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How Can Apostates Such as the Falash Mura Return to Judaism?

 Responsa in a Moment: Volume 1, Issue No. 5, January 2007

Yoreh De’ah 268:12

Question: In our day, there are many Jews who have converted to Christianity or Islam – among them thousands of Ethiopian Falash Mura – who wish to return to the Jewish fold. How can such apostates and their children return to Judaism?  (This responsum began as a responsum to my father, Rabbi Noah Golinkin z”l, on 14 Shevat 5749. It was expanded for presentation at a conference on Jewish Identity in December 2000 and was approved by the Va’ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel in January 2001. The complete Hebrew version will appear shortly in a volume on Jewish Identity to be published by Tel Aviv University. My thanks to Rabbi Avinoam Sharon for his preliminary English translation of this teshuvah. The references in this version have been abbreviated).

Responsum: Several scholars have observed that there is a significant difference between the use of the terms mumar (apostate) and meshumad (apostate) in Talmudic literature,  (The original Talmudic term meshumad was consistently replaced with the tem mumar by the censors, beginning with the Basel edition of the Talmud (1578-1581) – see Raphael N. N. Rabinowitz, Ma’amar al Hadpasat Ha-Talmud , ed. Haberman., Jerusalem, 5712, p. 77; William Popper, The Censorship of Hebrew Books, New York, 1899, pp. 59, 71; Rabbi Theodore Friedman, Conservative Judaism 41/2 (Winter 1988-89), pp. 53-54. In this article, we will use the more familiar term mumar). and the use of those terms from the Geonic period onward (Chaim Tchernowitz (Rav Tza’ir), Toldot Haposkim , Part I, New York, 1946, pp. 45-46; Ya’akov Katz, Tarbitz 27 (5718) pp. 210-211 = Halakhah Vekabalah, Jerusalem, 5744, pp. 262-263; Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, HTR 63 (1970), pp. 364-365; Friedman, (above, note 2); Robert Brody, Irano Judaica II (1990), pp. 54-55). This is what Prof. Yaakov Katz wrote on the subject almost fifty years ago:

Deciding the status of a mumar . relied upon the Talmudic tradition. In practice, the concepts settled upon in the Talmudic period did not correspond at all to the reality to which they were applied. Talmudic halakhah does not treat of the status of a mumar in terms of an abandonment of the Jewish community, but rather in terms of an ongoing transgression of the laws and commandments. The Talmud recognizes a sort of partial mumarut (apostasy). A person can be a mumar in regard to one’s appetites or one’s desire to irritate, in regard to desecrating the Sabbath, in regard to circumcision, in regard to idolatry, and in regard to the entire Torah. However, such a mumar is always described in the negative, i.e., in terms of a deviation from what is accepted in Judaism, and never in terms of joining a different religious community. Therefore, it is clear in the eyes of the Talmud that the mumar never ceases to be a Jew. Therefore, even if there is a tendency toward denying the mumar certain privileges – for example, not accepting [the kashrut of] his ritual slaughter or his capacity to serve as a witness – this denial always requires evidence. The fact that the mumar is a Jew is never in doubt.

The connection to Christianity or Islam fundamentally altered the nature of the concept of mumar. Thereafter, one could no longer speak of being a partial mumar. The mumar utterly removes himself from Judaism. He severs his connection to the members of his community and settles in another religious community. Judaism. had to adopt a position in regard to this new type of mumar, and in typical fashion, it did so in reliance upon the old concepts, after filling them with new content. The term mumar or meshumad now referred to a person who separated himself completely from Judaism, and it became an absolute concept. The collocation ” mumar in regard to.” vanished from usage outside of Talmudic quotations and paraphrases. In the popular conception, the apostate entirely ceased to be a Jew, and that view actually corresponded to the social reality (Yaakov Katz, ibid . For examples of “Talmudic” converts in the Geonic period who abandoned the mitzvot but did not profess another faith, see Otzar Hageonim on Yevamot , par. 262, pp. 113-114).

Due to this substantive change in the nature of the mumar, there is little Talmudic material to guide a Jew who has converted to Islam or Christianity back to Judaism. The fifty halakhic authorities who addressed this issue between the ninth and seventeenth centuries can be divided into six basic approaches. We will now briefly survey these six approaches, proceeding from the most lenient to the most stringent.

