12-5769: Mitzvah N-49-50

Talmidav Shel Aharon
12-5769: Mitzvah N-49-50
May 13, 2009

Negative Mitzvah 49 – This is a negative commandment: Do not oppress a righteous proselyte with words
Hafetz Hayim: This prohibition is derived from the verse, “and a ger you shall not wrong” (Exodus 22:20).
Negative Mitzvah 50 – This is a negative commandment: Do not wrong a righteous proselyte in matters of monetary value.

Hafetz Hayim: Scripture says, “ neither shall you oppress him.” (Exodus 22:20). These prohibitions are in addition to the negative precepts that admonish us about the rest of Jewry [which apply equally to proselytes.] This is in effect everywhere, at every time for both men and women.

Laws like these should be easy to understand. We should not need special laws to cover proselytes, or any other people. The law should apply equally to all. That has not been the case in Jewish law for a long time. Jewish law has often been interpreted to apply only to Jews and not to those outside the Jewish community. Especially when it comes to business law, Jewish law has not held the same standards outside the Jewish community as it has for those inside the Jewish community. I will give the Rabbis the benefit of the doubt here and try to understand this inequality as the result of centuries of oppression by the non-Jewish world. In Christian Europe and Islamic Africa/Middle East Jews lived under harsh restrictions of business and commerce. “Civil” law was, more often than not, stacked against the Jews who could have their property confiscated at a moment’s notice and they could be expelled for the most minor infractions. Jewish law has to protect the members of the Jewish community but was less likely to extend those laws to those who oppressed them.
Needless to say, the reason for such laws are now gone. To hold by them is the most blatant form of discrimination and should not be observed by any Jew who wishes to live a religious life. One of the reasons the Jewish community should be embarrassed over the fiasco in Postville, IA is because of the way so called “religious Jews” treated the workers at their meat packing plant.
It is important that those who convert to Judaism should have their situation added with these two Mitzvot. Because they span two worlds, and because of a tendency in human nature to distrust those who convert, it is important that we be clear on how a Jew by choice is to be treated.
I have seen parents reject a proselyte as a suitable spouse for their child. I have heard of families who treat proselytes shabbily, offering fresh cake to the family but stale cake to the “convert”. Jews who never fail to mention that this person was once a “goy”. Jews who seem to think that every convert is really not a Jew in his/her heart.
All of this is clearly against Jewish law. One is not allowed to remind a proselyte of his/her past. It happened once among the rabbis of the Talmud, Rabbi Yonatan made an offhand comment about the past life, before conversion, of his best friend and brother-in-law Rabbi Shimon of Lakish. The comment literally embarrassed his friend to death and perhaps caused the death of Rabbi Yonatan of a broken heart. The rabbis took this prohibition seriously.
A proselyte is also to be considered a Jew in all respects. There is no waiting period, no levels of commitment, and no trial periods when it comes to conversion. Once the conversion is completed, Judaism does not deny the new Jew any privileges it offers to any other Jew. This is why some who convert tend to hide the fact of their conversion so that they will not be treated any differently than any other Jew. (Others put their conversion documents in frames on their wall, celebrating the conversion as a major life accomplishment.)
These two Mitzvot remind us that we must be careful in the way we treat those who come seeking shelter under the wings of Judaism. To treat them differently would be a terrible misuse of Jewish law and bring desecration to the Jewish faith. Let us celebrate the arrival of these new Jews to our community and may we never have reason to be accused of violating these two Mitzvot.

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