Sunday 10 November 2019


Part I:



Research into the status of converts to Judaism, within Tosafist literature, paradoxically reveals both a positive tolerance, and a surprising negative resistance, to their acceptance as equal amongst Jews. The Tosafists were active in Northern France and Germany between 1040 and 1293.[1]

In this essay, we will show how early Tosafists like Rashi[2] (1040-1105) and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam[3] (1100-1171) had downgraded the status of the convert; while Rabbeinu Yitzchak of Dampierre, known as the Ri haZaken[4] (1115-1184) - who happened to be Rabbeinu Tam’s student and nephew – boldly challenged his uncle’s and his great-grandfather’s denigration of the convert and, instead, began to raise the dignity of the convert to be correspondent to that of a Jew.

Rabbeinu Yitzchak of Dampierre is quoted on most pages of Tosefot commentary, and he was responsible for completing Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud.

I have drawn from the writings of Professor Avraham (Rami) Reiner[5] who specializes in the history of Halachic and Talmudic exegesis in Medieval Europe.


In 1096, the Jewish chronicler, R. Shlomo ben Shimshon, wrote about a shocking incident which took place in Mainz, Germany. A certain Yakov ben Sulam, described as a “very kind man” - whose mother had converted to Judaism - was not treated very well by the community, and he was regarded as somewhat inferior. Eventually, after enduring much abuse, he took a knife in his hands and, before killing himself, he declared:

“So far you have done nothing but disgrace me and now behold what I shall do.”


Another incident also involving a suicide took place in that same year in the German city of Xanten,[6] this time regarding an unnamed convert. This episode, however, was related to the persecutions of the First Crusade when Jews often committed suicide as a final act of defiance against the Crusaders rather than submit to forced Baptisms.

This unnamed convert asked R. Moshe Cohen Gadol whether - being a covert -  his proposed suicide in the face of such persecution would qualify as a ‘sanctification of G-d’s name’; and whether his last stand as a Jewish martyr would be acceptable considering his non-Jewish origins.

The rabbi responded in the affirmative saying:

 “You shall dwell with us [in the afterlife].”

From the fact that the convert remains nameless; and from the fact that he was unsure of his true status as a Jew despite being referred to as a ‘ger tzedek’ (a righteous convert) who kept the Law and was prepared to die as a Jew - one can assume that converts were not fully integrated into the Judaism of 11th century Germany.

Avraham Reiner shows how in the local Jewish records of Koln, which documented those who died in the persecutions of 1096, two converts are mentioned; one, a woman called Hatziva, and the other (also) an unnamed and anonymous man, simply referred to as a ger or convert. 


Later, in the 12th century, conditions deteriorated even further for the Jews, who were regarded by much of Christendom as ‘lepers and heretics’. This made it very unappealing, never mind dangerous, for a non-Jew to even think of converting to Judaism, and one would have imagined that those who did, would have been treated with a little more dignity by the early Tosafists.


The negative status of the convert has its roots in earlier Talmudic times. The question arose: -can a convert, who brings the Bikkurim or first fruits to the Temple on the festival of Shavuot, recite the formula concerning the Holy Land “which G-d had sworn to our ancestors to give to us”?
The issue is, of course, that the convert’s non-Jewish ancestors were not promised the Land.

The Mishna[7] states that a convert may bring the first fruit offering to the Temple but may not recite the declaration because he is disqualified from making reference to the promise of the ‘G-d of our fathers’.[8]

Accordingly, a convert cannot claim a share in Jewish spiritual ancestry.


However, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi) on the same topic, R. Yehuda says the exact opposite: - a convert may, while bringing the offering of first fruit to the Temple, recite ‘our ancestors’ like any other Jew!

R. Yehuda’s proof text is Genesis where G-d tells Avraham that he is to be the “father of a multitude of nations.[9]


Moving ahead some centuries to the Tosafists, it is interesting to see that the younger generation of Tosafists, the contemporaries of Rabbeinu Yitzchak – began to reject the views of the older generations who based themselves on the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli). This new generation adopted a more accepting position regarding converts. As a result, we see many more conversions taking place in Northern France and Germany at this time.

