Am I Jewish?

Situation #1: Richard

Richard was born into a non-observant family and married a woman who keeps a kosher home, but she is not interested in becoming more observant. Richard is under the impression that, going back a few generations, his mother’s family was not originally Jewish, and, as far as he is aware, never was observant; yet his mother’s kesubah, which was written up and witnessed by a talmid chacham, identifies her as Jewish from birth. Does this mean that he is halachically Jewish and can wear tefillin and be counted as part of a minyan?

Situation #2: Gail

Gail does not think that her maternal grandmother was born Jewish, but she has little information about that part of her family.

Situation #3: Julia

Julia’s mother always told her that she was Jewish, although she grew up in an area with few Jews and no Jewish community. Recently, she has discovered that her mother is fond of inventing stories about her life, and Julia’s father tells her that he never believed that Mom is Jewish.

Situation #4: Norman

Norman, who was not raised Orthodox, has since become fully frum, is married and has children. Years ago, his bar mitzvah was at a local Orthodox synagogue, but his mother was not Jewish at the time. The rabbi had him undergo a conversion, but he has no recollection whether this was before or after his bar mitzvah, and he was certainly not interested in being observant at the time, so any statement that he was planning to observe mitzvos would not have been serious.

Introduction:

Although I have made some modifications to the above stories, each represents a shaylah that I have been asked. In all four situations, and for literally thousands of similar individuals, their status as Jews is unclear. This article is not intended to provide halachic ruling for any individual, who should address their specific question to a posek.

Korban Pesach

The Gemara in Pesachim (3b) records the following event. A non-Jew came to Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira, taunting him that, although the Torah states in parshas Bo, kol ben neichar lo yochal bo (Shemos 12:43), kol areil lo yochal bo (ibid. Verse 48)any son of a stranger (i.e., who is not Jewish) may not eat from it (the korban Pesach), no one uncircumcised may eat from it — he had successfully posed as Jewish and eaten the best cuts of the korban Pesach on a number of occasions. Without batting an eyelash, Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira turned to the gentile and asked him if they ever offered him to eat the alyah, the fatty tail of sheep that was a prized delicacy. Thereby, Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira implied to the non-Jew that they had given him only the scrawny parts of the korban, not the juicy, tasty parts that they reserved for the gentry (see Rashi).

Upon his return to the Beis Hamikdash the following Erev Pesach, the gentile requested the alyah portion, not realizing that he had thereby fallen into Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira’s trap: the alyah is offered on the mizbei’ach. When they asked the non-Jew who told him to ask for the alyah, and he told them that it was Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira, the people in Yerushalayim now realized that something serious was amiss. They researched the matter, discovered that the fellow was a charlatan, and made certain he would never give them trouble again. The Torah leadership then sent a message to Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseira that although he was very distant from the Beis Hamikdash and unable to attend the offering of the korban Pesach (see Tosafos ad loc. s.v. Ve’ana), his trap set from quite a distance had snared its prey.

This story provides opportunity to discuss the following problem, raised by Tosafos and other rishonim: How was this gentile able to attend the Beis Hamikdash on Erev Pesach and pretend that he was Jewish? Did he not have to bring proof that he was Jewish before being allowed to consume korban Pesach? May anyone claiming to be Jewish be believed, without having to produce a driver’s license, passport or other photo identification?

Tosafos notes that our story does not prove that this conclusion is true. Indeed, someone claiming he is Jewish might require proof, but, since most of those who attended the korban Pesach procedures were Jewish, there was no need for someone to bring additional proof. Halachically, we accept the principle of rov, that we follow the majority, which includes that someone in a place where most people are Jewish may not be required to prove that he is, too. This is similar to the halachic rule that, although the milk of an animal containing unknown internal injuries, tereifos, is not kosher, we may drink milk, assuming that the cow is kosher, since most living animals are kosher. This is a very useful ruling, because if we needed to prove that every cow whose milk we drink is kosher, it would increase the price of kosher milk considerably.

Shidduch crisis

Tosafos notes that other passages of Gemara imply that someone is accepted as Jewish on their say so, without any other proof. For example, the Gemara (Yevamos 45a) quotes several amora’im who contend that someone whose mother is Jewish, but not his father, is halachically Jewish, a principle called matrilineal descent. (Compare, however, Shu”t Chemdas Shelomoh, Even Ha’ezer #2, who quotes an extensive responsum from Rav Yaakov Loeberbaum of Lissa, the author of the Nesivos Hamishpat and many other major halachic works, who understands this passage of Gemara differently.) Subsequently, the Gemara quotes several anecdotes in which sons of such relationships wanted to marry, but were having difficulty finding a shidduch; Rava advised one to move to a place where his genealogy was unknown, in order to find a shidduch.

