A Question of Jewish Law

January 28, 2016

30 – Father of Many Nations

Filed under: Conversion,Jewish Law,Life Cycle,Marriage and Divorce — chaimweiner @ 10:17 am

Question: What is the proper way to refer to a convert when called to the Torah?

Answer: The use of family names is a late phenomenon.  Since many people share the same name, to avoid confusion the custom is to refer to a person together with the name of their father.  This is the case when a person’s father is a Jew.  A person who converts to Judaism is seen as one who has been born again.  Therefore, we no longer link them back to their biological parents.

The earliest evidence we have for the naming of converts comes from headstones found in ancient cemeteries.  From these we know a large number of names dating from the Second Temple period, including several people who were referred to by the title ‘HaGer’, meaning ‘the convert’. This is also the case in early rabbinic literature. One of the early translations of the Bible to Greek was done by Akilas HaGerYehuda ben Gerim was a student of Rabbi Yohanan.  One of the leaders of the rebels in the Great War against Rome was Shimon Bar Giyora, which derives from the word HaGer.  Even if the use of ‘HaGer’ was not universal it was certainly not uncommon.

The use of the word HaGer continues into the Middle Ages.  However, starting from the 11th century we find converts being referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ or ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  Two different explanations are given. Gershom ben Yakov HaGozer, a Mohel  [13th century, Germany] writes that when naming the child of a convert, the child should be referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ because Abraham was the first convert to Judaism. Rabeinu  Asher [14 century, Germany and Spain] writes that when recording the name of a convert in a GET he is referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ because Abraham was blessed by God as the father of many nations.  There are many other halachic authorities who rule that the proper way to refer to a convert is ‘Ben Avraham’.

There are also authorities who say that a convert should be referred to as ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  Rabbi Alexander HaKohen, [15th century, Germany] an expert on Gittin, writes that one should refer to a convert by the name of ‘Avraham Avinu’ and not just ‘Avraham’ in order not to mislead.  Joseph Karo in the Shulchan Aruch rules that in a GET, the title ‘Avraham Avinu’ should be used.  The use of Avraham Avinu is prevalent since the 17th century.

In recent years there are those who have opposed the use of a special name for converts, pointing out that it is forbidden to shame a convert by reminding them of their former life.  However, historically the title ‘convert’ was not seen as a derogatory title. No one felt that the need to hide the fact that they had converted.

Following historical precedent, the correct way to refer to a convert is either ‘HaGer’, ‘Ben Avraham’ or ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  In communities where both father’s and mother’s names are used, it is appropriate to refer to both Abraham and Sarah.

In the case where a child’s father is Jewish, there is no reason not to refer to his biological father.  Also, an adopted child should be referred to by his adoptive parents’ names.  This follows the halachic principle that a person who raises a child assumes the status of a parent.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Shevat 5776

Based on ‘What is the Proper Way to Refer to the Parents of a Convert?’

Responsa in a Moment 10:4  – Rabbi David Golinkin.

This study sheet is sponsored by Jewish Journeys Ltd: Currently booking trips to Uzbekistan (The Jews of the Silk Route) and Andalucía (The Jews of Muslim Spain) .

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September 8, 2010

Seeing is Believing

Filed under: Bet Din,Conversion — chaimweiner @ 2:48 pm

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.

This study sheet is sponsored by Jewish Journeys Ltd: Currently booking trips to Germany (The Rhineland).

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