The changing tide regarding the status of the convert is vividly reflected in the Halachic debates between the early and later Tosafists:


A question was posed to the Tosafists regarding whether or not a convert can recite the section in the bentching (grace after meals) which refers to thanking G-d for giving such spacious land to ‘our ancestors’.[10]

Rabbeinu Tam - based on the mishna - said no!

Rabbeinu Yitzchak - based on the Talmud Yerushalmi - said yes!

Clearly Rabbeinu Tam, as can be seen by his other responsa literature as well, denies the convert the right to claim Jewish ancestry and equal Jewish status – while Rabbeinu Yitzchak affords ‘ancestral rights’ to the convert.


Reiner points out that the manner in which the convert was perceived was not just of moral or theological concern, but it also had serious monetary implications as well:

R. Moshe of Pontoise wrote to Rabbeinu Tam requesting clarity on the status of a certain convert whom his[11] brother had taught “Torah and mishna night and day.” Having established the bone fides of the covert, R. Moshe went on to explain that the convert was old and dying and wanted to leave a considerable amount of money to his[12] nephew (who was also a convert). 

The convert had, in the interim, deposited the money with his teacher (R. Moshe’s brother) for safekeeping until the matter was resolved.

The problem was that according to the Talmud, once a person converts, all their previous family connections lose their legal significance. Thus the natural heirs of a convert’s estate are no longer considered legal heirs.[13]

The question was, therefore, whether the teacher was obligated to fulfil the request of the dying convert and give the money to the nephew, or whether the money was technically hefker, or ownerless, and since already in the possession of the teacher, the teacher could keep it.
Rabbeinu Tam ruled according to the classical Talmudic view that money could not be bequeathed to the nephew and that it was indeed ‘ownerless’.

However, Rabbeinu Yitzchak ruled against convention and, as Reiner puts it:

“[Converts] are able to transfer their assets easily to their natural heirs de facto, although he does not seek to change their status in this respect de jure...

[Rabbeinu Yitzchak] encouraged the recognition of the convert’s family as normative within the Jewish community.”


The Talmud, in various places, had some harsh pronouncements to make about converts. Centuries later, Rabbeinu Yitzchak and his students tried to ‘sanitize’ some of these statements.

 Reiner writes:

“[Rabbeinu Yitzchak’s] project of legitimizing gerim [converts] was not restricted to the practical sphere of halakha. He invested similarly intense effort, as did his disciples, in revising the meaning of popular Talmudic aphorisms [sayings][14].”

One such saying equated the existence of converts to ‘leprous scabs’ on the skin of a Jew:


The Talmud quotes R. Chelbo who refers to converts as a “hard (painful) leprous scab[15]:

This statement appears four times in the Talmud.

Although Reiner does not bring the following Rashi, I have included it for clarity on Rashi’s views on this matter:

Rashi[16] explains that in Hebrew ‘scab’ is an expression of ‘clinging’[17], and as the scab clings to the skin, the converts will eventually cling to their old ways; and furthermore, they exert a negative influence on Jews; and they cause halachic standards to drop.

Rabbeinu Yitzchak, on the other hand, remarks in a Tosafot commentary that the Talmudic reference by R. Chelbo to ‘scabs’ would only apply in a case where the convert was insincere or even misled - but where the covert is sincere, he or she would certainly not be regarded as a ‘scab’, nor be prevented from freely marrying other Jews.

Another reinterpretation of the ‘leprous scab’ is offered also in a Tosafot commentary[18] by ‘Avraham Ger’ (Avraham the convert) who was a contemporary of Rabbeinu Yitzchak. He believes we should interpret R. Chelbo’s statement to mean that since converts are meticulously careful in their fulfilment of the commandments – even more so than other Jews – the comparison puts Jews in a bad light. This is why the converts are viewed as ‘painful’ for the Jewish people, as they embarrass them.

