Parshat Ki Tavo
“My Father was a homeless Aramean.” The story of the Jew, both born and converted
Our parsha begins with the words “vehaya ki tavo el ha’aretz / and it shall be when you have come into the Land,” derivi ng its name. In this parsha, we continue with discussing the laws related to the people coming into the Land. But here we are talking about once they already have come into the Land to possess it and settle it.
We are told that the people are to take the first fruits of the Land and to put them in a basket and go up to the place “vehalachta el-hamakom asher yivchar Hashem Eloheicha leshaken shmo sham / to the place where Hashem your G-d will choose to cause His Name to dwell there,” meaning the Beit haMikdash – The Temple. What we learn from the sages is that during the first season of fruit it was to marked by a reed rapped around it to identify it as the first fruits, then when they were ripe they were to be collected in a basket and brought to Beit haMikdash, and as our text says presented before the altar. This was done during Shavuot – the festival of first fruits, which was spring barley festival also known as Pentecost (see Exodus 23:16, Numbers 28:26). Settlement would happen bit by bit as we are told (see Deut 7:22), and eventually the sanctuary of the Miskan – The Tabernacle, would give way to a permanent home, just as the people each find their own home. This was their moment to celebrate not only did they have a home, but also a parnasa – a way to support themselves. They really had it all now, they were complete.
So when this happened they were to go up to the Temple and present themselves before the priests, whoever it is in those days (obviously meaning it was gonna be at a different times for different people).
For a person like me who loves the siddur (prayerbook), this is lovely because it goes step by step through a process of the ritual and how it was officiated by the priests. I don’t want to spend to much time on the process because its beautifully clear. But one part we must take notice of is the statement the man makes to the priest, he says to him:
“I affirm today
before Hashem your G-d
that I have come into the land
which Hashem swore
to our forefathers to give us.”
| Higadeti hayom
| l’Hashem Eloheicha
| ki-vati el-ha’aretz
| asher nishba Hashem
| la’avoteinu latet lanu.
The basket is taken by the priests and presented before the altar, then a declaration is made. Now it’s a little bit long so we should assume it was read by each person. In fact the Mishnayot tell of this, as we learn how the people who knew what they were doing and were literate went first to make their declaration to get out of the way, and then those who didn’t went next so that they could be helped through the process. It’s a very beautiful way of showing that we should be concerned to help our fellow through the joy of a mitzvah too, if we are good at something we are then more than able to help another along too. But I digress…
The declaration started with the statement:
“My father was a wandering Aramaean.
He went to Egypt
and resided there as an immigrant…”
| Arami oved avi
| vayered Mitzraimah
| vayagor sham bimtei
The statement made would go through how the Hebrews became a great people in Egypt, and how they became persecuted and were enslaved. It goes into great detail about the suffering and afflictions, and then how G-d saved the people with terrible signs and wonders. And then how they were brought into the land flowing with milk and honey.
The statement concludes with the basket being taken once again and presented in keeping with the words:
“And now, behold,
I have brought the first of the fruit of the land,
which You Hashem have given me”
| Ve’atah hineh
| heveti et-reshit pri ha’adamah
| asher natatah li
Then the fruits were finished being presented and he would prostrate before the altar.
Now back to this statement being made, as I said it goes through a very strong description of the type of sufferings the children of Israel went through. It doesn’t just say they suffered, it says it in many colorful ways just how much they suffered. Yet they also went on to speak amazingly about the deliverance from bondage and how they were brought to a prosperous land. Why are they to do this though?
“You shall rejoice in all the goodness
which was give you to you by
Hashem your G-d
and unto your household;
and the Levite and the convert
which is in your midst.”
| Vesamachta vechol-hatov
| asher natan-lecha
| Hashem Eloheicha
| uleveitecha atah
| vehaLevi vehager
| asher bekirbecha.
The reason we are to go through this whole declaration is so that we can rejoice, because G-d has taken us from being children of a wandering Aramean to now be a people who possess a fruitful land. Though telling our story comes with a lot horrible scenes, we came from nothing to having it all; so we rejoice in this.
