Sunday 10 January 2021




1887 Schechter edition of Avot deRabi Natan.


It is a well-known fact that Jews do not proselytise or actively try to convert non-Jews to Judaism. It is also well-known how difficult the process of conversion to Judaism is. But was this always the case?

In this article, we shall explore historical examples of apparent active and even forceful conversions to Judaism, and also look at the possibility of there being some textual precedent for such a phenomenon.




In a previous article, we looked at the fascinating story of the Jews of Arabia (present-day Saudi Arabia). A brief overview follows:

Jews had lived in Arabia since biblical times and this was no small community. According to Hagai Mazuz:

The Jewish community of northern Arabia was one of the largest ancient Jewish communities in the history of the Jewish people.[1]

For well over a thousand years Jews lived in the oases of Teyma, Khaybar, and Yathrib (later known as Medina). These Jews were among the very founders of Yathrib/Medina, and when Muhammad established his new religion in Medina, the Jews numbered sixty percent of the population of that city!

The Arabian Jews, having lived there for so long, had adopted much of the Arab culture to the extent that they were regarded as being ethnically Arab. While most of the Jews who inhabited the Arabian Peninsula were descendants of the Tribe of Judah, many were also considered to be Cohanim. In fact, Professor of history, Simon Schama, refers to these Jews as ‘the Cohens of Arabia.[2]


The Arabian Jews typically had their own independent fortified cities. There were several of these independently held Jewish fortified enclaves of Jewish Arab tribes throughout Arabia. There were also nomadic Jewish tribes who followed the herds as Jewish Bedouin.[3]

In some instances, the Jewish presence was so strong in pre-Muslim Arabia that they were able to impose Judaism on an entire city of pagans and even Christians.[4]

Schama informs us that, contrary to popular perception, Jewish missionary work was rather prolific. Missionaries sent from places like Tiberius in the Holy Land with the intent to convert the local population. These missionaries became known by the Arabs as Kahinan (Cohanim) or priests. Perhaps this was why the Jews of Arabia were regarded as Cohanim?


Schama writes that:

when [Roman][5] emperor Constantius II send missionaries to Arabia in 356, they found themselves frustrated by heavy and successful competition from Jewish proselytisers, those whom the [later][6] Muslim sources called the rabban’iyun.[7]


Although subject to some controversy (as to the extent but not the event), the entire Kingdom of Himyar (present-day Yemen) converted to Judaism in pre-Islamic times and it became a dominant power for 250 years.

Schama explains:

The conversion of the Himyar was only possible because it would never have occurred to the converts that the belief they were adopting was in any way foreign. Jews were so anciently and deeply planted in Arab lands that they became an organic part of its world...

They carried Arabic names, dressed indistinguishably from Arabs, were organised in semi-tribal extended family clans like Arabs, and...many of them were ethnic Arabs.

There had been so many conversions over the centuries since the Hasmoneans forcibly imposed Judaism on the desert-dwelling, ethnically Arab Itureans and Idumeans, that it is impossible to differentiate Arabian Jews who had originated as emigrants from pre- or post-Temple destruction Palestine, and the multitudes of erstwhile pagan Arabs who had chosen Judaism rather than Christianity as their monotheistic faith...

This pre Islamic merging of Arab and Jewish identities was reinforced when the last and most militantly proselytising Jewish king Dhu Nuwas, Lord of the Curls[8] (also known as Yusef As’ar), was defeated by the Christian Aksumite king of Ethiopia, Kaleb, in an all out battle in 525. Prior to that, it looked as though the Lord of the Curls would take his aggressive Judaism deep into the Arabian peninsula.


Josephus (Ant. 17.254) writes that the Idumeans started attending Jewish festivals. Some Idumeans even became the followers of Shammai (Sifrei Zutta. ed. Epstein, Tarbiz, I (1930), p. 70). Idumeans also participated prominently in the revolt against Rome between 66-70 CE (J.W. 2.566, 652-654; 4.224-304; 5.248). The cultural shift brought about by conversion may not have been that different because, for example, circumcision was already common among the "Syrians of Palestine" (Herodotus, Hist. 2.104.2-3). But there are instances where aggressive circumcising are found in the initial phase of the Maccabean revolt where (if one goes by  Macc 2:44-48), Matityahu forcibly circumcised all the boys in Israel he could find.

On the other hand, Ayreh Kasher, argues that some conversions were "a voluntary act, the culmination of a gradual, drawn-out process of convergence between eastern Semitic ethnic groups nursing shared hostility to the Hellenistic world, which threatened their independent existence" (Jews, Idumaeans and Ancient Arabs, 56).

Although subject to debate as to the extent, there is nevertheless, evidence of a surprising programme of active conversion of various peoples at various times to Judaism, particularly in Arabia. 

