Observance Checklist

A Convert's Observance Checklist

One of my main goals with this blog is to promote practicality and clarity in the conversion process. I made this checklist for myself, but since converts LOVE checking things off lists, I decided to share and expand it. This list does presume a certain level of knowledge. If you are unfamiliar with a term, check the Glossary or Google it if it's not located there. Also, this does not talk about Jewish ideas or beliefs. Those are presumed parts of your study. This list will focus on the practical observances you will take on as part of your conversion process. I think it's comprehensive, but that is no guarantee that it is!

DISCLAIMER: These are general recommendations. If your rabbi or beit din says differently, you should most certainly do as they say. Since we converts tend to procrastinate starting the conversion process with the beit din, this checklist can give you things to do in the meantime. Any practice here that you choose to tackle, you should do outside research (books or reputable internet sources) to supplement the bare minimum that is stated here.

The Big Three:
Shabbat and Yom Tov Observance: You should be observing Shabbat to the best of your ability. Your beit din may require that you purposefully break Shabbat once each week. Here are some milestones to mark off your list:
  • Positive mitzvot - Lighting candles, having special meals, going to synagogue, making Kiddush, making Havdalah
  • No writing
  • No electricity use
  • Avoiding things that are not in the spirit of Shabbat. For me, this means I have chosen not to do class reading on Shabbat because I consider that my employment. People differ on this.
  • Being able to prepare hot food for Shabbat
  • Living close enough to synagogue to walk on Shabbat. This is bigger than it sounds. You may have to move. And keep in mind that you may be asked later to move to a different community altogether.
  • You should be able to give examples of melachot from various categories. Most likely, you won't be required to memorize a list of all 39 categories. Just know the principles and be able to apply them to an example. It's ok to admit that you would have to look it up. Know the limits of your knowledge!
Kashrut: You should run a fully kosher home. However, you probably cannot kasher your kitchen supplies until after your conversion. Remember to budget for replacing items that can't be kashered. As a general rule, other Jews should not be eating in your home until everything is properly kosher. Potlucks or other arrangements can be made.
  • There should be no treif food in your house. You should check acceptable hechshers with your rabbi or beit din.
  • You should not eat treif out, even if you have no kosher restaurant. There may be leniencies.
  • You should have a time period between eating meat and milk.
  • You should know the rules of how to set up a kosher kitchen and kasher kitchen supplies, even if you're not allowed to yet.
Laws of Family Purity:
  • If you're single, this doesn't apply. However, you will be expected to study these laws and know the general rules. Before you marry, you will be required to take an in-depth class with a special tutor. To my knowledge, this is required by all orthodox rabbis performing weddings. Thus, this is a not a convert-specific rule.
  • If you're dating someone or married, please consult with your beit din for how they would like you to observe these laws. 
  • If you're dating, you will probably be told to act as though you are single and avoid all physical contact with each other.
  •  PRACTICAL NOTES: Dating without the approval of your beit din (which is unlikely) will almost always be considered grounds for terminating your geirus process. It is considered lying to your beit din. Sins of omission count here. You would be wise to cancel any dating website memberships you may have floating in the internet, no matter how old. Check every dating site you have ever used. JDate is particularly bad about not removing profiles when you cancel your membership.