Every so often I speak with my family about the horrors of the shoah – the holocaust and the stories surrounding the families I know that are survivors. Though my family has been here in California for many many generations, they remember the early days of Los Angeles and the Jewish community of Boyle Heights, the original immigrant Jewish community. They watched on as may people after the war came to join family members already here, swelling the neighborhoods with new enterprise and energy. My grandmother speaks to me fondly of shopping in the farmers markets and shops. But they confided in me one of the things that perplexed a lot of them, like most American people, was what the stories were surrounding these earlier pioneers and then the immediate survivors of the Shoah. They had to ask as the people still had an awkwardness present in their personality and attitudes, along with a resolute spirit worth noticing. But the bearers were not willing to speak about what refined such a temperament within them. Of course these Ashkenazim also married into my family, but they still were left wondering
I had to remind them that not to long ago these people were not so well off, many of them came with nothing and not but a few pennies to rub to together. I put it bluntly, these immigrants were strangers and poor and were really taken advantage of on top of all their suffering, most didn’t want to talk about it as living it was hard enough. Those who did really didn’t start speaking of the horrors of the shoah, for instance, until well into my childhood. In some way I can understand, in some way that’s the way it always is that people can only really get beyond the anguish of it all when their joy is complete and they are looking back at it from a better place. It took at lot of hard work, but as we see these Jews often did very well for themselves in this prosperous land. Now a lot of Jews openly talk about their struggle, but it took a long time to feel secure enough to be that open.
I think about this as I sit here and read the declaration of the first fruits being made, it starts out with a pretty sad start “my father was a homeless Aramean.” This is not just exaggeration. Its not a story of “I walked to school, barefoot, in the snow, uphill, both ways.” Our father Abraham was a wandering nomad. And being a wanderer is something us Jews certainly understand well, often doing it ourselves. But the reason we should give our story is to rejoice. And as we see, it’s a compulsory mitzvah that we rejoice.
But it makes me think. How do I tell my story, am I beaten down and angry? Or do I have the spirit of a mitzvah maker? Either you can think of it as “My father was a homeless Aramean…” and tell “…see how far I have come” or you can be negative and ungratefully ignore just how good you really do have it in the here and now. How do you tell your story, what is your declaration?
The Honor of the Convert: Who’s Your Daddy?
As we see everyone is required to bring first fruits, once they have land and the trees produce they are to bring the fruit and declare. Everyone is to do so, including the Levite priests and the gerim – converts, the people who were formerly strangers in the land. The obvious questions arises when we read the statement that this is about the children of Israel and their subjugation and redemption. The point of this strikes us in the very first words “My father was a wandering Aramean,” and continues on with all kind of lines relating us calling out and being saved by “Hashem Elohei Avoteinu / Hashem G-d of our fathers.”
One really has to take notice because even before the convert is directly mentioned we can already start asking the inevitable question. Everything begins smooth as the statement to the priests first used the words, “Hashem Eloheicha / G-d of your fathers.” But what happens when a person gets a few lines into it and the statement is made that we have come “asher nishba Hashem la’avoteinu latet lanu / Hashem swore to our forefathers to give us” and the person is a convert; meaning their forefathers were not so promised? Can one say this? It sounds like they are making an untrue statement.
This is an issue that is presented to us as early as the Mishnah:
“These bring [first fruits] but don’t
recite [the declaration]
The convert, since
he cannot say:
‘[I have come to the Land] which Hashem
swore to our fathers
to give to us’ (Deuteronomy 26:3).
But if his mother was an Israelite
he brings and recites.
When he prays [shemonah esreh] in private,
[instead of saying: The G-d of our fathers]
he says: ‘The G-d of the fathers of Israel’
and when he prays
in the Beit Keneset (synagogue)
he says: The G-d of your fathers.
But if his mother was an Israelite
he says: The G-d of our fathers.”
אלו מביאין ולא |
—הגר מביא ואינו קורא, |
שאינו יכול לומר |
“אשר נשבע ה‘ |
לתת לנו” (דברים כו,ג); |
אם הייתה אימו מישראל, |
מביא וקורא. |
וכשהוא מתפלל בינו לבין עצמו, |
אומר אלוהי אבות ישראל; |
וכשהוא מתפלל |
בבית הכנסת, |
אומר אלוהי אבותיכם. |
ואם הייתה אימו מישראל, |
אומר אלוהי אבותינו |
Mishna, Mesecta Bikkurim 1:4
I don’t want to spend too much time on the topic of conversions (we dealt with that last week, in Parshat Ki Tietzei). But the statement comes across with an honest point. One should not say the statement because the promise was not made to their forefathers. This small section is a well known passage, taken directly from the Babylonian Talmud.
