Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When You NEED to Reveal Your Conversion Candidate Status

You may have previously read When Is It OK to Say "I'm Jewish," Even If You Really Aren't. But what about the other side? When MUST you disclose your in-flux status, even if you really don't want to? I make no promises that this list is exhaustive, but I will update it if other important issues are mentioned in the comments or as I learn more.

NOTE: This post applies just as much to liberal conversion candidates as orthodox ones, though the specific halacha may differ.

Many conversion candidates feel that their status is no one's business. And that's true. However, sometimes your feelings must take a back seat to Jewish law. Sometimes your Jewish status can be very important for the sake of a mitzvah. And in those cases, you may cause someone else to make an aveirah (a sin) when they actually believe they are doing a mitzvah.

Counting a minyan: The most obvious case! If you're male and in an orthodox synagogue, you will have to disclose that you aren't Jewish so that they won't daven prayers that require a minyan when they don't really have one. If you're sensitive to sharing this, show up a little late. If the minyan normally gets more than 10 men, you can try to arrive after 10 men will likely already be there. If it's always close, then there are going to be 9-12 regular men who will just have to know that you aren't a Jew yet. Even if the rabbi/prayer leader knows, the others will also have to know sooner or later because they will inevitably say, "But rabbi, we have 10 men here! What do you mean we can't start yet?"

Similarly, you may have to disclose this to the gabbai or rabbi if he tries to give you an aliyah or other honor during a synagogue service. No offense, of course, but you shouldn't be doing anything but davening in your seat. If someone asks you to leave your seat to do something, it's probably not allowed until you've converted.

Zimmunim: A zimmun is when 3+ men (no matter how many women are present) eat a bread meal together or 3+ women if no men are present. It makes the prayer after eating (bentching) different. Like the minyan, a pre-convert doesn't count. Further, the bentching prayer is slightly differently if there is a minyan present, so you should also be sure that you aren't "the 10th man."

Liberal female converts, all of the above also applies to you.

Wine and grape juice: If you're drinking grape products at someone's house, the host(ess) should know that you are not halachicly a Jew. If the wine is "mevushal" (boiled), you may touch it. If it isn't, you may not even touch the bottle once it has been opened. What happens if you touch/pour the wine? It becomes non-kosher and is therefore prohibited to any Jews. Granted, this could be a good strategy if you want to hog the wine to yourself! Personally, I don't trust myself to remember which bottle is mevushal or to even ask, so I have a flat policy that I don't touch kosher wine bottles once they've been opened. You can handle this in such a way that others don't realize what you're doing. I usually ask men to pour me a glass, and they gladly do so (or do it voluntarily long before I ask) for the sake of chivalry. Things get weirder when I ask a woman to pour for me, and it will usually end with me having to explain my status. If you're male, you may have to explain it to anyone who pours for you because that "seems odd." A tip: Before it's even an issue, ask a friend or the host(ess) to always pour for you. That way, you don't have to explain to anyone else. You can also make a deal with the person sitting beside you.

Cooking food, generally: You may not "cook" food for a Jew. This is more complicated than I can describe here and relies on rulings from your rabbi. As a general rule, I suggest not feeding a Jew any food you've prepared. Bring prepared, packaged foods with the packaging intact. That way, the hechsher is visible, and if the package is unopened, there is no question. There are other options, but they are beyond the scope of this blog post. This way, you should always be safe.

Cooking food on Yom Tov: A Jew cannot cook food for a non-Jew on a holiday. Generally, a Jew can cook food on a holiday with Shabbat restrictions so long as 1) it is for the holiday itself (or for Shabbat if it immediately follows the holiday without a "weekday" in between) and 2) it is for him/herself or another Jew. A Jew cannot cook for someone who can normally cook for himself or herself, aka, a non-Jew. However, there are ways to deal with this that are beyond the scope of this blog post. Be sure to warn any host(ess), who can then check with his or her rabbi about the halacha.

It's never pleasant to reveal your lack of Jewish status to a stranger. But sometimes, it's necessary. You need to place your ego and fears in the back seat to keep others from violating Jewish law. Just remember that one day this will no longer be necessary, and these unpleasant conversations will teach you valuable middos such as humility, honesty, patience, kindness, and a sensitivity for the emotions of others.


  1. In the 9th paragraph, you meant "You may not cook food for a Jew."

    So, Kochava, do you host Shabbos meals for other Jews? If you do, how do you go about it?

