I originally wrote this in 2011
Honor, privilege, and responsibility are three words that come to mind when I think about what it means to take on the status of becoming a Ger. What is a Ger you may ask? The word ‘ger’ is the Hebrew word that is usually translated as ‘stranger’; today the English word, ‘convert’ is used to describe a Ger. Gerim (plural) are those who leave everything of their own life and heritage and join the nation and people of the Jews. It is not a religious conversion although that is part of it, it is about joining and becoming part of the people like when one becomes a US citizen that has come from another country.
G-d gave His great revelation of Himself and the instruction manual called the Torah to Israel some 3500 years ago; within the Torah He gave a total of 613 mitzvos (deeds, commandments) within these 613 mitzvos there is the command to be careful with the ger – Exodus 23:9 “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger…” Lev. 19:34 “The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am HaShem your God.”
There are places within the Torah where G-d will repeat a word or sentence. Our sages have taught us that G-d Himself does not use even one letter in a vain way and thus when He repeats something we need to take notice and see what He is telling us. Out of all the 613 mitzvos G-d mentions the proper treatment of a Ger 36 times. The issue of how a Ger is to be treated in the most mentioned mitzvos of all the Holy Torah.
As one going through the gerus process the study of those who came before has been a major eye opener. Throughout Jewish history there have risen many Jewish giants – Moshe Rabbeinu (our teacher), Joshua, King David, Elijah, and so on. But what is amazing as well is how G-d has used the Ger in many key historical events of the nation.
In this article I want to look at a few of these Ger giants.
The father-in-law of Moshe Rabbeinu; he was a high priest among the pagans but after he had heard all that G-d had done for Israel he left his pagan ways and clung to the One true G-d of Israel. His conversion teaches us that the Torah can penetrate the profane.
He even was merited to give his most famed son-in-law advice that lead to a proper judicial system being set up among the people.
Ruth was a Moabite who through a series of events made conversion into the people of Israel; giving a convert our most famous words – “for wherever you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried;”
Ruth through her conversion and marriage to Boaz produced a great grandson who one day would become one of the greatest men of Israel; he would become king and would pen the majority of the tehillim that Jews since then has used as their own prayers.
Through a convert we are given King David.
On the YomTov of Shavuos the book of Ruth is read for several reasons. But one of the reasons is that it is a picture of a ger tzedek or righteous convert as Shavuos is the day that G-d gave the Torah and as a ger must except the Torah with its 613 mitzvos upon coming apart of the people so too the Jews had to except the Torah on Shavuos.
Onkelos was a convert from Edom a Roman. He was within the Roman Royal family; his mother was the sister of Emperor Hadrian.
He was a very well educated man, well versed in all that Rome and Greece had to offer. He could read and speak multiple languages. He was a very brilliant man with a pure heart that sought out truth. He eventually came to the conclusion that the idolatry of Rome and Greece was foolishness and embraced the One G-d of Israel.
Many of the Jews during the Babylonian captivity began to loose their native Hebrew tongue thus afterward Ezra the Scribe translated the Torah into Aramaic but in time it got lost and thus Onkelos sat out to reestablish an Aramaic translation of the Torah using the teaching handed down from Moshe Rabbeinu and the sages.
Today we still have this translation called Targum Onkelos
It is halachah today in the weekly reading of the Torah to read it twice in Hebrew and ones in the Targum.
Onkelos’s translation is a major part of Jewish life today.
Shalom Ketiah was his chosen Hebrew name. He was born Flavius Clemens who became the Consul under Emperor Domitian, the highest rank a civilian in Rome can obtain – he had almost the same authority as the Emperor himself. Flavius’s wife was a close relative of the Emperor and he had planned on adopting Flavius as his son and making him Co-Emperor, heir to the throne.
The Emperor hated the Jews and had set out a decree to have them completely wiped out. After hearing this decree in a Senate meeting with the Emperor, Flavius told his wife. They both had rejected the ways of Rome and converted to Judaism. They earlier first hand witnessed a miracle of G-d when they saw how a meek Rabbi Akiva in the name of his rabbi and teacher asked G-d to calm the sea in the midst of a storm lest they perish and immediately the storm ended. They even reported the miracle to the Emperor and how the Jew saved their lives. From that time they began to investigate the beliefs of the Jews who had a G-d that listened to them.