But the part that continues on related to the mother is present for pretty obvious reason to a Talmud student but often missed otherwise, at this point in history Jewishness is passed through ones mother already. True inheritance is through the father as declared in the Torah, but religious linage is defined by the mother. Because of rape during war and such it could become impossible identify lineage in a very definite way. In a male oriented society, linage submitted to matrilineal descent by reason that the although father could be in question, the mother was almost always known. What is suggested here in this continuing section is that if ones mother was Jewish, then he was properly descended and the statement is still true. A convert who had a Jewish mother, could say this. But it says otherwise the convert should not pray this way, but instead in private say “G-d of the fathers of Israel” and then only “G-d of your fathers” when in shul.
The discussion doesn’t go any further here in the Talmud Bavli – the Bablyonian Talmud which is the standard, due to it’s general comprehensiveness; as opposed to the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud which did not have the benefit of and extra 150 years for compilation which was afforded the sages in the east. People being more familiar with Bavli often cite this source as halacha (law) because in general we posek (rule; decide) according to Bavli (even more so in the Ashkenazi world), and it has found itself into many scholarly works.
However, when it comes to citing the halacha most often people will cite it differently than presented above, though still affirming the source. This is because both Rashi and Rabbenu Tam state that one is indeed commanded to bring first fruits, but a converts is not to make the declaration so as not to make an untrue statement. From here it appears the heavy weights have spoken and the issue is settled.
However, this very position by the wise Rashi in the 11th century is quickly opposed even by Askhenazi poskim such as Rabbi Yoel Ben Yitzhak haLevi immediately after him the 12th century (see Ravyah 2:253–6). This position would even be opposed by Rashi’s own grandson, Rabbeinu Yitzhak mi-Baale ha-Tosafot (Rabbi Yitzchak haZaken bar Shmuel) who stated that a convert should indeed declare the statement (see Tos. Bava Batra 81b).
Now how would powerful Talmudists come to this conclusion? Rabbi Yitzhak cited the Talmud Yerushalmi. This might seems strange to some as there is no real difference in the Mishnah, they share the same text except for a couple changes. First the the word shainu of Bavli is exchanged with sh’ain, and the omission of the section related to unique phrasing of “G-d of the fathers of Israel” and to pray differently in the synagogue; but aside from this it is very much the same. Sure it could be looked at from a different angle, but in full honestly the statement of prohibition sounds resolute.
However, the Talmud Yerushalmi, unlike the Bavli has a Gemara (original commentary on the Mishnah); this is very unique, we often would expect the case to be the other way around. And in this commentary we find one amazing turn of law as the Gemara goes directly against the Mishnah. Once again I’ll provide my own translation:
“Converts say ‘G-d of our fathers’
as if to indicate if his mother was from Israel
he would say ‘G-d of our fathers,”
even though his ancestors
were not foreigners.
Said Rabbi Yossi, affirmed by
Benyamin bar Ester
sustained by Rabbi Chiyyan bar Bo.
in the name of Rabbi Bar Bo affirmed
bar Ester established
for when a gentile violated
a daughter of Israel;
Matnita [Baraita] (outside the mishnah).
Rabbi Zarkon said Rabbi Zaira,
want to hear something
revealed to me:
For Avraham, Yizchak and Yaakov
was it not so;
Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov,
their ancestors did not have anything
to swear upon but
but the Holy One, Blessed be He;
however their males perhaps declared.
I was taught in the name of
If a convert comes between you and declares
what is his grounds?
‘”Because father of many nations (goyim)
I have made you.” (Genesis 17:5)
Before you were father
of man, and now from here I will make you father
of all the nations’
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi
stated this law
as Rabbi Yehudah
It was authenticated and established
by Rabbi Avehu
as indicated by Rabbi Yehudah.”
גרים אומרים אלהי אבותינו |
. והא תנינן אם היתה אמו מישראל |
אומר אלהי אבותינו |
הא גרים בני |
גרים לא. |
אמר ר‘ יוסי קיימה |
בנימין בר עשתור |
קומי רבי חייא בר בא |
רבי חזקיה |
בשם רבי חייא בר בא קיימה |
בר עשתור קומינן |
בגוי שבא בעבירה על |
בת ישראל |
היא מתניתא. |
רבי זריקן אמר רבי זעירא |
בעי כלום |
הוא מתכווין לא |
לאברהם יצחק ויעקב |
אברהם יצחק ויעקב |
אבותיהם היו [כלום] |
אלא לזכרים שמא לנקיבות. |
תני בשם |
רבי יהודה |
גר עצמו מביא וקורא |
מה טעם |
כי אב המון גוים |
לשעבר היית אב |
לאדם ועכשיו מכאן ואילך אתה אב |
לכל הגוים. |
רבי יהושע בן לוי |
אמר הלכה |
כרבי יהודה. |
אתא עובדא קומי |
דרבי אבהו |
והורי כרבי יהודה: |
The Gemara Yerushalmi Mesecta Bikkurim 3
And in a striking statement we have our halacha laid out for us from the Gemara of Talmud Yerushalmi. We find that if one’s mother was an Israelite then he could make the statement even if his father’s fathers were not Israelites. However, it points out that even the forefathers were converts, who had no one to mention as their fathers, they could merely swear upon G-d alone and yet seem to have made the declaration. But Avraham was made the father of many goyim – nations, also the term we use for gentiles as the term merely means they are from among the other nations. This halacha is laid down for us in the name of Yehudah bar Ilai and as we see it is properly certified to be true, thus this is the law; even though this is in opposition of the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi.
Though there seems to have been some debate upon the subject between many great rabbis of Rashi’s age and immediately after, by the time of the Rambam (Maimonides; mid-to-late 12th century) this issue would begin to narrow.
The Yerushalim would be set down for us as law in the Rambam’s Mishne Torah. In the first part of chapter four we learn that a woman and the androgynous [note: I’m walking right past that one, not even go bite at it!] do bring first fruits, but do not declare. Why? Because they are women and women cannot own land at this point in history, remember land ownership for women is even relatively a new concept in western society. Also woman is also not bound to have to keep time related mitzvot, so it is very similarly to when doing such a mitzvah; a woman can perform it but without need to say the blessing (to not say a blessing in vain, and because it includes G-ds name also means using G-d’s Name in vain). And then we read:
“Nor does a guardian, a slave, or an agent declare,
can not say ‘which
You have given me, Hashem’ (Deut. 26:10)
However, a convert brings and declares,
considering it is said of Abraham
‘Father of many nations I have made you.’
Indeed he is father of all the world,
all who come under the wings of the
Shechinah (Divine Presence).”
וכן האפיטרופין והעבד והשליח אינן קוראין,
לפי שאינ ן
יכולין לומר “אשר |
נתת לי, ה‘” |
אבל הגר מביא וקורא |
לפי שנאמר לאברהם |
“אב המון גויים נתתיך” |
(בראשית יז,ה) |
הרי הוא אב כל העולם |
כולו שנכנסין תחת כנפי |
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Bikkurim 4:2, Halacha 3
The Rambam states that for a man, the only time he can not read and declare the statements is when he is not the actual owner; it cannot be done by proxy, because the words “which You have given to me” are not true. But he says a converts both brings and declares, hinting that there is no contradiction about it being promised to ones fathers because Avraham is the father of the nations of the world, and even more so for those who come into the Kahel Hashem – Congregation of Hashem (see Parshat Ki Teitzei) and come to roost under the Shechinah. A convert can refer to G-d as “G-d of our fathers” because truly Avraham is his father.
How is that the Rambam, a Sephardic sage, and Rabbi Yoel the Ashkenezi came to this opinion. Quite frankly I believe they both had experiences with people that forced them to look at the situation intently. Rabbi Yoel befriended a convert from Würzburg, who despite the halachic opinions to the contrary he permitted lead the prayers as a shliach tzibur (cantor) and ordered not alter the text; a topic he would note in his letters to Rabbi Epharim ben Yitzhak.
The other note worthy note is an infamous letter made by the Rambam to the convert Ovadiah. Now understand the issue for a moment. The statements about promises being make and kept by G-d of our forefathers not just made when making these declarations, they are also in the Amidah and in the Birkat haMazon. If one could not make these statements they should not lead the grace after meals because they could not say the statements as truths, and people could not properly agree with “amein.” The same problem would arise when leading prayers in shul. And if even if one did not lead, by altering their prayers they could be distinguished as different and feel embarrassed. This is a real problem,
Our tradition is very sensitive to not shame or embarrass anyone, we are not to remind them nor tell anyone they are converts. This should be taken seriously, because to tell other that someone is a convert is considered lishon hara – evil speech, gossip. Reminding the person that they are a convert is considered ona’at devarim – hunting one down with words, which means verbal abuse. Do this in a congregation your could be breaking two mitzvot right off the bat!
And as we see the Rambam, who is to Oral Law what Moses was to the Bible, would not tolerate this, as we see in his letter of Ovadiah he bluntly sates:
“You must say everything regularly,
and without changing anything
only as all citizens of Israel prays and blesses
should you too bless and pray
when praying alone
or if you happen to be the shliach tzibur.”
יש לך לומר הכל כתקנם, |
ואל תשנה דבר. |
אלא כמו שיתפלל ויברך כל אזרח מישראל, |
כך ראוי לך לברך ולהתפלל, |
בין שהתפללת יחידי |
בין שהיית שליח צבור |
The Rambam walks past the issue of if a convert could lead prayers all together, its not even worthy of discussing so he just states that when you are the leader you can’t change anything. He goes on to talk about Avraham being the father of truth and true religion. How the way of Avraham overcame idolatry, and enlightened the world. He even tells us that Abraham was not only a convert himself, but he converted his other children/ And that Abraham also taught others and took on converts, who also fathered children among the nations; whom he was spiritual father to. In summation he charges:
“Therefore, you have to say
‘our G-d and G-d of our fathers,’
As Abraham, peace be upon him,
is your father, and you have to say as
endowed “our forefathers”….
…but the “brought us out of Egypt”
or “You did miracles for our ancestors,”
it you wanted to change and say
“You have brought Israel out of Egypt”
and “You did wonders with Israel “, say it.
And if not, again your not harming anything,
since you came under the wings of
and are accompanied by it.
This is no difference between us and you.
And all the miracles that were made for us
were made for you
After all, He says in Isaiah:
“Neither let the foreigner, that has joined
himself to Hashem, speak, saying:
‘Hashem will surely separate me from
His people'” etc. (Isaiah 56:3)
There is no difference at all between us
and you in all matters.”
לפיכך, יש לך לאמר |
“אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו” |
שאברהם עליו השלום הוא |
אביך, ויש לך לומר |
שהנחלת “את אבותינו“…. |
…אבל “שהוצאתנו ממצרים” |
או “שעשית נסים לאבותינו“, |
אם רצית לשנות ולומר |
“שהוצאת את ישראל ממצרים” |
ו“שעשית נסים עם ישראל“, אמור. |
ואם לא שנית, אין בכך הפסד כלום, |
מאחר שנכנסת תחת כנפי |
ונלווית אליו, |
אין כאן הפרש בינינו ובינך. |
וכל הנסים שנעשו כאילו לנו |
ולך נעשו. |
הרי הוא אומר בישעיה: |
“ואל יאמר בן הנכר הנלוה |
אל ה‘ לאמר |
הבדל יבדילני ה‘ מעל |
עמו” וגו‘ (ישעיהו נו, ג) |
אין שום הפרש כלל בינינו |
ובינך לכל דבר. |
The Rambam has a striking and clear position. This would be enough to settle the issue for Sephardim permanently. It would later be affirmed by the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) of Rabbi Yosef Karo (the Sephardic master), and would not be objected by the Rema (who wrote the Ashkenazi glosses). And thus the issue ends in the 16th century.
Those opinions that arise now are merely out of step based on a minority opinion who are not aware of the halacha due to the uniqueness of its source. In my estimation the only real resistance left is a few Ashkenzi sources that are not accustomed to poskim of Yerushalmi as much as Sephardim who widely rely on it, and thus have a very different world view of “Minhag mevattel Halakhah – custom nullifies law” which is prevalent in Talumud Yerushalmi, but resisted in Talmud Balvi despite its often tendency to deviate from this position; but thats not what I’m here to talk about. 😉
I write all this to say that within Judaism it is established as a fact of law that our brothers and sisters who are converts are completely equal. We are not to distinguished between ourselves and them at all. After all we are all children of a convert, his name is Avram Aveinu – Abraham our father; the “av hamon goyim / the father of many nations.” He is the father of all who to dwell among the people and Presence of the G-d of Israel.