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Child Conversion – How it Works

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Parsha Halacha – Parshat Matot-Masei (Masei in Israel)

Shabbat Chazak

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The Torah portion of Mattot-Masei describes the war the Jewish people waged against Midian.[1] During the battle they killed all the adults and took the women and children as captives. When they returned to the Jewish camp, Moshe was upset that they had spared the women as they were the ones who had seduced the Jews to sin. He instructed them to kill all of the male children and the women and girls who (were old enough to have) had relations with men and to spare only the very young girls.

Why the Anger?

The commentaries explain[2] that although Moshe had not specifically instructed them to kill the women, he was still angry that they had not done so. Moshe felt that it should have been obvious that they should kill the women since the purpose of the battle was to “take revenge… against the Midianites.” Since these women had caused them to sin (both in terms of forbidden relations and in serving the pe’or idol), it was obvious they deserved to be punished.

Why Kill the Male Children?

The reason the male children were killed was so that they not grow up to be thorns in the sides of the Jewish people.[3] The same was true of every war that the Jewish people fought, as the Torah says,[4] “When you approach a city to wage war against it… If it does not make peace with you… The L-rd, your G-d, will deliver it into your hands, and you shall strike down all its males with the edge of the sword.”

How Old?

Although the verse says that the Midianite women who had relations with men were (eventually) put to death, our sages[5] understood the verse to be referring to women who were of age to have relations with men.[6] They based this on the next verse which states that “All the young girls… you may keep alive for yourselves,” i.e., it was a matter of age and not of actual relations.

The Color Test

The Talmud says[7] that they determined the age of the girls by passing them in front of the tzitz (the frontlet of the Kohen Gadol). The faces of those who were old enough to have relations turned green while the faces of the younger girls remained normal. The Talmud associates this color with sin as we see that one who sins may be afflicted with jaundice which causes the skin to turn greenish. (It is noteworthy that the faces of the older girls turned green even if that had not actually sinned. It seems that those who were of age had tried to seduce the Jewish men but had not actually succeeded.[8])

Conversion of the Young Girls

After killing the male children and women, the Jewish people were left with 32,00 young girls. Some say that these were kept as maidservants[9] while others say[10] they were converted to the Jewish faith and were later able to marry into the Jewish people. The verse alludes to this when it says, “And all the young girls… you may keep alive for yourselves.”[11] “You may keep alive” means to give them spiritual life by converting them, and “for yourselves” means they will be fit to marry you when they get older.[12]
The rest of this article will discuss some of the laws of how to convert young children.

Bringing Merit

The Talmud quotes[13] Rav Hunna who says that a non-Jewish child can be converted by a Jewish court based on the principle that one does not need permission to give someone a zechut (something positive) and being Jewish is considered a zechut. Although an adult gentile may not consider being Jewish to be a zechut as it involves many prohibitions and he may prefer to live without rules, the same cannot be said about a child who has not yet tasted sin. From the perspective of a child, the Jewish lifestyle is considered positive. The Talmud says that it is obvious that when the father brings a child to convert together with him, it is certainly a merit for the child as the child certainly would wish to remain part of the family. The point of Rav Hunna is that even if the father (and mother) are not converting, the court may convert the child in order to bring him the merit of being Jewish. Certainly, the court does not convert random gentile children, but if the child wishes to convert[14] or if his birth or adoptive parents want him to convert,[15] the court may do so.

The Process[16]

If the child is a male, he must first have a brit milah (circumcision) in the presence of a bait din (Jewish court consisting of three adult, Jewish Torah-observant males). The blessing at that brit is different than the blessing at a regular brit. If he already had a circumcision for medical reasons, a drop of blood must be drawn to symbolize the brit. After the wound heals, the child must be immersed in a kosher mikvah in the presence of a bait din. This completes the conversion process. For a female child, only immersion is necessary.

Objection

The Talmud says that when the child-convert becomes an adult, he (or she) has the option to object to the conversion and revert to being a gentile.
The commentaries differ as to when this objection may take place:
·        Some say that if the child didn’t observe the mitzvot after they came of age, they may object at any time and revert to being a gentile.[17]
·        Others say[18] that when the child comes of age, he or she must be given the choice to accept or reject the mitzvot. If he is not presented with that choice at that time, he can choose to reject the conversion even later in life.
·        The Me’iri says that the child must object in his first hour as an adult. Others say that the objection must happen even before he reaches adulthood.[19]
In practice, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled[20] that if a child is not informed of his status as a convert when he becomes of age and is not given the option to reject that conversion, he can reject it at any point later in life when he finds out about his status.
If the child did not object when given the opportunity, he (or she) is considered fully Jewish from that point on and cannot change his (or her) mind later.

Who can Object?

