Term Proselyte employed generally, though not exclusively, in the Septuagint as a rendering for the Hebrew word "ger," designating a convert from one religion to another. The original meaning of the Hebrew is involved in some doubt. Modern interpreters hold it to have connoted, at first, a stranger (or a "client," in the technical sense of the word) residing in Palestine, who had put himself under the protection of the people (or of one of them) among whom he had taken up his abode. In later, post-exilic usage it denotes a convert to the Jewish religion. In the Septuagint and the New Testament the Greek equivalent has almost invariably the latter signification (but see Geiger, "Urschrift," pp. 353 et seq.), though in the Septuagint the word implies also residence in Palestine on the part of one who had previously resided elsewhere, an implication entirely lost both in the Talmudical "ger" and in the New Testament προσέλύτος. Philo applies the latter term in the wider sense of "one having come to a new and G-d-pleasing life" ("Duo de Monarchia," i. 7), but uses another word to express the idea of "convert"—ήπηλυτος. Josephus, though referring to converts to Judaism, does not use the term, interpreting the Biblical passages in which "ger" occurs as applying to the poor or the foreigner.
Whatever may have been the original implication of the Hebrew word, it is certain that Biblical authors refer to proselytes, though describing them in paraphrases. Ex. xii. 48 provides for the proselyte's partaking of the paschal lamb, referring to him as a "ger" that is "circumcised." Isa. xiv. 1 mentions converts as "strangers" who shall "cleave to the house of Jacob" (but comp. next verse). Deut. xxiii. 8 (Hebr.) speaks of "one who enters into the assembly of Jacob," and (Deutero-) Isa. lvi. 3-6 enlarges on the attitude of those that joined themselves to Yhwh, "to minister to Him and love His name, to be His servant, keeping the Sabbath from profaning it, and laying hold on His covenant." "Nokri" (ξένος ="stranger") is another equivalent for "proselyte," meaning one who, like Ruth, seeks refuge under the wings of Yhwh (Ruth ii. 11-12; comp. Isa. ii. 2-4, xliv. 5; Jer. iii. 17, iv. 2, xii. 16; Zeph. iii. 9; I Kings viii. 41-43; Ruth i. 16). Probably in almost all these passages "converts" are assumed to be residents of Palestine. They are thus "gerim," but circumcised. In the Priestly Code "ger" would seem to have this meaning throughout. In Esther viii. 17 alone the expression "mityahadim" (= "became Jews") occurs.
According to Philo, a proselyte is one who abandons polytheism and adopts the worship of the One G-d ("De Pœnitentia," § 2; "De Caritate," § 12). Josephus describes the convert as one who adopts the Jewish customs, following the laws of the Jews and worshiping G-d as they do—one who has become a Jew ("Ant." xx. 2, §§ 1, 4; comp. xviii. 3, § 5; for another description see the Apocalypse of Baruch, xli. 3, 4; xlii. 5). By many scholars the opinion is held that the phrase "yir'e Adonai" denotes either proselytes in general or a certain class ("ger toshab"; see below). This interpretation is that of the Midrash (Lev. R. iii.; Shoḥer Ṭob to Ps. xxii. 22). While this construction is borne out by some passages (Ps. cxv. 11-13, cxviii. 4, cxxxv. 20), in others the reference is clearly to native Israelites (Ps. xv. 4, xxii. 23-25, xxv. 12-14, et al.). For the value of the term in the New Testament (in the Acts) see Bertholet, "Die Stellung der Israeliten und der Juden zu den Fremden" (pp. 328-334), and O. Holtzmann, "Neutestamentliche Zeitgesch." (p. 185). According to Schürer ("Die Juden im Bosporanischen Reiche," in "Sitzungsberichte der Berliner Akademie," 1897), the phrase "those who fear the Most High G-d" designates associations of Greeks in the first post-Christian centuries, who had taken their name and their monotheistic faith from the Jews, but still retained many of the elements of Greek life and religion (see Jacob Bernays, "Die Gottesfürchtigen bei Juvenal," in his "Gesammelte Schriften," ii. 71-80).