  1. I) Repentence Alone

1) This approach is found in one of the earliest responsa that has reached us on this subject. Rabbi Moshe Gaon (ca. 825) was asked in regard to a Jew “who became an apostate and later returned to Judaism, do we suspect that his contact renders wine yayin nesekh [wine of libation to idolatry] or not?” He responded that “if he observes the Sabbath in public and observes all the mitzvot , he is accepted as any kosher may drink a glass of wine with him with no suspicion of the touch of a gentile” ( Otzar Hageonim on Tractate Yevamot, p. 111, par. 258). In other words, Rabbi Moshe Gaon requires no specific act other than repentance.

2) Rav Hai Gaon (d. 1038) was asked whether, in the case of a slave who had been circumcised by his master but who left Judaism and was sold, and who was later purchased by another Jew, was it necessary to perform hatafat dam brit (drawing of blood in lieu of circumcision), or was it sufficient that he be ritually immersed in a mikveh? Rav Hai responded that there was no need to draw blood or to immerse him “rather, he is like an apostate Jew, for any Jew who becomes an apostate, once he repents, he does not require immersion let alone circumcision” ( Otzar Hageonim on Tractate Yevamot , p. 109, par. 250, right column). In other words, Rav Hai, too, does not require any specific act other than repentance.

3) Rabbeinu Gershom (d. 1028) was asked “whether or not a kohen who became an apostate and repented is fit to perform the Priestly Blessing and to be called first to read the Torah?” He replied, ” since he has repented , he is fit to ascend the pulpit and perform the Priestly Blessing”. Nowhere in Rabbeinu Gershom’s extensive responsum do we find mention of any act other than repentance (Mahzor Vitry , Berlin , 1889-1897, par. 125, pp. 96-97 = Shlomo Eidelberg, Teshuvot Rabbeinu Gershom Me’or Hagolah , New York , 5716, par. 4, pp. 57-61, and compare ibid. , par. 5 and in the editor’s comments. For other rabbinic decisors who ruled like Rabbeinu Gershom, see Responsa of Rashi , ed. Elfenbein, New York, 1943, par. 170, pp. 190-191; Eidelberg, p. 60, n. 20; Rabbi Menahem Waldman, 5756, p. 23; and cf. Ya’akov Katz, (above, note 3), pp. 213 ff. = pp. 265 ff).

4) Rabbi Yitzhak ben Avraham ( Ritzba ), one of the most important French Tosafists (ca. 1200), required no act other than repentance: “It is correct that it is not required that a mumar who repents be accepted by [a court of] three.even if he did not immerse. in any case we consider him to be a penitent, since he set aside his ways and returned to his Maker” (Responsa of the Rashba attributed to the Ramban , par. 180 and parallels).

5) Sefer Hassidim , attributed to Rabbi Judah Hehassid (Ashkenaz, d. 1217), establishes that in regard to “a person who became an apostate and returned to being a Jew and obligated himself to repent as the sages shall instruct him, it is permitted to drink wine with him and pray with him from the moment he accepted [the obligation]” (ed. Margaliot, par. 203, p. 192).

6) Rabbi Shlomo ben Shimon Duran ( Rashbash ; Algiers , 1400-1467) addressed our issue in regard to the question of the repentance, circumcision and ritual immersion of “apostates referred to as anusim ha’areilim [uncircumcised Marranos].” He ruled decisively that a Jewish apostate remains Jewish even though he has sinned, that his kiddushin [contracting marriage] is valid, and one may not lend him money at interest. Because they are not deemed converts, they are not instructed in some of the minor and the major commandments and the punishments for transgressing them, as would be required of a proselyte in accordance with Yevamot 47a. “And he is not to be frightened or alarmed but should be attracted by kindness, for he entered the covenant at Sinai.” “And he also does not require immersion” because he is not a proselyte. “And so the rabbis of France z”l wrote that a Jew who became an apostate, even to idolatry, does not require immersion or acceptance by a court of three” ( Responsa of the Rasbash , par. 89).

