The Responsa of Rabbi Benjamin Ze’ev and the Question of Circumcision

The matter of uncircumcised Conversos and their eligibility for marriage was also discussed in the responsum of Rabbi Benjamin Ben Mattathias Ze’ev in which he contested the decision by Rabbi Moshe ben Eliya Capsali regarding levirate marriage. Capsali’s decision did not include a reference to uncircumcised Conversos nor did the questioners reference this issue.  Rabbi Benjamin Ze’ev’s inclusion of this topic in his responsum is as Dora Zsom argues possible evidence of the fact that some of his rabbinic colleagues regarded uncircumcised Conversos as unfit for marriage.[1]

Rabbi Ze’ev’s argumentation was similar to that provided in the collection of rabbinic response titled Yachin u-Boaz. Rabbi Ze’ev argued that the case of an uncircumcised Converso was similar to a child who was exempted from the requirement of circumcision because of legitimate concern over endangering their life.  If for example, his older brothers had died after being circumcised, it was reasonably assumed that observing this commandment might expose the child to a life-threatening scenario. Rabbi Ze’ev explained that saving one’s life took precedence over the commandment of circumcision.

In the same manner, uncircumcised Conversos remained so because of the life-threatening environment they lived in.  Just as the uncircumcised child was considered as a full Jew, so to were uncircumcised Conversos regarded as Jews for purposes of marriage. There were albeit some restrictions. If the uncircumcised Converso were a Cohen, they would be ineligible to eat terumah or the Passover sacrifice as the Torah specifically restricted these actions to circumcised Jews.[2] The responsum of Yachin u-Boaz 2:21 cited a possible additional restriction regarding the lack of circumcision. It mentions the phrase “who comes from an uncircumcised is like one who comes from a grave.”[3] This relates to the instructions concerning the ritual purity of the Temple and the eating of sacrifices. The responsum notes that because of sin, all Jews are ritually impure with a level of impurity derived from contact with the dead. Consequently, circumcised Jews did not differ from uncircumcised Jews in this matter. As a result, since ritual immersion did not purify a person from contact with the dead, ritual immersion was not required for those Conversos returning to Judaism.

Regarding those uncircumcised Conversos who were returning to the Jewish community, a responsum (Radbaz, 1,434) of Rabbi David Solomon ibn Avi Zimra relates a question posed regarding their circumcision.

“You have asked me if the children of the converts who come and revert to Judaism have to say the she-hecheyanu blessing at circumcision. Response: It is evident for me that he has to say the blessing if he knows its text, for why should his case differ from that [of a firstborn man] who was not redeemed by his father, and comes to redeem himself, and says the blessing of the firstborn to the redeeming and also the she-hecheyanu blessing. Thus wrote the Rambam. And he also wrote that the she-hecheyanu blessing was prescribed only to joyful occasions – now, this one [who is being circumcised] grieves at the pain: nonetheless, this is not a contradiction, since there is no other joy than the joy of the heart. […] Although the body grieves, the heart rejoices, and he says the blessing regarding the joy of the heart. […] If the person that faces circumcision is very anxious about it, so that he is unable to concentrate on the blessing, it can be omitted. But if he can concentrate on it, who would exempt him from the obligation of the blessing?” [4]

Consequently, with respect to marriage, divorce, and levirate marriage, the lack of circumcision did not pose a disqualification. Furthermore, the discussion confirms that Conversos returning to Judaism were not regarded as proselytes of Gentile ancestry. Despite this, the matter was nonetheless, not so clear to everyone inquiring. The rabbis authoring the various responsa offered clarification of the differences between these two categories.  Ritual immersion was not required for Conversos reverting to Judaism. As Converso Involvement in the Sabbatean Movementopposed to a non-Jew converting to Judaism who had to undergo circumcision, ritual immersion, and acceptance of the commandments before a bet din, an uncircumcised Converso only needed to remedy the first requirement only. The rabbis were ensuring that the lack of circumcision was remedied while simultaneously connoting that Conversos were still members of the Jewish people. Consequently, remedying the lack of circumcision was in actuality not more important than the observance of any formerly unobserved commandment. The responsum noted in Yakhin u-Boaz 1:75 relates that:

“Ritual immersion was not prescribed for the converts reverting to Judaism, and they are not called gerim but baalei-tshuva. These returning converts are similar to the Jew who does not perform the precept of circumcision [but performs the other precepts], or to one who was not circumcised by his father and mother, and has to be circumcised by the rabbinical court of law, or by himself: none of these persons need ritual immersion. Thus decided the French rabbis as well: the convert, even if he was idolater does not need ritual immersion [if he wants to return to Judaism] and neither has to declare in the presence of three men that he has the intention of observe the precepts.”[5]

The presumption or hazaka of the Conversos was that their mother was Jewish, even if they could not prove it. This scenario was a steadily increasingly reality with the inability of Conversos to either secure appropriate documents or produce them due to declining knowledge and proficiency of halakhah and Aramaic and Hebrew. The argument according to the collection of rabbinic responsa known as Yachin u-Boaz 2:31 this position was the same reason why returning Conversos were not required to undergo ritual immersion:

“This presumption [that the mother of the convert is Jewish] is proven by the common practice of the reputed authorities everywhere, that they oblige the returning converts only to circumcision and not to ritual immersion since we do not suspect them to have Gentile mother. It is a common presumption that the converts do not marry Gentiles.”[6]

Other rabbis disagreed with this position. They argued that if it was questionable whether the mother of a Converso was Jewish then, ritual immersion was necessary. According to this position, it was forbidden to rely on the common assumption previously mentioned. How a Converso would demonstrate that his mother was Jewish was not addressed. If the returning Converso insisted that his mother was Jewish the sufficiency of this answer is not addressed. Rabbi David Solomon ibn Avi Zimra in Radbaz 3:415 relates:

“If the mother of the convert is Gentile, even if his father is Jewish, ritual immersion is necessary according to Torah law (mi-deorayta), since the child born from a Jewish father and a Gentile mother follows the status of the mother. But if the [ancestry] of the mother is dubious, the stricter practice is preferred, as in the case of every dubious matter that emerges in connection with a precept of the Torah, and we do not regard him as Jew until he undergoes circumcision and ritual immersion.”[7]

In the end, however, it appears that most Conversos were not made to undergo a conversion of doubt. The knowledge of their family was typically accepted at face value. Unless a glaring issue was present, questioning the lineage of Conversos does not appear to have been standard practice. This policy was adopted in cities like Amsterdam in the 17th century.

[1] Dora Zsom, “Uncircumcised Converts in Sephardi Responsa from the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries,” IberoAmerica Global Volume 1 No. 3. (2008): 167.

[2] Exodus 12:48.

[3] Pesachim, 92a.  Dora Zsom, “Uncircumcised Converts in Sephardi Responsa from the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries,” IberoAmerica Global Volume 1 No. 3. (2008): 167.

[4] The phrase “…who comes from an uncircumcised is like one who comes from a grave» was said concerning uncircumcised Gentiles, but not concerning uncircumcised Jews…” Dora Zsom, “Uncircumcised Converts in Sephardi Responsa from the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries,” IberoAmerica Global Volume 1 No. 3. (2008): 168.

[5] Ibid., 168-169.

[6] Ibid.,169. See also Yachin u-Boaz, 2, 3.

[7] Ibid.,169.

Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education. For a more complete review of Iberian Jewish history and the Crypto- Jewish Experience see The Rise of the Inquisition and Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism

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