The Shulchan Aruch rules[21] that both a child who converts with his parents and a child converted by the court may object and reverse that conversion upon reaching adulthood.
Some say that a child who was converted together with his parents does not have the option to reject this later in life. Such a conversion can’t be recanted as it was not contingent on the court but on the acceptance of the parents.[22]
A child who was in utero when his or her mother converted is a full Jew and does not have the option to opt out later.[23]

Conversion in Utero

If a pregnant woman converts, the child in utero need not undergo another conversion after being born. There are two opinions as to how this works: Some hold that a child in utero is considered to be part of the mother and is therefore automatically included in her (immersion and) conversion. Others say that the child is considered a separate entity from the mother but is considered to have converted (and immersed in the mikvah) together with the mother. Practically the mother should inform the court before she immerses that she is pregnant so that they can intend for the conversion to include the baby.[24]
If the child is a boy, the bris should take place on the eighth day after the birth (if possible). If the eighth day is on Shabbat, there are differing opinions as to whether the brit should take place on Shabbat or on Sunday.[25]

A Torah-Observant Home

A bait din (Jewish court) should only convert a child if that child will be brought up in a Torah-observant household. The reason for this is that it is only considered a merit to be Jewish if one will (most likely) observe the mitzvot. Whereas if one will not do so, it would be best for that person not to convert to Judaism in the first place.[26]

Reversing the Objection

As mentioned above, if upon reaching bar-mitzvah age, the child objects to being Jewish, he is considered to be a gentile for all matters.[27] If he then changes his mind and wishes to be Jewish, some hold he simply needs to formally accept the mitzvot in front of a beit din but does not need to immerse in the mikvah again.[28] Others, however, hold that he must immerse again.[29] In either case, it is not necessary to draw any more blood for a symbolic brit.

The Status of an Adopted Child

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled[30] that a child in the United States who is adopted through a third party (e.g., an adoption agency) should be considered a gentile even if the third-party claims that the child is Jewish. As such, the child should be converted in the manner explained above. Presumably, the claim that the child is Jewish was made in order to catch the attention of the prospective parents. (Certainly, if evidence is given that the birth mother is Jewish, then the child need not be converted.)

The Preciousness of a Convert

The Midrash says,[31] “A convert is more precious than the multitudes of Jews who stood on Mount Sinai. Why is this? Had the multitudes not seen the thunder, lightning and Shofar blasts, they would not have accepted the Divine yolk, whereas the convert saw none of these and came (of his own accord) to G-d and accepted His yolk. Is there anything more precious than this?”
May we all merit to accept G-d’s yoke wholeheartedly!
[1] Numbers 32
[2] Shela
[3] Abarbanel
[4] Deut. 20:10-13
[5] Yevamot 60b and Rashi on the verse
[6] According to the Talmud this is the age of three. But see Abarbanel who says, that on a simple level, it refers to the age of puberty.
[7] Yevamot ibid
[8] Yashresh Yaakov and Aruch LeNer quoted in the Metivta Shas
[9] See Abarbanel and one opinion in Yevamot ibid
[10] Ohr HaChaim and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Yevamot ibid
[11] Verse 18
[12] Ohr HaChaim
[13] Ketubot 11a
[14] Rashba
[15] The Ritva says that the court may convert a child whose parents want him to convert even if they are not converting themselves. The Tosfot Rid adds that if a gentile baby is abandoned by his parents and is found (and adopted) by Jewish people, they may bring him to the court for conversion.
[16] See Y.D. 268 and commentaries
[17] Tosfot, Rosh and Ran
[18] Maharshal in Yam Shel Shlomo on Ketubot ibid
[19] Ra’ah. The Ran adds that if they object as a child and continue to object as an adult, then the objection is effective.
[20] Igrot Moshe Y.D. 1:262
[21] Y.D. 268:7
[22] Teshuvot Chatam Sofer (Y.D. 253) cited in Pit’chei Teshuvah. Based on the Rif, the Halachot Gedolot and the Rambam.
[23] Tiferet LeMoshe, cited in Pi’chei Teshuvah 8
[24] See Dagul Mervavah, quoted in Pit’chei Teshuvah 7
[25] Achiezer vol 4:44 writes that the brit may take place on Shabbat. But see Geirut Kehilchata by Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Stern, chapter 6 note 11 for other opinions.
[26] Geirut Kehilachta, chapter 6 note 2 based on various sources.
But see Igrot Moshe 7, Even Ha’Ezer 26:3 who writes that if the children are being educated in a proper Jewish school, there is room to allow for their conversion even if their homes are not Torah-observant.
[27] See Taz Y.D. 268:14
[28] Minchat Chinuch, mitzvah 2:23 (He writes that “It is possible that another immersion is not necessary.”)
[29] Rabbi Elyashiv, quoted in Geirut Kehalacha, chapter 6 note 17
[30] Igrot Moshe Vol. 5, Y.D. 126
[31] Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Lech Lecha
Wishing you a Chodesh Tov and a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

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