The Conversion Process of Yisrael

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Conversion Process of Yisrael

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Yoseif Bloch

The gemara (Berakhot 9a) states that the nation of Yisrael entered the covenant as did any convert in Temple times: through circumcision, immersion, and the sprinkling of sacrificial blood. From the text of the Torah it seems that the circumcision and immersion preceded Ma'amad Har Sinai (the Convocation at Mount Sinai), but the sacrifices appear to be offered at a much later time. They are described at the very end of Parashat Mishpatim, some four chapters after the story of the Ma'amad itself. In fact, Rashi and the Ramban (24:1) are divided on the issue of whether the "covenant of the basins" described there occurred after the giving of the Torah, described in chapters 19-20 (Ramban), or whether it actually happened before, but it is written afterwards (Rashi). The Ramban notes that this is subject to a tannaitic dispute in the Mekhilta. Rashi's opinion thus places all three elements of conversion prior to the Ma'amad. However, according to the Ramban, we must understand why the sprinkling of the sacrificial blood could not have been executed then, thereby completing the process before the Jews came to stand at the foot of Mount Sinai.

The Rambam (Hilkhot Mechusarei Kapara 1:2) writes that a male convert who has been circumcised and immersed but still has not brought his sacrifice is already considered a Jew, though he cannot eat yet from sacrifices, as he has not yet acquired the status of a "fit Jew." This implies that the sprinkling of sacrificial blood is not mandatory; rather, it is a means of raising a convert to the level of a fit Jew, i.e., one who can eat sacrificial flesh. We thus may postulate that the sacrifices could not precede Ma'amad Har Sinai because the nation of Yisrael were then still not at the level of fit Jews. It appears that they were then missing three ingredients:

  1. The essential experience and revelation of Ma'amad Har Sinai. In this experience, each individual of Yisrael felt the reality of God. God Himself spoke to them, and this event had a profound influence upon the character of each and every person there. No one could rise the next day and recapture what each man, woman, and child among the nation of Yisrael felt on that unique day.
  2. Torah and mitzvot. Until that point, faith in God had been an abstract concept. At Ma'amad Har Sinai and afterwards, the nation of Yisrael accepted laws which touched on all areas of life, and faith in God became something far more tangible.
  3. The laws given to the nation of Yisrael in Parashat Mishpatim. These showed them how to found a society based on charity and justice.

One may say that only after the nation of Yisrael accepted these three principles were they able to achieve the heightened status of "fit Jews." It is logical to say as well that this is the motivation beyond the change of expression: before Ma'amad Har Sinai, they say, "All which Lord has said, we will do" (19:8), while afterwards they declare, "We will do and we will listen" (24:7). The gemara (Shabbat 88a) states that placing action before instruction is a secret that the angels use, as it says, "Bless, Lord, His angels, strong ones in power, who do His word, to listen to His word" (Tehillim 103:20). It is logical to assume that a high level such as this, in which the nation of Yisrael is willing to subjugate themselves to God before they know what He wants from them, is possible only after Ma'amad Har Sinai, through which the nation of Yisrael merited the above three items.

These matters are not germane only to their time and place; they can impart to us as well a powerful message. It is untenable for someone to come to yeshiva and leave as he entered. The intimacy with the holy in yeshiva, the constant involvement in Torah, the prayers that emerge from between the walls of the Beit Midrash - all of these elements must change one's character to the extent that the yeshiva experience will continue to have an influence even after one leaves its physical bounds.

Just as Ma'amad Har Sinai permanently elevated the nation of Yisrael and was not an isolated incident, so too our lives in yeshiva must raise our level of devotion to the spiritual. In yeshiva, we must hope for constant progress, whether in terms of Torah and mitzvot, in terms of our relationship to God, or in terms of our concepts of charity and justice. As the mishna in Avot (1:18) states: "On three matters the world stands: on Torah, on service (the link to God), and on acts of kindness."

(Originally delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Yitro 5756 [1996].)


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