Question: Does a Rabbi need to be present when a female convert immerses in the Mikvah? If not, how can a conversion without witnesses be Kosher?
Answer: In the Book of Leviticus [Lev. 5:1], the Torah talks about the sin of withholding testimony. It includes one who “although able to testify as one who has either seen or knows of the matter, does not give the information”. The Talmud [BT Shavuot 34a] elaborates upon this verse. “R. Jose the Galilean said… of such testimony as may be established by seeing without knowing, and by knowing without seeing, the verse deals.” This statement establishes the principle that one may be a witness to actions that one knows about without actually having seen the action, if the circumstances are such that one is absolutely certain that the testimony is true.
This principle has been applied to many areas of Jewish law. Ritual immersion is one such instance. The Talmud [BT Yevamot 45b] discusses the Jewish status of a woman who had not formally converted with a Bet Din, but who had immersed in a Mikvah. R. Yosef accepts her as a Jew. The Tosephot [10th-13th Century, mainly France and Germany] debate how the woman’s status could be confirmed. Even if she had previously immersed, the Bet Din did not witness the immersion! They suggest two possible answers: 1) a Bet Din is not required for every stage of the conversion. It is required when the convert accepts the obligation to observe the Mitzvot, but not for immersion in the Mikvah. 2) Even if the Bet Din is required for immersion, they don’t actually have to see the immersion. It is enough for the Bet Din to know for certain that the immersion took place for them to count as having witnessed the immersion.
This principle has also been evoked to certify the Kashrut of milk. The Mishnah [Avodah Zara 2:6] declares that one is not allowed to consume milk unless a Jew was present at the time of the milking. This is because milk from a non-Kosher animal could easily be mixed into the Kosher milk. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein [20th Century, USA] rules that in a country where the government conducts regular inspections, it is permitted to consume any milk. Since we rely on the government inspections we ‘know’ that the milk has not been mixed, and this counts as if we had witnessed the milking ourselves.
At the root of this question lies a deep philosophical issue – what does it mean to ‘know’ something? It is rare that we have the absolute certainty that comes from witnessing something ourselves. For society to function, we need a way to also accept ‘quite certain’ as being good enough. Jewish law is the law of life. It has established reasonable expectations of what needs to be done in order to know.
There are many different ways to ascertain that a proper immersion has taken place. Female witnesses that the Bet Din trusts are present at the immersion. Rabbis witness the convert entering the Mikvah room and subsequently returning with wet hair. As long as the Bet Din is convinced that a proper immersion took place, the conversion is Kosher.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
Based on Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe YD Part 1, 47.
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