Tosafos questions: If this person whose father is not Jewish has to prove his lineage wherever he goes, how does this self-imposed exile help? Tosafos concludes (in both Pesachim and Yevamos) that someone presenting himself as Jewish does not need to prove it. Therefore, someone whose father is not Jewish will be able to keep his personal family circumstances a secret.

When the Rambam quotes this law, he records the following: “Someone who came and said, I was a non-Jew and now I have properly converted in beis din, he is believed (without any other proof, because without his saying so we would have no basis to assume that he was once non-Jewish). This is true in Eretz Yisroel, in an era when we could assume that everyone is Jewish. However, outside Eretz Yisroel, he needs to bring proof before he may marry a Jewish woman. In my opinion, this requirement is a stringency created by Chazal to protect proper yichus” (Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 13:10). The Ra’avad disagrees, contending that, whether he is in Eretz Yisroel or in chutz la’aretz, and regardless of what era he is in, he is required to bring proof that he is Jewish before he marries.

Three opinions

Thus, it appears that we have three differing opinions among the rishonim:

1. Tosafos, who rules that he is never required to prove that he is Jewish, even to marry. It should be noted that this is probably true only when the individual is living a frum lifestyle.

2. The Rambam, who rules that, in Eretz Yisroel, at a time that we would assume that everyone is Jewish, he may marry without any evidence proving his Jewish identity, but, in all other times and places, he must prove he is Jewish to marry, but not for any other benefits.

3. The Ra’avad, who rules that, in all times and places, he must prove he is Jewish to marry. (Also see Yam shel Shelomoh, Kesubos 2:40, who cites, without sources or clarification, the opinions of Rashi and the Remah, who dispute some of what we have written above. However, the Maharshal, the author of the Yam shel Shelomoh, does not provide the sources whence he derived these conclusions from the writings of Rashi and the Remah; it appears that their position may have been similar to that of the Ra’avad.)

How do we rule?

As the primary opinion, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 268:10) quotes Tosafos, although he also then mentions the Rambam’s position. However, several major authorities understand that the Rambam agreed with Tosafos that someone arriving in our community, presenting himself as born Jewish, does not need to prove this. They explain that the Rambam contends only that someone who admits to having once been non-Jewish must provide evidence that he had a proper conversion to allow him to marry (Yam shel Shelomoh, Kesubos 2:40; Bach, Yoreh Deah 268; Shach, Yoreh Deah 268:21). This approach to understanding the Rambam explains how the Rambam can easily explain the Gemara (Yevamos 45a), quoted above, that advised someone to hide his family’s past and get married, without any other proof. This individual,  who had a non-Jewish father but a Jewish mother, was Jewish from birth and, therefore, exempt from providing any other proof to verify his being Jewish.

It should be noted that the Migdal Oz (Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah 13:10)and the Gra (Yoreh Deah 268:25) provide a different approach to explain the Rambam, based on a passage in Mesechta Geirim (4:4), which they both accredit to the Talmud Yerushalmi, that seems to conflict with the Gemara in Yevamos. The Gra’s halachic conclusion agrees with that of the Shulchan Aruch.

Halachic conclusion

In summary, the following are the halachic conclusions:

  • Someone that we know was not Jewish and claims to have been properly converted must prove that he underwent a proper conversion (Tosafos, Yevamos 47a s.v. Bemuchzak quoting Rabbeinu Tam; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:10).
  • Someone claiming to be Jewish from birth is believed, without any proof, even to marry (Shach, Yoreh Deah 268:21).
  • Someone claiming that he was properly converted, about whom we have no previous information whether he is Jewish or not, is a subject of dispute, whether he needs to prove that he was properly converted in order to marry. However, if he is observant, we accept him as fully Jewish for all other halachos (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 268:10; Shach, Yoreh Deah 268:21; Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh Deah 268:14).

Why is he believed?

At this point, I would like to discuss a question that underlies what the rishonim have concluded. Why is someone believed on his own that he is Jewish? What is the halachic reasoning behind this assumption?

I have found three answers to this question:

1. Tosafos (Yevamos 47a s.v. Bemuchzak) states that there is a concept of rov, majority – meaning that most people who act like frum Jews and claim to be Jewish are indeed Jewish.

2. The Tiferes Yisroel (Kesubos 2, Boaz 1) questions Tosafos’s approach by noting that most people in the world are not Jewish. Therefore, he suggests a different approach: when an individual claims he is Jewish, he requires himself to observe all the laws of Shabbos, kashrus, etc., which he is not required to do if he is not Jewish. It is difficult to imagine that someone would do this, if he were not, indeed, already observing these mitzvos.