Flavius’s wife, Domitilla, convinced him that he had the power to help save the Jews. That if he could approach the Emperor and ask for the decree to be nullified. But knowing the Emperor would not back down then Flavius would inform Domitian that he had become a Jew which would result in him being put to death. In doing so it would post pone the decree for it took a long time to choose and replace a Consul. Thus he agreed. He took the name Shalom Ketiah and circumcised himself, and then he went to se the Emperor.
“That same day Domitian came to the Senate to formally accuse the Consul Flavius Clemens of having adopted Judaism. Clemens did not deny the charge, and he was unanimously sentenced to death.” Akiva, The story of Rabbi Akiva and His Times
Shalom Ketiah had sacrificed his life to save the Jews and the decree was post poned.
Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef:
Rabbi Akiva was a descendent of converts. Growing up as a small boy he remembered the glory of the Temple. He himself did not and disdained Torah Scholars. He felt it to be a waist of time and pure laziness.
He had a very brilliant mind and could learn and do anything. He had became a master at running a farm and could manage other farm hands. He took on a job of over seeing the farm of a very wealthy man, Kalba Savua. His first day there while talking to his new master, the master’s daughter Rachel had entered the room. Akiva said in his mind that he would work for seven years for her like Jacob has done.
Over a period of time he had done well running the farm by Rachel had seen more potential in him than working with his hands. She approached him one day in the field and began to convince him to become a Torah Scholar and if he would she would marry him. A few days had passed and he taken the challenge so he approached his master about marring his daughter and told him of the plans they had. He became angry calling him nothing but a poor shepherd wanting to marry a rich mans daughter. Rachel entered the room and told her father that she wanted to marry Akiva and help him to become a great man in Israel. The father not being able to get his daughter to reconsider disowned her and put them both out with only the cloths on their back.
They had gotten them a small two room hut to live in and slept on the ground on a bed of straw. One day Rachel approached Rabbi Nachum Ish Gamzu and asked him to become her husband’s teacher. He agreed and at the age of 40 Akive began to learn to read and write.
In a short time Rachel told him to leave and study Torah as was the custom. After 12 yrs he returned and before she saw him he over heard her telling someone that if he needed 12 more years of study he could have it; thus he turned and left for another 12. After 24 years of study he had gained 24,000 students and headed the largest yeshiva in Israel.
Over the course of his life he stood before and was questioned by several Emperors. He answered all of their questions and amazed even the pagan world with his mass knowledge and wisdom in which he claimed it all came from his study of the Torah.
A lot of what the Jews have today in the preservation of the Oral Torah that was handed down from Moshe Rabbeinu was made possible by Rabbi Akiva and his students.
Rabbi Akiva was arrested and sentenced to death by the Romans for openly teaching Torah which had been outlawed.
Early one Yom Kippur morning at the age of 120, still strong as a young man with undimmed eyes and a clear mind he was brought out in front of the prison in Caesarea and tied him to a stake. They took iron rakes burned in fire and raked his flesh from his body.
In the midst of his torture his students heard him calling out loudly – “Shema Yisrael HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad” – Hear O Israel, G-d is our G-d, G-d is one
As his students drew close he told them, “My children. Do not mourn for me! I have attained what I wished for a long time, the sanctification of G-d’s name; again he started reciting the Shema. The last word on his lips as he died was “Echad” – “One”
He died sanctifying the name of G-d and declaring His oneness.
Jewish history has many examples of gerim finding their purpose in life, completing soul corrections and leaving their mark on Israeli history. These here are but a highlighted few.
To study the life of these few gerim brings encouragement and awe the human service of our G-d.
For every non-Jew that chooses the path of Torah, binds themselves to the G-d and the people of Israel will forever stand in the shadow of these giants.
“when a non-Jew converts to Judaism out of pure conviction and with sincere intentions, he can become great in Torah…” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah