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Question 10.13:
Why is the conversion process so complicated? The matriarchs didn't have to convert.


Jewish tradition dates itself back to Sinai. In other words, "the Torah" that the Jews recieved in the desert includes not only the text of the Five Books, but also a vast body of what we generally call Oral Torah. This means that the laws of conversion, or at least, the principles from which they derive, are as old as the Torah.

Before the covenant at Sinai, there wasn't really Judaism per se. One could join the earlier covenant that G-d made with Abraham, but there could be no parallel to the conversion of today. The forefathers' wives therefore didn't need to formally convert. And, depending upon the sequence of events, if Jethro became a Jew before the revelation at Mount Sinai (which is the order the stories are told in the text) he didn't have to formally convert either.

We do find that the Israelites who left Egypt were taken through the same steps that a convert would take today: the men were obligated to circumcise themselves before leaving Egypt, they immersed themselves three days before the revelation, and they were formally asked if they would accept the yoke of observance the day before recieving the decalogue. The Talmud find allusions in the book of Ruth that indicate that she converted according to the current process. The same word, "geir", is used in the Torah to describe two kinds of people. As this causes confusion, the Talmud utilizes adjectives to distinguish the two. The "geir tzedek" (righteous convert) is what we usually think of when we say "geir". However, there is also the person who decides to observe the 7 categories of laws required by G-d's covenant with Noah. In modern parlance such a person is called a "Noachide" (or Noahide).

How does this relate to "geir"? Here's how. A Noachide who agrees to live in a Jewish Israel, within a government run by Torah law (such as that of the 1st Temple period, or under the Sanhedrin, or after the messiah establishes a third commonwealth), but as a non-Jew is called a "geir toshav" (a resident alien). A geir toshav only goes to court (which can be any three observant Jewish men of sound mind) and proclaims his/her acceptance. Because of the ambiguity of the term "geir", people reject our beliefs about the origins of the Oral Torah assume the two, geir tzedek and geir toshav, are identical. This would make it seem that the text is only obligating a proclamation of acceptance. This, however, leads to inconsistancies. On the one hand, "one law shall you have for yourselves, for the geir and for the native of the land". Including rituals. This expression is used (amongst other places) in discussing fasting on Yom Kippur, where the punishment is phrased as "he will be cut off from amongst his people, Israel". So, this geir is a member of Israel. However, the word "geir" as used in a verse about working on the Sabbath does not assume that when G-d speaks to Israel, the geir is included. "Do not do any work, [neither] you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid-servant, your animal, and the geir who is within your gates." The geir isn't included amongst the "you". There are numerous examples of each side of this dilemma.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

[Got Questions?]Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at

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