This is a very little-known chapter of Jewish history.



The question now remains as to whether there ever was any textual precedent for the notion of proselytising? I have drawn from an analysis by Rabbi Professor Gerald Blidstein[9] (1938-2020) of a text from Avot deRabi Natan. R. Blidsein was a student of R. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik.


We begin with an oft-quoted statement by Hillel, in Pirkei Avot:

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן, אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה  

Hillel says: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah. [10]


On this, the Avot deRabi Natan[11] comments:

AND DRAWING THEM NEAR TO TORAH: What is that? This teaches that one should bend men to and lead them under the wings of the Shekinah the way Abraham our father used to bend men to and lead them under the wings of the Shekinah. And not Abraham alone did this but Sarah as well; for it is said, 'And Abram took Sarai his wife ... and the souls that they had made in Haran (Gen. 12:5)'.


Our original statement by Hillel in Pirkei Avot speaks universally about drawing the beriyot or mankind close to the Torah in a way of peace and lovingness.  It does not imply any form of coercion or conversion, on the contrary, only a gentle exposure to general ethical concepts of Torah and basic monotheism.

However, the commentary of Avot deRabi Natan introduces another concept entirely; that mankind must be מקפח or “bent” to accept the Torah, just like Avraham and Sara “bent men to and lead them under the wings of the Shechina”. This expression,  מקפח was not used in Pirkei Avot. מקפח carries the connotation of “discrimination” and even “violence”.

And the exact same phrase מקפח את הבריות (“bending” or “coercing” mankind) is used in the Talmud in another context to describe how the biblical “rebellious son” who goes unpunished, will “sit at the crossroads and overpower men and kill them.[12] This emphasises the forceful and violent connotation of the term מקפח.

The commentary by Avot deRabi Natan seems a far cry from the peaceful and universalist tenor of our original statement by Hillel in Pirkei Avot. It seems to delineate between two different approaches as to how to bring Torah to people. One approach is for Jews, the other is for mankind.


This might be the reason why further in Avot deRabi Natan[13] we see what appears to be a concerted effort to break with the universalism of Hillel’s statement and to create a different narrative entirely, where peaceful methods are, apparently, only to be pursued amongst Jews. Look below at how many times peaceful methods are advocated in favour only of “Israel”; to “love peace in Israel” and to “pursue peace in Israel” etc.:

R. Simeon b. Elazar says: If a man sits in his own place and is inactive, how can he pursue peace in Israel between man and man? Let him therefore go forth from his place and move around in the world and pursue peace in Israel.


Suddenly Hillel’s statement of “loving peace” no longer retains its universal connotation but becomes restricted to “loving peace in Israel”. The same with “pursuing peace”.

The reference, in these short sections of Avot deRabi Natan, to pursuing peace whilst bringing Torah to Israel occurs six times. This appears to exclude the use of peaceful methods towards non-Jews, and the term מקפח is used instead of   מקרב to describe a more forceful means of bringing the rest of humanity תחת כנפי השכינה, or “under the wings of the divine Presence”.

Blidstein asks:

Is ADRN [Avot deRabi Natan][14] recommending the use of force to bring Gentiles under the wings of heaven?


Blidstein points out, however, that a number of Tannaic (Mishnaic) sources, do use the expressionמקפח  in a verbally but not physically coercive way. It is sometimes used to express a forceful argument as opposed to physical force

Thus R. Shimon ben Gamliel asks his son R. Yehuda haNasi;

Did you overpower, קפחת, Nathan the Babylonian?[15]

Also, R. Yehuda warns his students not to allow the students of R. Meir in, after R. Meir had passed away:

Don't allow the students of R. Meir in, for they are quarrelsome—they do not come to learn Torah, but to overpower me לקפחני with halakhot.[16]

(Interestingly, both cases relate to R. Natan haBavil, the presumed author of Avot deRabi Natan. See ANALYSIS below, for some background to these two references).

According to these examples, it is possible that Avot deRabi Natan was also not speaking about physical violence but rather, strong argumentative persuasion.

Blidstein then makes the point that even if we do adopt the second more neutral interpretation of “persuasive argumentation” (which seems to go against the tenor of the Avot deRabi Natan commentary, and against the emphasis on peaceful pursuit only to be deployed amongst Jews) we would still have a fundamental problem, because:

…even if לקפח את הבריות means to convince rather than to compel, it still denotes an aggressive posture. It describes, in a word, vigorous missionizing.

But Jews are not supposed to missionize, even peacefully, and certainly not with compelling and forceful argumentation and debates – even in the absence of physical force.

Blidstein continues:

Assuming, then, that ADRN [Avot deRabi Natan][17] is largely a late-Tannaitic work, we ought to infer that some Tannaitic rabbis were urging a policy of vigorous missionizing.