7) Lastly, the French Tosafist Rabbi Samson (perhaps Samson of Sens, younger brother of Rabbi Yitzhak ben Avraham, the Ritzba ) added that in regard to a person who “leaves the faith,” “his repentance is only repentance if done publicly” (Piskei Recanati , par. 68, fol. 11a). The unabridged version of the Mordekhai, as quoted in the Responsa of the Maharik (par. 85), also states that “since he was permitted in the congregation and accepted the obligation to fast, even though he has not finished, when he recanted and repented he immediately returned to his acceptable status.” In other words, both authorities seem to be of the opinion that an apostate must repent in public .

  1. II) Lashing Alone or Lashes and Some Additional Act

1) This approach is clearly attested in a different version of the aforementioned responsum of Rav Hai Gaon (above, paragraph I, 2). According to that version, Rav Hai responded that that slave “is like an apostate Jew who does not require immersion but rather lashes ” ( Otzar Hageonim on Tractate Yevamot , p. 109, par. 250, left column). This is, indeed, the version of Rav Hai’s responsum quoted in the Tur ( Yoreh De’ah 267) and in the Shulhan Arukh ( Yoreh De’ah 267:8). According to this version, an apostate who returns to Judaism is subject to lashes (There are several additional rabbis who theoretically require lashing if there are appropriately ordained sages or a Sanhedrin. See Responsa of the Rashba , Part V, par. 66 and Rabbi Jacob Beirab and his followers in Kunteres Hasemikhah at the end of the Responsa of the Maharalbah, Lemberg, 1865, fol. 60b ff).

2) Rav Amram Gaon (ca. 858) also requires lashes, but he adds a requirement of public confession:

Thus we have seen that lashes are certainly required, because he transgressed several positive and negative commandments, and commandments punishable by Karet [divine punishment] and the death penalty. He does not require immersion, since he is not a convert. and even though he receives lashes, he must publicly stand before the congregation and confess what he did and express regret for the evils he committed, and having done so, all know that he has completely repented, and there is no suspicion of deceit, and one may eat and drink with him ( Otzar Hageonim on Tractate Yevamot , par. 259, p. 112, right column).

In other words, Rav Amram Gaon appears to suspect the possibility of deception, and therefore requires both lashes and public confession.

3) Rav Paltoi Gaon (ca. 842) also suspected the possibility of deception, and ruled that, if necessary, it is permitted to give lashes and immerse returning apostates as a fence around the Torah, as ” Rabbi Elazar ben Ya’akov [said]: I have heard that the court gives lashes and punishes not in accordance with the Torah. but rather to make a fence around the Torah” ( Sanhedrin 46a), “and they are accepted in repentance” ( Otzar Hageonim on Tractate Yevamot , par. 260, p. 112).

III) Immersion and Repentance

In Avot Derabi Nattan (Version A, Chapter 8, ed. Schechter, p. 37) there is a story about a girl who was taken into captivity, and when she was released she was ritually immersed. The explanation given is “that all the days that she was living among the gentiles, she ate their food and drank their drink, and now let her be immersed that she be purified”. Rabbi Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna (1180-1250) wrote a responsum in regard to whether a person who accidentally killed another person could lead communal services: “And so I learned from my teacher and rabbi Rabbi Simhah z”l (of Speyer, d. 1230), that all penitents require immersion “, and he relied upon the story from Avot Derabi Nattan (Or Zarua, Part I, par. 112) . Indeed, this idea that all penitents require immersion was prevalent among the rabbis of Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages,  (For many sources, see Ya’acov Elboim, Teshuvat Halev Vekabbalat Yissurim, Jerusalem , 5753, pp. 225-227. and this would appear to be the source of the requirement of immersion for returning apostates).

1) Rabbi Meir ben Baruch (Maharam) of Rothenburg (d. 1293) was asked a question about an agunah [a chained woman who could not remarry]. A Jew of questionable repute, who converted and apparently repented, testified that the woman’s husband was still alive in France . He was sought but not found. Maharam ruled that the woman could remarry “since he converted to idolatry, he is unfit [to testify] and because he immersed but did not make perfect repentance, he is not fit to testify. ” (the Mordekhai on Ketubot, at the end of par. 306 and parallels). In other words, Maharam incidentally states that a convert who returns to Judaism must both repent and ritually immerse.

2) Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (Radbaz; Egypt and Israel, 1480-1574) was asked “about Jews forced to convert by Muslims, who gave birth to children and grandchildren.who now come to Judaism and are circumcised, do they require ritual immersion, [and if] required, is it absolutely necessary or not?” Like Rabbi Shlomo ben Shimon Duran, above, he ruled that immersion is not absolutely necessary and they need not be informed of the mitzvot , since they are not proselytes.

But immersion is not a mitzvah .but since he leaves the impurity of the gentiles to the purity of Israel, he must immerse for purification, like the immersion of Yom Kippur, since he is no worse than penitents who, as Rabbi Simhah z”l wrote, must immerse ( Responsa of the Radbaz , III, par. 858 (415)).

In other words, the Radbaz was of the opinion that immersion for Jews forced to convert does not derive from the Talmudic requirements for conversion, but rather from the customs of repentance of the rabbis of Ashkenaz.

  1. IV) Immersion and Acceptance as a Haver by a Court of Three

In a Baraita in the Babylonian Talmud ( Bekhorot 30b) we read that if an am ha’aretz [a Jew who is not a haver ] wishes to become a haver who is strict in the observance of the laws of priestly gifts and tithes and the eating of hullin [profane food] in a state of ritual purity, “he must accept the rules of haverut before three haverim ” (and cf. Tosefta Demai, Chapter 2). This is the source of the next approach.

1) Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Ishbili (Ritba; Saragossa, 1250-1330) wrote in his novellae to Yevamot 47b concerning the binding nature of the kiddushin [betrothal] of an apostate:

And a Jew who sinned and repented, all [agree] that according to the letter of the law he does not require immersion, but only acceptance [of haverut ] before a court, ab initio, but he nevertheless immerses by rabbinic decree just in case – it is like the immersion of an emancipated slave whose immersion is only by rabbinic decree, and so it is written in . Tosafot (ed. Yafn, Part 2, Jerusalem, 1992, cols. 330-332).

Although the Ritba writes that “all” require acceptance of haverut before a court, only Avi Ha’ezri made such a demand (see below). On the other hand, the Ritba agrees that the immersion of a returning apostate is a rabbinic requirement, as in the case of an emancipated slave.

2) The Ritba’s position was quoted in its entirety by Rabbi Joseph Haviva ( Spain , early 15 th century) in his Nimukei Yosef to Yevamot (ed. Vilna, fol. 16b, at the top). >From there, it was adopted by Rabbi Joseph Caro ( Beit Yosef on Yoreh De’ah , at the end of par. 268), by Rabbi Moses Isserles ( Rema on Yoreh De’ah 268:12, and cf. 267:8), by Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe ( Levush on Yoreh De’ah 268:12), and by Rabbi Jehiel Michal Epstein ( Arukh Hashulhan, Yoreh De’ah 268:10, 16), who required immersion and acceptance of the obligations of haverut before a court of three.

  1. V) Immersion, Shaving of Hair, and Additional Acts

1) “Avi Ha’ezri” – who appears to be Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi (Ra’aviyah; Ashkenaz, 1140-1220) ruled: “When an apostate Jew returns, he must shave his head with a razor and perform immersion as a proselyte, and his immersion need not be during the day [like a proselyte], but the acceptance must be before three people” ( The Semak of Zurich , part II, p. 49). In other words, Avi Ha’ezri requires immersion as a proselyte , as well as acceptance before three people as we saw in the Ritba. However, his main innovation is the requirement that the he “shave his head with a razor”, which we have not seen previously.

2) These practices are emphasized in sources from the Inquisition in France (1317 ff.) and Spain (1465). According to these sources, when an apostate Jew returned to Judaism, the areas of his body that were baptized were rubbed with sand, his nails were cut to the quick, his head was shaved, he was immersed three times while repeating the blessing for immersion, he declared ” divrei haverut ” and renounced Christianity, and he was issued a certificate testifying that he had repented (Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (above, note 3), pp. 363-369, collected the sources and translated them from Latin into English).

