A Classic Debate
In March 2019 for the first time I was asked to rule on a classic and very beautiful issue in Halachah. A convert who had undergone his Brit Milah and was waiting to recover until he was ready for his Tevilah to complete his conversion asked if he was permitted to observe Shabbat during this interim period. It turns out that there is considerable discussion of this topic in the Teshuvot of the past two hundred years.
The Argument Forbidding Full Shemirat Shabbat
An argument can easily be made to forbid Shabbat observance in such circumstances. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 58b) writes that it is forbidden for a non-Jew to observe Shabbat. This is understandable in light of the fact that Shabbat represents the special Brit between the Jewish Nation and Hashem (Shemot 31:16-17); it is improper for an outsider to intrude on this special relationship. Hence, it has emerged as the standard practice for a conversion candidate, while on the one hand practicing full observance of Shabbat, to also perform one act of violation of Shabbat as well (such as turning on a light)1.
The Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 13:6), in turn, rules that one is not a convert unless he performs both Milah (for a male, of course) and Tevilah. Thus, it would seem that since Tevilah has yet to be performed in a case such as ours, one remains a non-Jew who is forbidden to observe Shabbat.
The Common Practice – Full Shabbat Observance
However, Teshuvot Binyan Tzi’on (91) and Teshuvot Avnei Neizer (Yoreh Dei’ah 151) record the common practice in such situations to not require the candidate to violate Shabbat2. What is the Halachic reasoning for this practice?
The basis for this practice seems to lie in a comment of Rashba to Yevamot 71a, who states that after the Brit Milah, for the purpose of conversion the candidate has “partially entered into the realm of Dat Yehudit (Judaism)”. Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzva 14, as noted by my dear Talmid and colleague Rav David Nachbar) and Teshuvot Radbaz (number 917) indicate that they subscribe to the Rashba’s approach.
An Explanation for the Common Practice – Partial Status as a Jew
How can one be partially Jewish? Isn’t one either totally Jewish or not totally Jewish? The answer may be derived from an interesting approach articulated by Rav Yoseif Dov Soloveitchik (cited in Mesorah 5:60-61).
The Rishonim (see Rashi to Yevamot 46 s.v. Be’Avoteinu SheMalu, Tosafot Pesachim 22a s.v. VeRabi Shimon and Ramban to VaYikra 24:10) debate as to whether the Avot had the status of Bnei Yisrael or Bnei No’ach. Rav Soloveitchik, though, understands that the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 9:1-3) develops a more nuanced approach.
Rav Soloveitchik notes that our Kedushat Yisrael derives from the fact that we are obligated in Mitzvot. This is readily apparent from the Berachot we recite on Mitzvot in which we state “Asher Kideshanu BeMitzvotav VeTzivanu”, “Who has sanctified us through His Mitzvot.” It is His Mitzvot which make us holy and confer upon us Kedushat Yisrael3.
Accordingly, argues Rav Soloveitchik, the Avot enjoyed partial Kedushat Yisrael, since they accepted more Mitzvot than the Bnei No’ach. Their having been commanded to perform Mila, for example, confers added Kedushah. The Avot were not, however, endowed with full Kedushat Yisrael, since they were not commanded in all of the Mitzvot.
A fundamentally important component of Rav Soloveitchik’s Hashkafah is the rejection of binary thinking. While Aristotle believed in a theory of either-or, Torah ideology rejects this limited and primitive form of categorization. For example, Rav Soloveitchik was fond of quoting Ritva to Yoma 47b, who said that the time period between sunset and nightfall, referred to in the Gemara (Shabbat 34a) as Bein HaShemashot, has the status of being both night and day (not that it is perhaps one or the other, but that it is certainly both).
Accordingly, the attack we posed above – either one is Jewish or not Jewish – is an invalid one. One can indeed be, in the Halachic worldview, simultaneously both Jewish and non-Jewish or partially Jewish4.
Between Milah and Tevilah
With this, we understand the comment of Rashba that after Brit Milah for the purpose of conversion one has partially entered Dat Yehudit. The convert who is between Milah and Tevilah enjoys the same status as the Avot. Just as the Avot accepted the Mitzvah of Milah and observed the rest of the Mitzvot voluntarily, according to the Gemara (Kiddushin 82a), so too the male convert may observe other Mitzvot voluntarily in this interim period.