According to Reiner, the younger generations such as Rabbeinu Yitzchak and his students had effectively began to change the negative mindset regarding converts which was so prevalent in the literature of the early Tosafists:

“Subsequent commentaries in the Tosafot literature on Rabbi Helbo [Chelbo][19] attest to the popularity of Rabbi Yitzchak’s approach.”


In a further biting statement, R. Chelbo continues his anti-convert sentiment:

“Woe after woe shall befall those who accept converts.”

Rabbeinu Yitzchak is again quick to come to the defence of converts by saying that this statement only applies to converts who are insincere, but if they are sincere, then they must be accepted wholeheartedly.


It must be remembered that in the climate of the persecutions of 12th century France - where Rabbeinu Yitzchak abided - the vast majority of the converts he would have encountered, would have been extremely sincere as they were risking their lives by becoming Jewish.


As noted, Rabbeinu Yitzchak’s French Tosafist school appears to have been quite influential in favourably changing the earlier perceptions regarding converts, and it seems that his influence may even have reached the community of Chasidei Ashkenaz in Germany.

The leader of Chasidei Ashkenaz, R. Yehuda heChasid (1150-1217) wrote:

“Any kindhearted man who takes a kindhearted gioret (female convert) – who comes from stock that are modest, charitable and pleasant in commerce – it is better to marry with their seed than marrying Israelites who do not possess such virtues, for the seed of the ger [convert][20] shall be upright and kind.


A century later, R. Meir of Rothenburg[21] (d. 1293) even developed a very mystical explanation for the purpose of the convert:

“The son of David [Messiah] does not arrive before all souls expire in the body."

In other words, there is now a mystical imperative for some souls to convert to Judaism as it will hasten the Messiah who can only come after all root-souls have been in a Jewish body.

"There is a chamber in the heavens called guf [body] housing all souls destined to enter humans, and an angel appointed to oversee pregnancies takes [souls] from that chamber and implants them in woman’s bellies.

Occasionally [the angel] errs and places a soul worthy of a gentile in a Jewish woman’s intestines and her baby becomes meshumad [apostate].

And occasionally he places a soul worthy of a Jew in a gentile woman’s intestines and her baby becomes a ger [Convert].”

If one contemplates this statement, a fascinating theolosophical stance has been proposed by R. Meir of Rothenburg who significantly happened to be the last of the Tosafists; namely, that all converts were intended and destined to be Jewish, but for literally an ‘accident’ of birth.

This is a far cry from the position of Rashi - the first of the Tosafists - and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam.


Reiner makes a final ‘strategic’ observation:

“It seems reasonable to conclude that such halakhic creativity was motivated, at least in part, by historical conditions... the 12th century...[a] significant number of Jews converted to Christianity and actively represented their new community, serving Christian interests not only with argumentation grounded in Jewish knowledge, but by becoming living examples of the veracity [i.e., truthfulness] of Church dogma.

[For an example of how Jews who converted to Christianity used their previous Talmudic knowledge to attack Judaism, see The Dangers of Translating Hebrew Texts.]

This phenomenon was matched on the Jewish side of the fence by the increasing acceptance of gerim [converts],[22] who in later periods became an asset to Jewish propaganda.”


We began with the 1096 story of an unnamed and anonymous righteous convert in Xanten who was unsure if he was worthy of dying al Kiddush haShem (a martyr, sanctifying G-d’s name) in the face anti-Jewish persecution. He was a less commemorated version of the modern ‘unknown soldier’[23] in a culture of anti-convert sentiment perpetuated by the early Tosafist establishment.

We shall conclude with another, more positive, account - less than two centuries later - about a man whose name is known and perpetuated, who left a Christian monastic order to become a convert to Judaism and eventually a rabbi:

“Rabbi Avraham bar Avraham Avinu of France, [a previous] leader of the barefooted [monks][24], who came to reject idols and came to dwell under the wing of the Eternal Soul, and died sanctifying the Name.”