The attitude of ancient Israel to proselytes and proselytism is indicated in the history of the term "ger" as sketched above, which, again, reflects the progressive changes incidental to the development of Israel from a nation into a religious congregation under the priestly law. (For the position of strangers see Gentile.) Ezra's policy, founded on the belief that the new common wealth should be of the holy seed, naturally led to the exclusion of those of foreign origin. Still, the non-Israelite could gain admittance through circumcision (see Ex. xii.).
Pre-exilic Israel had but little reason to seek proselytes or concern itself with their status and reception. The "strangers" in its midst were not many (II Chron. ii. 16 is certainly unhistorical). As "clients," they were under the protection of the community. Such laws as refer to them in pre-exilic legislation, especially if compared with the legislativeprovisions of other nations, may justly be said to be humane (see Deuteronomy; Gentile). That the aboriginal population was looked upon with suspicion was due to their constituting a constant peril to the monotheistic religion. Hence the cruel provisions for their extermination, which, however, were not carried into effect.
During the Exile Israel came in contact with non-Israelites in a new and more intimate degree, and Deutero-Isaiah reflects the consequent change in Israel's attitude (see passages quoted above). Even after the restoration Ezra's position was not without its opponents. The books of Jonah and Ruth testify to the views held by the anti-Ezra pleaders for a non-racial and all-embracing Israel. Not only did Greek Judaism tolerate the reception of proselytes, but it even seems to have been active in its desire for the spread of Jewish monotheism (comp. Schürer, l.c.). Philo's references to proselytes make this sure (comp. Renan, "Le Judaïsme en Fait de Religion et de Race").
According to Josephus there prevailed in his day among the inhabitants of both Greek and barbarian cities ("Contra Ap." ii., § 39) a great zeal for the Jewish religion. This statement refers to Emperor Domitian's last years, two decades after Jerusalem's fall. It shows that throughout the Roman empire Judaism had made inroads upon the pagan religions. Latin writers furnish evidence corroborating this. It is true that Tacitus ("Hist." iv. 5) is anxious to convey the impression that only the most despicable elements of the population were found among these converts to Judaism; but this is amply refuted by other Roman historians, as Dio Cassius (67, 14, 68), Cicero ("Pro Flacco," § 28), Horace ("Satires," i. 9, 69; iv. 142), and Juvenal (xiv. 96).
Among converts of note are mentioned the royal family of Adiabene—Queen Helena and her sons Izates and Monobazus ("Ant." xx., ch. 2-4), Flavius Clemens (Dio Cassius, l.c.), Fulvia, the wife of Saturninus, a senator (Philo, "Contra Flaccum," ed. Mangey, ii., § 517; "Ant." xiii. 9, § 1; 11, § 3). Women seem to have predominated among them (Josephus, "B. J." ii. 20, § 2; "Ant." xviii. 3, § 5; Suk. 23; Yer. Suk. ii. 4; 'Ab. Zarah 10; comp. Grätz, "Die Jüdischen Proselyten im Römerreiche," Breslau, 1884; Huidekoper, "Judaism in Rome").
In Palestine, too, proselytes must have been both numerically and socially of importance. Otherwise the Tannaim would have had no justification for discussing their status and the conditions of their reception. Common prejudice imputes to Phariseeism an aversion to proselytes, but perhaps this idea calls for modification. That aversion, if it existed, may have been due to the part taken in Jewish history by Herod, a descendant of the Idumeans whom John Hyrcanus had compelled to embrace Judaism—a fate shared later by the Itureans ("Ant." xiii. 9, § 1; xv. 7, § 9; comp. xiii. 9, § 3). The "proselyte anecdotes" in which Hillel and Shammai have a central part (Shab. 31a) certainly suggest that the antipathy to proselytes was not shared by all, while R. Simeon's dictum that the hand of welcome should be extended to the proselyte (Lev. R. ii. 8), that he might be brought under the wings of the Shekinah, indicates a disposition quite the reverse. In this connection the censure of the Pharisees in Matt. xxv. 15 is significant. Grätz (l.c. p. 30), it is true, argues that the verse refers to an actual incident, the voyage of R. Gamaliel, R. Eliezer b. Azariah, R. Joshua, and R. Akiba to Rome, where they converted Flavius Clemens, a nephew of Emperor Domitian. But the more acceptable interpretation is that given by Jellinek ("B. H." v., p. xlvi.), according to which the passionate outburst recorded in the Gospel of Matthew condemns the Pharisaic practise of winning over every year at least one proselyte each (comp. Gen. R. xxviii.). There is good ground also for the contention of Grätz (l.c. p. 33) that immediately after the destruction of the Second Temple Judaism made many conquests, especially among Romans of the upper classes. Among the proselytes of this time a certain Judah, an Ammonite, is mentioned. Contrary to the Biblical law prohibiting marriage between Jews and Ammonites, he is allowed to marry a Jewess, the decision being brought about largely by Joshua's influence (Yad. iv. 4; Tosef., Yad. ii. 7; comp. Ber. 28a).