It is also interesting to note the Targum Onkelos to Gen. 12:5:

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had made אשר עשו in Charan.

The expression ”the souls that they had made”, generally refers to the first converts to Judaism that Avraham and Sara brought into the fold.

However, Targum Onkelos translates אשר עשו (“that they had made”), as די שעבידו לאורייתא (“which they had subjected (or subjugated) to the Torah”). The term שעבידו is usually used in a context of slavery and similar to מקפח, has a forceful connotation. The jump from the more neutral biblical expression of “made” to “subjugate” is an unnecessary extra addition by Onkelos and may also imply a form of coercion in conversion.  

There are more gentle references to Avraham converting the pagans in other texts:

Josephus mentions that:

                Abraham was ... a man ... persuasive with his hearers (Ant. 1, 154-58, 161.)

Bereishit Rabbah (38,12) and the Talmud in Sota 10b also intimate the notion of Avraham's persuasive strategies.


a) It is generally assumed that the author of Avot deRabi Natan was Natan haBavli.

R. Natan haBavli was a fourth-generation Tanna who lived in the middle of the second century CE.  He moved from Babylonia to Eretz Yisrael and is buried in Tzfat. He was a co-redactor of the Mishna together with R. Yehuda haNasi: רבי ור' נתן סוף משנה רב אשי ורבינא סוף הוראה  (Bava Metzia 86a).

R. Natan haBavli (the Av Beit Din) together with R. Meir (the Chacham), got embroiled in a power struggle with the Nasi, R. Shimon ben Gamliel (the father of R. Yehuda haNasi) and tried to remove him from his position. As a punishment for their rebellion, R. Natan haBavli was no longer to be referred to by name but by the anonymous title “yesh omrim” (“some say”) and R. Meir by “others say”. R. Natan haBavli’s teachings are only mentioned twice in the Mishna by name - and even there, they appear to be later insertions because the statements are absent in the earlier manuscripts.

Considering this background, it is therefore possible that the view in Avot deRabi Natan may also represent a rebellious departure from some of the more mainstream rabbinic views.

b) But there is another historic factor as well that may need consideration:

After the Bar Kochba defeat (132-136 CE), the rabbinic word moved to a strong emphasis on Jewish passivity. For example, what the literature previously referred to as a physical “sword” of the battlefield was now just a metaphor for “sharp words of scholarly debate” in the study hall.

[See When a Sword is not a Sword.]

Similarly, Chanukah became a holiday commemorating a miracle of oil, and not about a war. According to R. Binyamin Lau:

[There was] a conscious attempt to suppress the record altogether…
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi...the redactor of the Mishna, 'concealed' the rebellion in an effort to appease...And so a new miracle story emerged, one which posed no threat to any empire…

[See The Fight or the Light.]

In keeping with this theme, although Hillel passed away earlier in 10 CE, this differential in principle between Hillel and the later commentary in Avot deRabi Natan, may similarly reflect elements of rabbinic tension between a policy of combativeness and passivity.

Either way, while not suggesting that the policy of active or aggressive proselytising was a general practice, the examples from sources like Avot deRabi Natan and Onkelos, together with the historical evidence from certain periods within Jewish history, indicate that the departure from the apparently sacrosanct policy of non-proselytization may have had some form of textual precedent from time to time.




Did Beit Shammai Murder some of the Students of Hillel?

[1] See Massacre in Medina by Hagai Mazuz.

[2] The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama, p. 230.

[3] Schama, ibid. p. 232.  

[4] Schama, ibid. p. 232.

[5] Parenthesis mine.

[6] Parenthesis mine.

[7] Schama, ibid p, 233.

[8] Ibn Hisham explains that Yūsuf As’ar was a Jew who grew out his sidelocks (nuwas meaning "sidelock").

[9] Gerald Blidstein, A Note on Rabbinic Missionizing.

[10] Avot 1:12.

[11] Avot deRabi Natan was probably finally complied in the Gaonic period, somewhere between 700-900CE, although the work may have begun around the middle of the 2nd-century, from the time of Natan haBavli. It may be described as belonging to a genre of Tosefta or Gemara to the Mishna of Pirkei Avot, which does not have a corresponding Gemara.

[12] y Sanhedrin 8, 7; 26b.

[13] See p. 48 and 51.

[14] Parenthesis mine.

[15] y Ketuvot 4, 12; 29a. (Incidentally, Natan haBavli may be the same Natan in Avot deRabi Natan.)

[16] b. Kiddushin 52b and b. Gittin 29b.

[17] Parenthesis mine.

[18] The Sages - Character, Context and Creativity, Volume 1, Maggid Books 2007, p. 166.

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