Everything Else (in no particular order):
Torah Study:
  • You should have a time set aside for Torah study (Jewish study) every week, if not every day.  The amount of time is not as important as your discipline in furthering your knowledge.
  • You should, at a minimum, read the weekly Parsha at least twice per week. The synagogue reading counts for one of these readings if you follow along in your Chumash. 
  • You will probably be required to attend an approved class. Ideally, you should attend a shiur at least once a week.
  • You may also be required to study individually with a tutor. And you will probably have to pay for this. It's usually not cheap. Avoid hucksters.
  • By the time you convert, you should have read all the Parshiot (plural of Parsha) and Haftarot (the plural of Haftorah) at least once.
  • You should have a good understanding of Jewish history and be able to discuss it in casual conversation.
Synagogue Participation:
  • You should be able to follow synagogue services. This does not require Hebrew reading skills (I am proof!); it just takes regular attendance. You will learn the most and the most quickly by attending daily minyanim (plural of minyan).
  • You should attend regularly. Shabbat morning services are a given (women often only arrive for the Torah reading and Mussaf service), but other details may differ.
  • You should know the general differences between the services, including how holiday services differ.
  • You should know how to navigate the siddur's table of contents in order to catch up with a service.
  • You should know what to do if you arrive late to a service.
  • If male: You should be prepared to receive an aliyah as soon as your conversion is complete. It will probably happen your first Shabbat as a legal Jew!
  • You will begin by praying in English. That's fine, and in fact, that can be very good because you will remember the meaning of the prayers once you are able to begin praying in Hebrew.
  • Once you are able to read Hebrew accurately and with a decent speed, you should use a interlinear siddur (Hebrew lines have the literal English word directly below the Hebrew word, which means "backwards English"). This way, you'll see the English translation directly under the Hebrew word, which will increase your understanding of the prayers (as well as aiding your understanding of Hebrew words).
  • It's ok if you fall behind the minyan because you're a slow Hebrew reader. You will learn that some portions of davening can be skipped to keep up with the minyan. Don't forget that you can mix English and Hebrew in your davening!
  • Generally there seems to be a consensus that at least the first paragraph of the Shema should be memorized. I promise this takes a lot less time than you would think.
  • Men: Should daven three times a day, preferably with a minyan when possible. Check with your beit din as to when you may daven with tefillin and a tallis. 
  • Women: Should daven at least once per day. This appears to be a very vague rule with several interpretations: ranging widely from "Baruch Hashem for this great parking space!" to specific siddur prayers.
  • You do not need to speak or understand modern or biblical Hebrew, but that can be a point in your favor. 
  • However, you will learn a great deal of Hebrew words without really trying. 
  • As for reading skills, you will need to accurately pronounce an unfamiliar Hebrew text with vowels (remember that modern and biblical Hebrew are written without vowels). Beitei din differ on the speed you will need. The fastest I have seen required is 15 words per minute, and the slowest was 6 words per minute. This is something that many of us (and particularly me!) procrastinate. It takes time, and there are no shortcuts.
  • Do not rely on transliteration. It will become a crutch. However, just about everyone I know used transliteration in order to initially learn the brachot and in order to bentch after meals with a group.
  • Before-food blessings: You must be able to correctly pronounce the before-food blessings from memory and know when to use them correctly. The question will be "I hand you X, what is the blessing for it?"
  • After-food brachot: You should have boray nefashot memorized. You should know when each of the three after-food brachot apply.
  • You should be in the habit of saying these blessings, including washing before eating bread. Washing practices can differ.
  • You must be able to correctly pronounce the asher yatzar blessing from memory and know when to use it correctly.
  • You should know the blessings for candlelighting on Shabbat and Yom Tov and when those blessings differ from the norm.
  • You should say the appropriate blessings upon waking up in the morning and ritually wash your hands.
  • As a practical matter, it's a good idea to carry an NCSY bentcher or the equivalent with you at all times. You never know when you'll need it! There are apps, but the NCSY bentcher has Hebrew, English, AND transliteration and is far cheaper than any siddur app that provides that.
  • As with learning how to get an aliyah in shul, men need to be immediately be prepared to lead a mezumen at bentching. 
Tznius Clothing: You should dress tznius full-time according to the standards of your community, unless told differently, which is entirely possible if you live in what your rabbis perceive as a "more lax" community.
  • Men: You should cover to your knees (my understanding is that the knees themselves don't have to be covered) and wear at least short sleeves. You should be wearing a head covering at all times (there may be some exceptions, particularly in certain occupations or locations). Check with your beit din as to when you are required to wear tzitzis. On a related note, there are laws related to shaving and men's haircuts. I know nothing about them. You should go over this with your rabbi or beit din.
  • Females: A safe modern orthodox standard is to wear skirts that go past your knees when sitting and wear sleeves that cover your elbows. Many will wear shirts that get to the elbow even if not fully covered, but that may not fly in your community. Avoid clothing that is too tight (seeing your underwear is definitely too tight! Undershirts are a blessing for minimizing bra lines, which seems to be generally ignored!). 
  • If a married woman: You'll generally be expected to cover your hair. For standards, talk to your rabbi or beit din.
  • If a single woman: As a practical matter, it's just easier if you don't wear hats, headscarves, or other head coverings. It will confuse others and may lead to someone telling you you're "doing it wrong." If you're an old maid like me, you still might get someone who demands to know why your hair isn't covered ;)
  • Tattoos and piercings: For anything but "normal piercings" (and young observant women with nose piercings are considered normal in many communities), you should check with your beit din. If you have a tattoo related to another religion, you will almost certainly be asked, if not required, to remove it before conversion. Other tattoos are up to your discretion unless it's visible and your rabbi feels it's problematic in that community. It's actually problematic to remove them after conversion, so any tattoo removal you want to do should be done before mikvah. In short, the "scarring" caused by tattooing is usually considered halachically equivalent to the "scarring" caused by laser tattoo removal. On the other hand, to debunk the myth, a tattoo will NOT prevent you from being buried in a Jewish cemetery.
  • For lack of a better place to put this suggestion: you should go through your home and belongings and get rid of any items that belong to your former religion, if any. Jewelry is a particular culprit here. People can differ about academic or research books related to other religions and sometimes over the family Bible with big sentimental value. Some people ignore that advice and keep the sentimental Bible, whether that's right or wrong. Personally, I think it's handy to have a Christian Bible on hand for comparison when I run across Christian mangling of Jewish beliefs or practices. 
Tznius Behavior: You should aspire at all times to act like a ben or bat Torah ("child of the Torah"). Avoid bringing shame or dishonor on Jews (creating a chilul Hashem). Similarly, if you have items in your house that no longer mesh with your new life, you should consider donating or selling them. However, I caution you to not go overboard. Most clothing can be made tznius, ladies. Don't delete your iTunes library without at least a year cooling off period. Or delete all your photos of college. Don't throw out anything with sentimental without a similar cooling off period. Box it all up, put it in the garage with an open date, and see how you feel then. Most people regret at least some of the things they threw out (or deleted) in a religious frenzy.