Other cases in which Biblical marriage-prohibitions were set aside were those of Menyamin, an Egyptian (on the authority of R. Akiba; Tosef., Ḳid. v. 5; Yer. Yeb. 9b; Sifre, Ki Tissa, 253; Yeb. 76b, 78a; Soṭah 9a), Onḳelos, or Akylas (Aquila), from Pontus (Tosef., Dem. vi. 13; Yer. Dem. 26d), Veturia Paulla, called Sarah after her conversion (see Schürer, "Die Gemeindeverfassung der Juden in Rom," p. 35, No. 11, Leipsic, 1879).
At this epoch, too, the necessity for determining the status of the "half-converts" grew imperative. By "half-converts" is meant a class of men and women of non-Jewish birth who, forsaking their ancestral pagan and polytheistic religions, embraced monotheism and adopted the fundamental principles of Jewish morality, without, however, submitting to circumcision or observing other ceremonial laws. They have been identified with the "yir'e Adonai" (the ρηβόμενοι τὸυ Θεόυ). Their number was very large during the centuries immediately preceding and following the fall of Jerusalem; Ps. xv. has been interpreted as referring to them.
In order to find a precedent the Rabbis went so far as to assume that proselytes of this order were recognized in Biblical law, applying to them the term "toshab" ("sojourner," "aborigine," referring to the Canaanites; see Maimonides' explanation in "Yad," Issure Biah, xiv. 7; see Grätz, l.c. p. 15), in connection with "ger" (see Ex. xxv. 47, where the better reading would be "we-toshab"). Another name for one of this class was "proselyte of the gate" ("ger ha-sha'ar," that is, one under Jewish civil jurisdiction; comp. Deut. v. 14, xiv. 21, referring to the stranger who had legal claims upon the generosity and protection of his Jewish neighbors). In order to be recognized as one of these the neophyte had publicly to assume, before three "ḥaberim," or men of authority, the solemn obligation not to worship idols, an obligation which involved the recognition of the seven Noachian injunctions as binding ('Ab. Zarah 64b; "Yad," Issure Biah, xiv. 7).The application to half-converts of all the laws obligatory upon the sons of Jacob, including those that refer to the taking of interest, or to retaining their hire overnight, or to drinking wine made by non-Jews, seems to have led to discussion and dissension among the rabbinical authorities.
The more rigorous seem to have been inclined to insist upon such converts observing the entire Law, with the exception of the reservations and modifications explicitly made in their behalf. The more lenient were ready to accord them full equality with Jews as soon as they had solemnly forsworn idolatry. The "via media" was taken by those that regarded public adherence to the seven Noachian precepts as the indispensable prerequisite (Gerim iii.; 'Ab. Zarah 64b; Yer. Yeb. 8d; Grätz, l.c. pp. 19-20). The outward sign of this adherence to Judaism was the observance of the Sabbath (Grätz, l.c. pp. 20 et seq.; but comp. Ker. 8b).
Influence of Christianity.