3. The Tiferes Yisroel then shares another option, which is very similar, and perhaps logically identical, to that of Tosafos,although he explains it in a slightly different way than Tosafos does. Someone who observes halacha as a frum person has a chazakah that he is Jewish, and there is no further reason to require him to prove that he is Jewish (see Yevamos 47a; Kiddushin 80a).

It would seem that all three approaches we have presented accept that only someone who is clearly religiously observant when he presents himself as Jewish is believed.

Situation #1: Richard

Richard was born into a non-observant family and married a woman who keeps a kosher home, but neither he nor his wife are interested in becoming more observant. He is under the impression that, going back a few generations, his mother’s family was not originally Jewish, and, as far as he is aware, never was observant; yet his mother’s kesubah, which was written up and witnessed by a talmid chacham, identifies her as Jewish from birth. Does this mean that he is halachically Jewish and can wear tefillin and be counted as part of a minyan?

At the time that this shaylah came up, I asked Rav Yisroel Belsky, zt”l , who answered me that once we saw that a talmid chacham wrote a kesubah assuming that Richard’s mother was born Jewish, this becomes the accepted halacha. Therefore, Richard is assumed to be Jewish for any halachos.

Situation #2: Gail

Gail does not think that her maternal grandmother was born Jewish, but she has little information about that part of her family.

Answer:

Gail is now living a fully frum lifestyle. As such, for all halachos, those around her should assume that she is Jewish. The only question is whether she can marry someone Jewish. Since she has no proof of her Jewish identity, according to some authorities she may not marry someone Jewish. As opposed to Richard, Gail has no evidence that her grandmother and mother are Jewish. Therefore, Gail was advised to have a giyur lechumra, meaning to undergo a geirus process, but without reciting any brachos when immersing in the mikveh, because of safek brachos lechumra — when we are uncertain about whether to recite a brocha, we do not do so. She subsequently married a fine, frum-from-birth young man.

Situation #3: Julia

Julia’s mother always told her that she was Jewish, although she grew up in an area with few Jews and no Jewish community. Recently, she has discovered that her mother is fond of inventing stories about her life, and Julia’s father tells her that he never believed that Mom is Jewish.

Since Julia is now living a fully frum lifestyle, other people should assume that she is Jewish. However, there is major uncertainty whether or not to believe her mother, and, therefore, I advised her to undergo a geirus procedure.

Situation #4: Norman

Norman, who was not raised Orthodox, has since become fully frum, is married and has children. Years ago, his bar mitzvah was at a local Orthodox synagogue, but his mother was not Jewish at the time. The rabbi had him undergo a conversion, but he has no recollection whether this was before or after his bar mitzvah, and he was certainly not interested in being observant at the time, so any statement that he was planning to observe mitzvos would not have been serious.

Does Norman need to have another conversion procedure?

The answer to this question takes us a bit afield from our topic at hand, but I will supply some of the information in a cursory way. If the conversion process was performed before Norman was bar mitzvah, there are halachic authorities who would rule that he is certainly Jewish, but there are others who might question this, depending on the circumstances. Therefore, it was advised that he perform geirus leshufra demilsa, which means a geirus that may not be necessary, but resolves all issues. This was expedited very discreetly and very swiftly.

Conclusion – geirim are special

A geir tzedek should be treated with tremendous love and respect. Indeed, the Torah gives us a special mitzvah to “Love the geir,” and we daven for them daily in our Shmoneh Esrei! Throughout the years, I have met many sincere geirim and have been truly impressed by their dedication to Torah and mitzvos. Hearing about the journey to find truth that brought them to Judaism is usually fascinating. What would cause a gentile to join the Jewish people, risk confronting the brunt of anti-Semitism, while at the same time being uncertain that Jews will accept him? Sincere converts are drawn by the truth of Torah and a desire to be part of the Chosen People. They know that they can follow the Will of Hashem by doing seven mitzvos, but they insist on choosing an all-encompassing Torah lifestyle.

One sincere young woman, of Oriental background, stood firmly before the beis din. “Why would you want this?” questioned the rav.

“Because it is truth and gives my life meaning.”

“There are many rules to follow,” he cautioned.

“I know. I have been following them meticulously for two years,” was the immediate reply. “I identify with the Jews.”

After further questioning, the beis din authorized her geirus, offering her two dates convenient for them. She chose the earlier one, so that she would be able to keep an extra Shabbos.

We should learn from the geir to observe our mitzvos every day with tremendous excitement – just as if we had received them for the first time!