  2. I think I need this all on a reference card :-)

  3. When I brought up my non-Jewish status to a Rabbinical intern when he wanted to count me for minyan he thanked me and said many people wouldn't have been so honest. I was surprised. I would think most people would be honest about such a thing.

  4. My understanding is you can accept any honor so long as you don't need to make a blessing. So if you get called to wrap or lift the torah, you should be okay.
    Of course, if halacha is important to you, you should ask your halachic expert first before accepting.

  5. very good post! This is important stuff to remember that isn't really at the top of your list of priorities when you're converting. I mean there is just so much on your mind that isn't easy to forget some important little things like this.

  6. Dena, he was right! People are so reluctant to admit it. In my conservative congregation, there was a huge to-do because people were upset that there was a significant number of people who were not "Jewish" for conservative standards being counted in the minyans, receiving honors, etc, even though the rabbi knew they were patrilineally Jewish, converted reform, etc.

    And Alarbean, having never received any honors, that thought never occurred to me! That's certainly something to look into. I doubt many rabbis would allow it though, just because it might lead others to think the person is halachichly Jewish.

    AJ, no I don't cook for other Jews, Shabbat or not. I stick to the prepackaged food rule I suggest above. However, I have helped people cook in their homes.

  7. This is why strangers in the community get called up to lead or dress the Torah -- if you're not halachicaly Jewish, it isn't problematic as far as the congregation knows.

    As for the cooking -- if you have a Jew turn on the flame, you can cook for others, which is something I did before my official Orthodox dip. My now husband would turn on the stove, and I'd cook and we were good to go :)

  8. This is old, but being a Reform convert isn't necessarily problematic in a Conservative congregation if they had mikvah/milah (and I think a Beit Din). Patrilineal descent obviously won't wash, though.

    I really can't imagine not informing people if they were trying to count me in a minyan or give me an Aliyah before my conversion. Granted, I'm pretty comfortable with letting my freak flag fly, so to speak, but it's just simple respect to help them make sure they're actually fulfilling the mitzvot. If you want to be a part of a community, it's not a great foundation to begin that involvement by misleading people.

  9. what do we think: is it okay to go out of our way to avoid situations where these things would come up (coming late to shul, avoiding groups of certain numbers of people, just sticking to storebought foods for others, never touching wine etc), rather than disclosing convert status? after a certain amount of effort, it clearly counts as intentionally misleading people, but is it excusable for the sake of protecting not only our own sensitivity but also our arbitrary status among community members (and possibly those of our spouses and children)?

  10. About the wine thing: Many Chassidic communities prohibit wine that a non-Jew has even LOOKED at. So if you're a guest in a Chassidic home, you will want to know if the wine is mevushal, otherwise you might have to stand in the kitchen during Kiddush.

  11. Oops, last shabbas I was at a Jewish families house and there were lots and lots of people there, I wanted to read the back of the wine bottle, so I picked it up and looked at it. I cannot remember whether there was still wine in it or not though. Thank you for telling me that, I will know for next time!

  12. Hi, I've read that according to Halacha, a non-Jew may touch or pour wine and it will not cause it to lose its Kosher status. I am somewhat confused...

    1. Hi Mahalia,

      As it says in the post, you're probably talking about "Mevushal" wine. "Mevushal" means "boiled" and really means flash-pasteurized. Most kosher wine sold in the U.S. is mevushal, so a non-Jew touching the bottle or pouring the wine will not make the wine unkosher (in most communities). This is because the prohibition on non-Jews touching wine comes from the fear that they will have poured out a libation to their gods with it or consecrated it for another religion's purposes, but if the wine is "boiled," it is considered unfit for those uses.

      It's always a good idea to check with your community's rabbi about these things, just in case. And as a tip, writing "according to Halacha" is pretty vague-- is this something you heard from a particular rav, a kashrut agency, or the Shulcan Aruch? Maybe a website? I hope this answers your question!

  13. The Rambam paskens that anyone who comes to a minyan has a hazaka of being Jewish; i.e. you don't interrogate about people's identities at the door. We only inquire about a person's status if they want to marry a Jew.

    Also, regarding wine: Dayan Yehuda Leib Grossnass paskened that a ger is not an akum. It is obvious that someone in the process of conversion no longer believes in a non-Jewish religion, therefore, there is no chashash of them touching wine that is eino mevushal.