The recognition of these quasi-proselytes rendered it obligatory upon the Jews to treat them as brothers (see 'Ab. Zarah 65a; Pes. 21a). But by the third century the steady growth of Christianity had caused these qualified conversions to Judaism to be regarded with increasing disfavor. According to Simeon b. Eleazar, this form of adoption into Judaism was valid only when the institution of the jubilee also was observed, that is, according to the common understanding of his dictum, during the national existence of Israel ('Ar. 29a). A similar observation of Maimonides ("Yad," Issure Biah, xiv. 7-8; ib. 'Akkum, x. 6) is construed in the same sense. It seems more probable that Maimonides and Simeon ben Eleazar wished to convey the idea that, for their day, the institution of the ger toshab was without practical warrant in the Torah. R. Johanan declares that if after a probation of twelve months the ger toshab did not submit to the rite of circumcision, he was to be regarded as a heathen ('Ab. Zarah 65a; the same period of probation is fixed by Ḥanina bar Ḥama in Yer. Yeb. 8d).
In contradistinction to the ger toshab, the full proselyte was designated as "ger ha-ẓedeḳ," "ger ha-berit" (a sincere and righteous proselyte, one who has submitted to circumcision; see Mek., Mishpaṭim, 18; Gerim iii.). The common, technical term for "making a convert" in rabbinical literature is "ḳabbel" (to accept), or "ḳareb taḥat kanfe ha-Shekinah" (to bring one near, or under the wings of, the Shekinah). This phrase plainly presupposes an active propaganda for winning converts (comp. Cant. R. v. 16, where G-d is referred to as making propagandic efforts). In fact, that proselytes are welcome in Israel and are beloved of G-d is the theme of many a rabbinical homily (Ruth R. iii.; Tan., Wayiḳra [ed. Buber, 3]; see also Mek., Mishpaṭim, 18; Tosef., Demai, ii. 10; Bek. 32a).
Views Concerning Proselytes.
Eleazar b. Pedat sees in Israel's dispersion the divine purpose of winning proselytes (Pes. 87b). Jethro is the classical witness to the argument of other proselytes that the "door was not shut in the face of the heathen" (Pesiḳ. R. 35). He is introduced as writing a letter to Moses (Mek., Yitro, 'Amaleḳ, 1) advising him to make the entry into Judaism easy for proselytes. Ruth and Rahab are quoted as illustrating the same lesson (Shoḥer Ṭob to Ps. v. 11). Emperor Antoninus also is mentioned as a proselyte (Yer. Meg. 72b, 74a) whose conversion illustrates the desirability of making converts. The circumstance that Nero (Giṭ. 56a), and, in fact, most of the Biblical persecutors of Israel, are represented as having finally embraced Judaism (Sanh. 96b), the further fact that almost every great Biblical hero is regarded as an active propagandist, and that great teachers like Shemaiah and Abtalion, Akiba and Meïr, were proselytes, or were regarded as proselytes or as descendants of proselytes (see Bacher, "Ag. Tan." i. 5-6), go far to suggest that proselytes were not always looked upon with suspicion. According to Joshua ben Hananiah, "food" and "raiment" in Deut. x. 18 refer to the learning and the cloak of honor which are in store for the proselyte (Gen. R. lxx.). Job xxxi. 32 was explained as inculcating the practise of holding off applicants with the left hand while drawing them near with the right (Yer. Sanh. 29b). Modern researches have shown positively that Judaism sent forth apostles. Jethro was a type of these propagandists (see Bacher, "Ag. Tan." i. 210; Harnack, "Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums," pp. 237-240, Leipsic, 1902; Grätz, "Gesch." 3d ed., vol. iv., note 21; S. Krauss, "Die Jüdischen Apostel," in "J. Q. R." xvii. 370).
Sincerity of motive in the proselyte wits insisted upon. Care was taken to exclude those who were prompted to embrace Judaism by the desire to contract an advantageous marriage, by the hope of wealth or honor, by fear or superstitious dreams (R. Nehemiah, in Yeb. 24b; comp. 76a). The midrashic amplification of the conversation between Naomi and Ruth (Ruth R. i. 16; Yeb. 47b) reveals the kind of conduct the Rabbis dreaded in proselytes and what admonitions, with the penalties for disregarding them, they thought wise to impress upon the candidates. Attendance at theaters and circuses, living in houses without mezuzot, and unchastity were among the former. The same spirit of caution is apparent in a midrashic illustration to the story of Adam and Eve, in which the proselyte wife is warned by her husband against eating bread with unclean hands, partaking of untithed fruit, or violating the Sabbath or her marriage vow (Ab. R. N. i.). From Ruth's experience the rule was derived that proselytes must be refused reception three times, but not oftener (Ruth R. ii.).
