzia 59b).
This interpretation is reflected by examples given by the Midrash of oppressing the Ger. The Sifra (Kedoshim 8:2-3) mentions, “You should not tell him: Yesterday you worshiped idols, and today you have entered under the canopy of the Shechinah… just as an ezrach refers to somebody who has accepted upon himself the entire Torah, so too the Ger refers to somebody who accepted upon himself the entire Torah.”
Although the Torah forbids the wronging and the oppression of every Jew, the verses add a special prohibition against wronging the Ger—the convert to Judaism—because of his special vulnerability and sensitivity (see Rambam, Lo Taaseh 253; Chinuch 63; Semag 172-3).
The Ger leaves his family and friends, and lacks the social protection that most of us enjoy. He cannot even make a permanent land acquisition (when there was yoveil) in the Land of Israel. The Torah recognizes his weakness and offers him special protection.
Love the Convert
In his letter to Obadiah the convert, the Rambam opens with words of praise that are generally not found in his other writings: “I received the question of the master Obadiah, the wise and learned convert, may Hashem reward him for his work, may a perfect recompense be bestowed upon him by the G-d of Israel, under whose wings he has sought cover.”
The Rambam’s admiration for the convert is apparent throughout the letter. After ruling that he can pray with the same words as a Jew from birth, the Rambam concludes with the following: “Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, you derive from Him through Whose word the world was created.”
In another letter to Obadiah, the Rambam reveals the core of our relationship with converts—a relationship of love: “Know that the obligation the Torah has placed upon us with respect to converts is great. With respect to father and mother, we have been commanded to honor and awe. With respect to prophets, [we are commanded] to obey them […] but concerning converts we have been commanded to love, something which is given over to the heart: ‘You shall love the convert.’”
The Rambam even compares love of the convert and the love of Hashem: “This is just as we have been commanded to love His Name: ‘You shall love Hashem, your G-d.’ The Holy One, blessed be He, loves the convert, as it says: ‘…and loves the convert, giving him food and clothing.’” This is repeated by the Rambam in Hilchos De’os (6:4). Although we are obligated to love every Jew, the obligation to love the convert is thus doubled.
Accepting Converts: A Mitzvah?
It is interesting to note that there appears to be no specific mitzvah to accept converts. Certainly, the concept does not appear in the Torah itself. However, the Gemara states (Yevamos 47b, in connection with the judicial process of accepting converts) of conversion that “one does not delay a mitzvah,” implying that accepting converts does fulfill a mitzvah (this is pointed out by the Rashbatz in Zohar Harakia). If no mitzvah is mentioned by the Torah, to which mitzvah does the Gemara refer?
Several approaches are suggested (see Shut Mishnah Halachos, Vol. 6, Yoreh De’ah 92; Sefas Emes, Shabbos 147b; Glosses of Rav Yosef Engel, Yevamos ibid; commentary of Rabbi Yehudah Perlow to Rasag, mitzvah 19). One, which is mentioned by Ri Albargaloni (cited by Rabbi Perlow), is that the acceptance of converts is included in the mitzvah to love the convert.
The love of a convert does not merely imply acting towards the convert with love—an obligation that applies to every Jew—but loving the convert for what he did, for the great act of coming under the wings of the Shechinah. It appears that this type of love includes even the mitzvah to accept converts: If the concept of conversion is dear to us, it follows that we are bound to accept converts.
At the same time, there are multiple factors that are relevant in accepting converts, and the full issue is beyond the scope of this article.
A question that is often asked on our site is whether a Ger must honor his biological parents. On the one hand, Chazal (Yevamos 97b) teach that a convert is considered a katan shenolad, a newborn baby who is no longer related (in a halachic sense) to his previous, non-Jewish family. On the other hand, in an emotional sense it is unrealistic for anybody to sever family ties, certainly in an instant of conversion.