3) Rabbi Israel Isserlein (Ashkenaz, d. 1460) was asked whether it was permissible to shave a repentant apostate during Hol Hamoed (despite the normal probation against shaving then) in order to immerse him and return him to the true faith. He permitted it “because it is customary to shave such penitents. since he is not counted in a minyan until he shaves and immerses , and although it is not absolutely required, in any case, the custom of our ancestors is Torah ” ( Terumat Hadeshen , par. 86). In other words, while he admits that these are only customs, nevertheless, the apostate is not counted in a minyan until he shaves and immerses.

4) Rabbi Joseph Caro (Israel, d. 1575; Beit Yosef on Orah Hayyim 531) opposed the permission granted by Rabbi Israel Isserlein to shave on Hol Hamoed , because the Spanish community did not require that repenting apostates shave, but the Rema ( Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 531:7) permits an apostate to shave on Hol Hamoed, following Terumat Hadeshen.

5) Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Maharshal; Lublin , 1510-1573), addressed our subject in two places. In Yam Shel Shelomo ( Yevamo t, Chapter 4, end of par. 52) he writes: “It is our custom that an apostate is required to immerse due to the prohibitions and sins he has performed, as shown in the Yerushalmi “. He then quotes the story from Avot Derabi Nattan (above, approach No. III) (In other words, he refers to Avot Derabi Nattan as ” Yerushalmi “. On this widespread phenomenon see, e.g., Rabbi Levi Ginzberg, Peirushim Vehidushim Bayerushalmi , Part I, New York , 5701, pp. 28-32). However, in Hidushei Ubei’urei Hamaharshal on Tur Yoreh De’ah 267 (ed. El Hamekorot, 5719) he writes: “And it is the custom today [ to immerse ] the apostates and to shave all their hair before hand, and so I have actually seen in practice “. This last statement of the Maharshal is quoted by the Bah, the Drisha, the Taz, the Shakh, Be’er Hagolah, and others (Rabbi Boaz Cohen, p. 1354, and Rabbi Menahem Waldman, 5756, p. 28, had difficulty understanding the later rabbinic decisors who quoted from Maharshal because they saw his book Yam Shel Shelomo without seeing his commentary on Tur Yoreh De’ah).

One might well ask why it became customary to shave the head and cut the fingernails of a repentant apostate. Rabbi Israel Isserlein himself claimed that the custom derived from Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan quoted in Rashi’s commentary to Numbers 8:7 regarding the Levites who “caused a razor to pass over all their flesh”. This explanation is too sophisticated and we would do well to seek another.

Another possible explanation is that, in the Geonic period (ca. 500-1000 c.e.), shaving the head and beard was an accepted punishment for public desecration of the Sabbath, inflicting serious bodily harm, adultery, and other offences (See Alfredo Mordechai Rabello, Hayehudim Besefarad Lifnei Hakibush Ha’aravi Bere’i Hehakikah , Jerusalem , 5743, pp. 149-151, who refers to important literature. My thanks to Prof. Rabello for referring me to his book. Shaving the head was an accepted punishment among the Visigoths in the 7th century, but it is hard to imagine that Jews in the 13th century and after were influenced by that). It is, however, difficult to maintain that European Jews of the 13 th century and onward were influenced by customs of the Geonim.

A third possibility is that the Jews of the 13 th century were directly influenced by the biblical narrative of the “beautiful woman” in Deuteronomy 21:10 ff.: “you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, and pare her nails .”

Lastly, it is possible that this custom is an imitation of the laws of proselytes. The Rif (Shabbat, Chapter 19, ed. Vilna, fol. 55b), the Rosh ( ibid ., par. 11, fol. 179c), Rabbi Jacob ben Asher ( Tur Yoreh De’ah 268), and Rabbi Moshe Isserles ( Rema to Yoreh De’ah 268:2) require cutting the hair and nails of a proselyte, and Rabbi Yoel Sirkes explains ( Bah to Tur Yoreh De’ah 268) that this is intended to prevent any impediment to immersion.

  1. IV) Self-Mortification – For and Against

Finally, in Ashkenaz we find an approach requiring that an apostate seeking to return to Judaism must physically afflict himself, but there are contradictory reports in regard to the positions of two of the greatest halakhic decisors of Ashkenaz.

1) Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (Ashkenaz, d. 1236), author of Sefer Harokeah, addressed our issue in his Laws of Repentance (par. 24, p. 31). There he writes that an apostate must mourn and weep and fast daily for a few years and confess three times a day “and lie on the ground, and endure great suffering, and if [people] say to him ‘evil apostate’ he must remain silent”.

On the other hand, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms is quoted in three places ( Responsa of the Rashba attributed to the Ramban , par. 180 and parallels) as follows:

He was not strict with him that he endure suffering to repent like a Jew who has performed other transgressions.and we should not be so strict with him that he endure suffering and overcome his inclination, because since he has returned he is healed, and he who comes to be purified should be helped.

Thus, the two sources are diametrically opposed.

2) The same thing happened in regard to the opinion of Rabbi Israel Isserlein quoted above. In Leket Yosher, written by his student Rabbi Yozel Hostadt ( Yoreh De’ah p. 49) we find a quote “in the name of the Gaon” [Rabbi Israel Isserlein] that

the apostate shall shave his hair and immerse before two or three people . and must fast for three consecutive days, day and night, and must fast another forty consecutive days before the end of the year . and must fast every Monday and Thursday all year . and must not make new clothing during the first year… In the second year he must fast Monday and Thursday all year . and in the third year [fast] one day a week . and must distance himself from priests . and not argue with any gentile. and if he hears that people abuse him by calling him “apostate”, he must not reply.

On the other hand, in Terumat Hadeshen (par. 198), Rabbi Isserlein himself wrote that an apostate who returns to the true faith is not required to repent by means of great suffering, and he relies upon the lenient view of Rabbi Eleazar of Worms quoted above. Indeed, his opposition to self-mortification is also anonymously reported in Responsa Binyamin Ze’ev (par. 72, fols. 138b-139a), and is attributed to him by name in Sefer Me’irat Einayim on Hoshen Mishpat 34:22.

3) Lastly, Rabbi Isaac Tirna (Ashkenaz, b. 1380) ruled that a Jew and his wife who wish to return to Judaism must afflict themselves by means of a list of measures, as above ( Sefer Haminhagim Lerabbeinu Isaac Tirna , ed. Shpitzer, Jerusalem, 5739, p. 14, n. 21).

VII) In Practice

After reviewing all of the above sources, we believe that when a Jew who has converted to Christianity or to Islam wishes to return to Judaism, the rabbi must take the following five steps:

1) The rabbi must ascertain whether the person is truly an apostate or the child of an apostate who can prove that he is the descendant of a Jewish mother.

2) The apostate or the child of an apostate must repent both theologically and psychologically, and observe mitzvot in practice (approach No. I, above), since this is a basic requirement of all of the rabbinic decisors.

3) Since in our day many apostates and children of apostates do not have adequate knowledge of Judaism, the rabbi must teach them basic Jewish beliefs and practices. This requirement is not derived from any of the sources quoted above, but is required by the current reality.

4) “Accepting haverut before three” (approach No. IV, above). This does not refer to conversion to Judaism before a rabbinic court, since Jewish apostates are halakhically Jewish. However, this ceremony is important not only according to the approach of the Ritba and his followers, but also psychologically, as it provides the repentant apostate an opportunity to express the desire to return to Judaism, and to express regret for past deeds.

5) Immersion (approaches Nos. III and IV above). This immersion is not an absolute requirement, since this is not the case of conversion to Judaism, but it is desirable as a symbol of atonement, following the approach of Avot Derabi Nattan, Rabbeinu Simhah, and Radbaz (approach No. III).

VIII) The Falash Mura  (This summary is based upon Corinaldi, 1998; Corinaldi, 2001, Chapter 11; and upon 27 articles on this topic which appeared in Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post in 2006).

Beginning in 1862, Ethiopian Jews began to convert to Christianity as a result of threats by Emperor Theodorus II, the severe famine and plague that blighted the country (1888-1892), intense Christian missionary activities, and economic pressure that derived from the fact that Jews could not own land. The Falash Mura continued living as a separate community – they were not Jews, but they were not assimilated into the surrounding Christian society. They lived in separate villages, married amongst themselves, continued to observe the Sabbath, and maintained contact with their Jewish relatives.