Shomer Negiah: You will probably be required to begin practicing the rules of shomer negiah. At a minimum, avoid "unnecessary" contact with the opposite sex. Most people hold that business handshakes are acceptable. Similarly, avoid putting yourself in compromising situations. For more on this concept, research "yichud."

Fast Days: You should fast to the best of your ability and health, according to the laws of each fast day. I recommend discussing fasting with your doctor before doing your first fast, and start slowly. There are articles available online that list things you can do in the days before a fast to ease the fast. Don't be surprised if it takes you a year or more to work up to a full 25 hour fast without wanting to die.

Lashon Hara: You should make significant efforts to improve your speech and avoid speaking about other people. There is no way to measure this, but you should notice an improvement. As a practical matter, I've found that the more time I spend with honorable people and the more time spent in Jewish study, my speech tempered itself with little focused effort on my part.

Tzedakah: You should regularly give tzedakah (time and/or money) within your means. Even the poorest of our communities are expected by halacha to be generous within their means.

Mezuzot: Beit din will differ as to when you should hang mezuzot in your home. If you have a prior conversion and already hung mezuzot, ask if you should remove them unless you really don't want to hear a "yes" answer.

Sha'atnetz: The prohibition of mixing wool and linen. At some point, your clothing will need to be checked for an improper mixture. Check with your beit din.

Yomim Tovim: 
  • You should generally have experienced at least an entire Jewish year before conversion.
  • You should be able to discuss the Jewish calendar and the Jewish approach to time.
  • You may be required to memorize the Jewish months in order.
  • You should be able to recite the major holidays in order from memory. Most people begin with the High Holydays.
  • You should know the major observances of all major holidays and should have participated in any that are appropriate.
  • You should know how to make an eruv tavshilin.
Community Participation: 
  • You should be participating in the local (and if able, larger) Jewish community. You will need to be able to explain your participation to your beit din and likely must provide letters of recommendation from observant Jews who know you.
  • You should like and get along with people in the Jewish community. (Don't underestimate this one!)
  • You should participate/attend any Jewish lifecycle event that you have the opportunity to attend.
Hebrew Name: You're going to have to pick one eventually. Start looking around and keeping an informal list as early as possible. I thought I knew my Hebrew name for years, but changed my mind at the last minute with a name I'd never even considered before! Check out the Hebrew Names page for most posts and tips about choosing a name.