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Shabbat Between Milah and Tevilah

A Classic Debate

In March 2019, for the first time, I was asked to rule on a classic and very beautiful issue in halacha. 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 200 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).

The Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Biah 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 Shabbat. 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 (Mitzvah 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 Yosef 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 Noach. 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 brachot we recite on mitzvot in which we state “…asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu, Who has sanctified us through His Mitzvot.” It is His mitzvot that make us holy and confer upon us kedushat Yisrael.

Accordingly, argues Rav Soloveitchik, the Avot enjoyed partial kedushat Yisrael since they accepted more mitzvot than the bnei Noach. Their having been commanded to perform mila, for example, confers added kedusha. 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 hashkafa 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 Jewish.

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 period, 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.

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) that 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.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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