This glorious epithet is a far cry from the nameless, faceless, if not inglorious, martyr of Xanten; and from Yakov ben Sulam who killed himself after being humiliated as a son of a convert.

This paradigm shift in halachic ethos within the Tosafist period was brought about essentially because of the bold efforts of Rabbeinu Yitzchak of Dampierre - who felt justified to stand up to none less than both his uncle Rabbeinu Tam, and his formidable great-grandfather Rashi.


What was it that made Rabbeinu Yitzchak break so dramatically from the ethos of the earlier Tosafists when it came to converts? 

It is hard to say with certainty but I did notice that according to Ephraim Urbach[25], Rabbeinu Yitzchak had strong connections with the very mystical group of Chasidei Ashkenaz referred to above. 

He was associated with R. Yehudah heChasid - and his student R. Eleazar of Verona (or by some accounts he himself) was related to R. Eleazar of Worms (also part of the mystical Chasidei Ashkenaz group).

It is possible that because of this apparent intense mystical association, Rabbeinu Yitzchak viewed converts - and tried to make sense of their origins, journeys and destinies - more from the perspective of the Spirit and Soul than the prevailing culture and Law. [26]

[1] The Tosafist period - spawned by Rashi (1040-1105) - lasted about two hundred years, encompassing the 12th and 13th centuries, and ending with R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293). The term Tosafists generally refers to the rabbis of the early period of the Rishonim (1038-1500) who lived specifically in Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany). We know the names of 44 Baalei haTosafot.
[2] R. Shlomo Yitzchaki.
[3] R. Yaakov ben Meir.
[4] R. Yitzchak ben Shmuel of Dampierre. He was called Ri (R. Yitzchak) haZaken (the Elder) to differentiate between him and R. Yitzchak ben Avrahan haBachur (the Younger), also known as Riba or Ritzba.
[5] Tough Are Gerim, Conversion to Judaism in Medieval Europe.
[6] Pronounced ‘Zanten’.
[7] See Mishna Bikkurim 1:4. The verse is from Devarim 26:3.
[8] The Mishna continues:

“If his mother is Jewish (but his father is not), then he can recite the declaration in full.
When the convert prays his everyday prayers alone in private, he also can’t say ‘our fathers’ but must say ‘G-d of the fathers of Israel’.
When the convert is in the synagogue he must say ‘G-d of your fathers’.
If the mother is Jewish (but the father is not), then he can recite it in the full.”

[9] Genesis 17:5.
[10] ’Al shehinchalta la’avoteinu eretz chemda tova uveracha...’
[11] I. e., R. Moshe’s.
[12] I.e., the convert’s.
[13] I’m not sure why the dying convert could not simply have given the money to any person of his choice as a gift, and not technically as an inheritance. Perhaps the answer is that the convert had already stipulated that it was indeed an inheritance for his nephew.
[14] All parentheses mine.
[15] Yevamot 47 b. This is a play on Isaiah 14:1:
 “And the stranger shall join himself with them [Israel] and they shall cleave [nispechu] to the house of Jacob.”  
[16] Yevamot 47b.
[17] That is, ‘sapachat’ = ‘nispechu’.
[18] Kiddushin 70b.  Another explanation is that the Jews were exiled amongst the nations specifically so that they would interact with non-Jews who would then become inspired to join the Jewish nation. In this sense, the converts were the ‘cause’ of the exile and hence regarded as painful to the Jewish people.
[19] Parenthesis mine.
[20] Parenthesis mine.
[21] Also known as the Maharam of Rothenburg.
[22] Parentheses mine.
[23] The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified World War I soldier to commemorate and represent all unknown fallen soldiers.
[24] Parentheses mine.
[25] Baalei haTosafot, by E. E. Urbach (Hebrew), p. 237 and 433.
[26] If this hypothesis is correct then the influence may have been from Chasidei Ashkenaz to Rabbeinu Yitzchak, and not the other way round.

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