Thus, just as the Avot presumably fully observed Shabbat during this period5, so too may the convert fully observe Shabbat during the period between Milah and Tevilah. And as noted by the Teshuvot Binyan Tzion, just as the convert has entered Brit Milah, it makes sense to argue they have entered the Brit of Shabbat as well.
An Added Consideration
As an added consideration to permit Shabbat observance on the part of a convert between Milah and Tevilah, we may note that while it is accepted practice for a conversion candidate to perform one act of Shabbat violation, it is not absolutely clear from the Rishonim that he is obligated to do so. For example, the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 10:11) couples the prohibition for a non-Jew to observe Shabbat with the prohibition for a non-Jew to study Torah6; the common practice, of course, is for conversion candidates to study Torah. This is obvious, as noted by the Maharsha to Shabbat 31a, from the famous stories in the Gemara which relate that Hillel taught conversion candidates before they formally converted. Accordingly, just as the conversion candidate, even pre-Brit Milah, studies Torah, he should be permitted to observe Shabbat even pre-Brit Milah (let alone between Milah and Tevilah).
Moreover, the reason for these prohibitions, explains the Rambam, is that we do not want people making a religion
of their own where they pick and choose the Mitzvot they wish to observe. Mitzvot are an exercise in obedience to Hashem’s command and not a smorgasbord of spiritual delights from which one chooses to engage. The conversion candidate is fully immersed in the process of preparing to accept all of the Mitzvot and is not by any means trying to create a “new religion”, in the words of the Rambam. Thus, one may make a sound argument permitting full Shabbat observance on the part of a conversion candidate even before he undergoes Brit Milah. He certainly should be permitted to do so after the Brit Milah.
Conclusion – Converts: An Inspiration to all Jews
Rav Zvi Romm, the Av Beit Din of Manhattan Beit Din for Conversion, informs me that there are thousands of top quality mainstream Orthodox Geirim worldwide who are making serious contributions to the Jewish community. Their commitment to Shabbat specifically and Torah in general is nothing less than breathtaking. The mainstream Orthodox conversion process is not an easy one, and requires a candidate to be resolute in his or her commitment to full Torah observance. The appreciation, recognition, and cherishing of the Keter Torah (crown of Torah) which characterizes these Geirim should inspire all of us. Their deep desire to observe Shabbat should and must serve to motivate all Jews to deepen their love, and embrace, of Shabbat and the rest of Torah.
1 Joel Mizrahi of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, asked if it is necessary for the act to constitute a Torah level prohibition. For example, turning on an LED light does not constitute a Torah level prohibition according to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1:9-12). However, it seems that the Minhag is not to be particular that the one act of Chillul Shabbat should constitute a Torah level prohibition. Rav Michoel Zylberman, the head of the GPS Geirut system in North America, informs me that Rav Schachter is inclined to require that the non-Jew violate a Torah-level prohibition of Shabbat.
2 These Poskim even argue for the possibility that the candidate should be required to observe Shabbat during this time period.
3 I heard Rav Soloveitchik similarly remark that the added Kedushah of Kohanim derives from the fact that they are obligated in more Mitzvot. We should note that Jewish women and men enjoy equal Kedushat Yisrael, despite women’s exemption from time-bound positive Mitzvot. This is readily apparent from Shemot 19:3 (with Rashi), as the Torah states that the Brit Sinai was conducted equally between men and women. This Pasuk in the context of Brit Sinai states “Ko Tomar LeVeit Ya’akov VeTageid LiVnei Yisrael,” “Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob and speak to the Children of Israel.” According to Rashi (following Chazal) Beit Ya’akov refers to the female members of the Jewish people and Bnei Yisrael refers to the Jewish men; both groups are inducted, as complete equals, into the higher-Kedushah status of Am Yisrael.
4 For further evidence that the Rambam subscribes to the notion of partial status as a Jew, see Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 12:11 and Hilchot Mechusarei Kaparah 1:2. For further analysis, see my Hebrew language essays that appear in Yeshiva University’s Beit Yitzchak 24:425-427 and 28:331-333.
5 See Rav J. David Bleich (Tradition Spring 1991 46-62) who summarizes the rich rabbinic literature that addresses this issue.
6 Rav Michoel Zylberman the head of the GPS Geirut system in North America informs me that Rav Gedalia Schwartz, the Av Beit Din of the Beit Din of America does not think that a Geirut candidate should be required to violate Shabbat. Rav Asher Bush, the Av Beit Din of the Bergen County Geirut Beit Din told me that this was the position of Rav Melech Schachter as well.