Mode of Reception.
The details of the act of reception seem not to have been settled definitely before the second Christian century. From the law that proselyte and native Israelite should be treated alike (Num. xv. 14 et seq.) the inference was drawn that circumcision, the bath of purification, and sacrifice were prerequisites for conversion (comp. "Yad," Issure Biah, xiii. 4). The sacrifice was to be an "'olat behemah" (a burnt offering of cattle; ib. xiii. 5; Ker. ii. 1; 8b, 9a); but to lessen the hardship an offering of fowls was accepted as sufficient. Neglect to bring this offering entailed certain restrictions, but did not invalidate the conversion if the other conditions werecomplied with. After the destruction of the Temple, when all sacrifices were suspended, it was ordained that proselytes should set aside a small coin in lieu of the offering, so that in case the Temple were rebuilt they might at once purchase the offering. Later, when the prospect of the rebuilding of the Temple grew very remote ("mi-pene ha-taḳḳalah"), even this requirement was dropped (comp. Ker. 8a; R. H. 31b; Gerim ii.; Tosef., Sheḳalim, iii. 22).
Nor was it, at one time, the unanimous opinion of the authorities that circumcision was absolutely indispensable. R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus carried on a controversy on this subject with R. Joshua, the latter pleading for the possibility of omitting the rite, the former insisting on its performance (Yeb. 46a). The point seems to have remained unsettled for the time (see Grätz, "Die Jüdischen Proselyten," p. 13). For Rabbi Joshua the "ṭebilah" (bath of purification) was sufficient, while his antagonist required both circumcision and bath.
The bitterness engendered by the Hadrianic persecution undoubtedly prompted the Rabbis to make conversion as difficult as possible. It is more than a mere supposition that both at that period and earlier Jews suffered considerably from the cowardice and treachery of proselytes, who often acted as spies or, to escape the "fiscus Judaicus" (see Grätz, l.c. pp. 7 et seq.), denounced the Jews to the Romans. An instance of this kind is reported in connection with Simeon ben Yoḥai's sufferings (Shab. 33b). This circumstance explains the reasons that led to the introduction into the daily liturgy of a prayer against the "denunciators and slanderers" ("mesorot," "minim"; see Joël, "Blicke in die Religionsgesch." i. 33). Yet the true proselytes were all the more highly esteemed; a benediction in their behalf was added to the eighteen of the Shemoneh 'Esreh, and later was incorporated with that for the elders and pious (Tosef., Ber. iii.; Yer. Ber. 8a; Ta'an. 85c; comp. Grätz, l.c. p. 11).
Influence of the Hadrianic Persecution.
After the Hadrianic rebellion the following procedure came into use. A complete "court," or "board," of rabbinical authorities was alone made competent to sanction the reception. The candidate was first solemnly admonished to consider the worldly disadvantages and the religious burdens involved in the intended step. He, or she, was asked, "What induces thee to join us? Dost thou not know that, in these days, the Israelites are in trouble, oppressed, despised, and subjected to endless sufferings?" If he replied, "I know it, and I am unworthy to share their glorious lot," he was reminded most impressively that while a heathen he was liable to no penalties for eating fat or desecrating the Sabbath, or for similar trespasses, but as soon as he became a Jew, he must suffer excision for the former, and death by stoning for the latter. On the other hand, the rewards in store for the faithful were also explained to him. If the applicant remained firm, he was circumcised in the presence of three rabbis, and then led to be baptized; but even while in the bath he was instructed by learned teachers in the graver and the lighter obligations which he was undertaking. After this he was considered a Jew (Yeb. 47a, b). The presence of three men was required also at the bath of women converts, though due precautions were taken not to affront their modesty. This procedure is obligatory at the present time, according to the rabbinical codes (see Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 268; "Yad," Issure Biah, xiv.). The ceremony should be performed by a properly constituted board of three learned men, and in the daytime; but if only two were present and the ceremony took place at night, it would not therefore be invalid. The ceremony of conversion could not take place on the Sabbath or on a holy day (ib.). Proper evidence of conversion was required before the claimant was recognized as a proselyte, though to a certain extent piety of conduct was a presumption in his favor. If the convert reverted to his former ways of living, he was regarded as a rebellious Israelite, not as a heathen; his marriage with a Jewess, for instance, was not invalidated by his lapses. The conversion of a pregnant woman included also the child. Minors could be converted with their parents, or even alone, by the bet din, but they were permitted to recant when of age.