In the course of Operation Solomon (May 1991), between 2,000 and 5,000 Falash Mura were brought to Israel amongst 14,500 Ethiopian immigrants. Some 3,000 Falashmura remained in Addis Ababa . In July 1991, the [Elyakim] Rubenstein Commission decided that they were not Jews under the Law of Return, inasmuch as they had converted to Christianity for economic reasons, “however, we should nevertheless accept them” by means of a procedure similar to conversion. In September 1992, the [Yair] Tzaban Commission decided that the Falash Mura were not Jewish under the Law of Return, but that the spouses, parents, and children of Jews could immigrate to Israel for humanitarian reasons. In October 1993, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel appointed a committee of three rabbis (Rabbis Shloush, Arousi, and Waldman) to examine the issue of the immigration of the Falash Mura. The committee found that the Falash Mura in Addis Ababa should be treated as Jews, and should be allowed to immigrate to Israel individually, after the lineage of each had been ascertained. That was also the trend of the Ministerial Absorption Committee headed by Natan Sharansky in 1997.

In 2002, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar determined that the Falash Mura who had not married gentile women, are “of Jewish descent” and they should be brought to Israel and returned to Judaism. Indeed, between 1993-2006 approximately 25,000 people made Aliyah from Ethiopia . In January 2005, the Sharon government decided to increase the rate of Aliyah of the Falash Mura from 300 to 600 per month, in order to finish the entire process by the end of 2007. In 2006, the Israeli government tried to reduce the rate from 300 to 150 per month, but the rate of 300 was maintained, due to the protests of the Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Communities and the Ethiopian community in Israel . According to various estimates, the number of Falash Mura still in Ethiopia is between 10,000 and 22,000 people. This topic is further complicated by Ethiopian missionaries in Israel who attempt to convert Ethiopian immigrants to Christianity.

There is no doubt that the Falash Mura are Jews in the eyes of Jewish Law (although not necessarily in the eyes of Israeli law), and they should be allowed to immigrate to Israel as recommended by the Chief Rabbinate’s committee. However, that committee supported the “completion of their repentance “in accordance with the instructions of the Chief Rabbinate”:

  1. Thorough investigation of the lineage of each individual;

2 Study of the basic tenets of Judaism and the practical commandments;

  1. Acceptance of the observance of mitzvot before a panel of three;
  2. Hatafat dam brit [drawing of blood in lieu of circumcision] before a panel of three;
  3. Immersion for the purpose of becoming Jewish before a panel of three (Rabbi Waldman, 5756, p. 38).

In other words, the three rabbis of the committee decided that the Falash Mura must convert to Judaism! That decision contradicts all of the sources examined above, as well as all of the sources that Rabbi Waldman cited in his own report (5756, pp. 22-36)!

Therefore, we would like to emphasize that according to all of the above sources:

1) Halakhically, the Falash Mura are apostates who seek to return to Judaism, and the reason for their conversion to Christianity is immaterial;

2) Because they are Jews, they do not require conversion to Judaism;

3) The Falash Mura should be returned to Judaism like any other apostate, as described in section VII, above.

I hope and pray that the Israeli government will do everything it can to bring the rest of the Falash Mura to Israel and to help them return to the Jewish people.

David Golinkin
4 Shevat 5767


  1. Rabbi Boaz Cohen, “The Repentant Apostate” in David Golinkin, ed., Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement 1927-1970 , Jerusalem, 1997, pp. 1352-1354
  2. Michael Corinaldi, Jewish Identity: The Case of Ethiopian Jewry , Jerusalem , 1998, Chapter 8
  3. Michael Corinaldi, Hidat Hazehut Hayehudit , Srigim, 2001, Chapters 6, 11
  4. Rabbi Menahem Waldman, The Falash Mura and their Return to Judaism According to Jewish Law , Machon Shevet Am, Marheshvan, 5756, esp. pp. 22-38
  5. Rabbi Menahem Waldman, The Falash Mura in Addis Ababa and in Israel , 5752-5757 , Machon Shevet Am, Heshvan 5757

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

Prof. David Golinkin is President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate it, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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