The continuing family ties bring the Rambam (Mamrim 5:10) to rule that a convert may not curse or hit or humiliate his parents. He explains that doing so will give the impression (to the Ger himself) that his level of moral obligation has decreased since he became a Jew. Instead, he must treat his parents with “a small measure of honor.” The Shulchan Aruch cites the Rambam but omits these final words (Yoreh De’ah 241:9).
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shut Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:130) writes in explanation that although converts are not formally obligated to honor their parents, they are certainly required to do so as part of their basic positive character traits, such as gratitude (hakaras hatov). Gratitude to one’s parents is the reason why even a convert, who has no halachic ties to his parents, must still honor them.
Based on this idea, Rav Moshe explains the parameter of “a small measure of honor” as being the amount of honor that will not imply ingratitude.
Concerning mourning for a deceased parent or other family member, the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 274:5) rule that converts do not mourn for family members, even if those family members also converted to Judaism. Nonetheless, Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Vehanhagos Vol. 1, no. 684) ruled that where refraining from mourning will be offensive (such as a grandmother who underwent a Reform conversion) it is permitted to do so in order to preserve the dignity of the family.
Yichud with Family Members
The fact that converts are considered to be born anew, which means that in a halachic sense family relations are not considered to exist, raises a delicate question of yichud with biological parents, children and siblings. Since relatives are no longer considered to be related, it seems to follow that the restrictions of the laws of yichud will have to be observed between close family members, making it extremely difficult for a normal family to function post-conversion since, for example, a convert father will not be able to stay home alone with his convert daughter.
Different Poskim take different approaches to this question.
Shut Betzel Hachochmah (4:14) writes that when it comes to Torah law, one must be stringent about laws of yichud post-conversion. Although intuitively we might not perceive any difference between a regular Jewish child and that of a converted family—in both cases there is no concern for immodest misconduct—nonetheless the halacha follows its formal definitions, and therefore the Torah’s yichud prohibition stands.
Concerning rabbinic laws, however, the conclusion is that the Sages did not intend their prohibition for this circumstance. Therefore, where the situation is a Torah prohibition of yichud, one must be stringent, but one may be lenient for cases of rabbinic yichud (such as where there is one man and two women).
Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Vehanhagos 1:776) takes a more lenient approach. He notes that halacha does recognize a certain family tie even post-conversion, as we find in the laws of procreation (peru urvu)—somebody who had children before he converted fulfills the mitzvah, even though they are not his “halachic” children post-conversion. Moreover, the entire institution of yichud means to prevent improper behavior, which is why we find that exceptions are made where there is (virtually) no concern for this (such as for a brother and sister, or when a woman’s husband is in town).
Since the Torah only prohibits yichud in situations that may lead to inappropriate behavior, it follows that this does depend on the biological relationship between parents and siblings, rather than on the formal halachic status of the relationship.
A number of additional authorities are lenient on this subject (see Dvar Halachah, Hosafos Chadashos 7:19; Shut Shevet Halevi Vol. 9 no. 260; Nitei Gavriel no 14).
Positions of Authority
The Torah states that a King over Israel can only be appointed from “among your brothers,” meaning that a convert cannot be appointed king (Kiddushin 76b).
The Rambam (Melachim 1:4), based on the Gemara (see Kiddushin 76, Yevamos 45), extends this ruling to all positions of authority, not just to the king. This is reflected by the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 269) concerning the appointment of converts as judges: Although they can preside over cases of litigants who are themselves converts, a Ger may not preside over cases in which the litigants were born Jews.
Cases of a Ger who becomes a rabbinical judge is rare. Much more common are cases in which he wishes to enter some other position of authority. Where is the line drawn?
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Yoreh De’ah 4:26) writes that it is permitted for a Ger to serve as a rebbi in a school, as a mashgiach, and even as a Rosh Yeshiva. One argument he makes is that a Rosh Yeshiva does not carry any real authority, and his role is only one of facilitating: enabling students to study Torah. Another argument is that becoming a Rosh Yeshiva does not involve a formal communal appointment, so that the prohibition will not apply.
May we all merit to receive the Torah in purity, and to be born anew into our eternal covenant with Hashem.