The proselyte is regarded as a new-born child; hence his former family connections are considered as ended, and he might legally marry his own mother or sister; but lest he come to the conclusion that his new status is less holy than his former, such unions are prohibited (see Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 269; "Yad," Issure Biah, xiv. 13). This conception of the proselyte's new birth (Yeb. 62a; Yer. Yeb. 4a) and of his new status with reference to his old family is the subject of many a halakie discussion (Yeb. xi. 2; Yer. Yeb. l.c.; et al.) and has led to certain regulations concerning marriages contracted either before or after conversion ("Yad," l.c. xiv. 13 et seq.; with reference to the first-fruit offering see Yer. Bik. 64a; Tosef., Bik. i. 2). That many of the earlier rabbis were opposed to proselytes is plain from observations imputed to them. R. Eliezer is credited with the opinion that the nature of proselytes is corrupt, and that hence they are apt to become backsliders (Mek., Mishpaṭim, 18; B. Ḳ. 59b; Gerim iv.). Jose ben Judah insists that any candidate should be rejected unless he binds himself to observe not only every tittle of the Torah but all the precepts of the scribes, even to the least of them (Tosef., Dem. ii. 5; Sifra 91a, to Lev. xix. 34).
Sad experience or personal fanaticism underlies the oft-cited statement—in reality a play upon Isa. xiv. 1—that proselytes are as burdensome to Israel as leprosy (Yeb. 47b, 109b; Ḳid. 70b; 'Ab. Zarah 3b; Ket. 11a; Niddah 13b); or the dictum that proselytes will not be received during the days of the Messiah ("Yad," Issure Biah, xiii.-xiv.; ib. 'Abadim, ix.; Yoreh De'ah, 268). While evil upon evil is predicted for the "meḳabbele gerim" (propagandists; Yeb. 109b), the proselytes themselves, notwithstanding their new birth, are said to be exposed to intense suffering, which is variously explained as due to their ignorance of the Law (Yeb. 48b), or to the presence of an impure motive in their conversion (e.g., fear instead of love), or to previous misconduct (Yeb. 68b). Nevertheless, once received, they were to be treated as the peers of the Jew by birth.
According to R. Simeon b. Laḳish, proselytes are more precious at Sinai than Israel was, for the latter would not have taken the "kingdom" upon himself had not miracles accompanied revelation, while the former assume the "kingdom" without having seen even one miracle. Hence an injury to a proselyte is tantamount to an injury to G-d (Tan., Lek Leka, beginning; Ḥag. 5a). The proselyte might marry without restriction ("Yad," Issure Biah, xii. 17). The descendants of Ammon, Moab, Egypt, and Edom formed an exception: the males of Ammon and Moab were excluded forever, though no restriction existed against marriage with their women. Descendants of Egyptians and Edomites of either sex were proscribed in the first and second generations; the third enjoyed full connubial rights. But these restrictions were assumed to have been rendered inoperative by Sennacherib's conquest, and therefore as having no authority in later times ("Yad," l.c. xii. 17-24).
Besides the proselytes already mentioned, all belonging to the Roman period, there are records of others later. Among these were the kings of the Jewish Himyarite empire; Arab tribes (before the 6th cent.); Dhu Nuwas; Ḥarith ibn 'Amr; the Kenites; Waraḳah ibn-Naufal; the Chazars. Many also must have come from the ranks of the Christians; this would be the natural inference from the prohibition of conversion to Judaism issued by the Councils of Orleans, repeating previous prohibitions by Emperor Constantine. The code of Alfonso X. made conversion to Judaism a capital crime (Graetz, "Hist." ii. 562; iii. 37, 595).