By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
Everyday conversation is replete with redundancy. Two of the most common offenses are the use of the phrases “ATM machine” and “PIN number.” When the acronyms are spelled out, the phrases become “automated teller machine machine” and “personal identification number number.” If one constantly uses these phrases, then he suffers from RAS syndrome, or redundant acronym syndrome syndrome.
The best definition of redundancy is perhaps one found online from the Uncyclopedia: “Redundancy is the unnecessary use of either needless, tautological, pleonastic, superfluous, or unnecessary text, by which one repeats, in duplication, the same, identical, aforesaid things over and over and over and over and over again, beyond what would be needed or required to explain, or make comprehensible, the intended or signified meaning of that which one wishes to convey. These things can be and most likely will be referred to as being redundant. Usually, it is often common in redundancy to repeat, sometimes with different phrasing or words, the same idea or reasoning, thus restating one’s thoughts, sometimes paraphrasing oneself and effectively saying the same thing twice, or double, or thrice, or three times, or triply so, or a small handful of times, or any number of excessive, unnecessary restatements greater than zero.”
The Gemara in Yevamos (22a) introduces the concept of “Ger shenisgayer k’katan shenolad dami.” When a gentile converts to Judaism, it is considered as if he is born anew. The Gemara proceeds to give examples of ramifications of this concept.
The halachah is that witnesses may not be related to each other. Therefore, two brothers—no matter how trustworthy they are—may never testify together. However, if two gentile twin brothers convert to Judaism, they are considered unrelated and may testify jointly.
There is a hint to this concept in the Torah. The Torah tells us that Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu embarked on a journey and brought with them “the souls that they made in Charan” (Bereishis 12:5). Rashi explains that the literal explanation of the verse is that they took along the servants that they acquired. Rashi proceeds to provide examples where the Hebrew term for “they made” is used in Scriptures to mean “they acquired.” However, Rashi, quoting the Midrash, suggests an alternative explanation: they brought the gentiles who converted to Judaism along with them on their journey.
At first glance, this fails to explain the terminology used in the pasuk “the souls that they made.” The Nachlas Yaakov explains that since when people convert to Judaism it is as if they are born anew, it can be considered as if Avraham and Sarah made them. By motivating them to convert, they caused these individuals to be considered new people. Hence “the souls that they made in Charan” can be understood somewhat literally.
The phrase the Gemara employed to teach us this new concept deserves a second look. “Ger shenisgayer k’katan shenolad dami.” Translated literally, this means, “A convert who converted is like a child being born.” But “a convert who converted” is redundant. The phrase should have been a gentile who converted. Further, the phrase is misleading. In actuality, a convert cannot convert if he is already Jewish. While this question may seem trivial and irrelevant, it was raised by the Ritva and Shita Mekubetzes.
The Ritva explains that the Gemara is teaching us a moral lesson. After someone converts, it is improper to refer to him or her as a gentile who converts. Firstly, it may cause the ger distress when he is reminded of his former life. Further, even when he is not around, it is improper to refer to something holy with a lowly name. A ger is a sanctified individual and should not be referred to by the degrading title of a “gentile who converts.”
The Shita Mekubetzes offers a vastly different interpretation. In some instances, conversion to Judaism is a paradox. Tosefos says that in some cases the individual needs to be a Jew already, to have the mechanisms of conversion be effective. To resolve this paradox, Tosefos explains that the conversion and the mechanisms of conversion take place simultaneously. So in a certain sense it is actually true that a convert is converting, because if he weren’t a convert, the conversion would be ineffective. Further explanation of this point is beyond the scope of this article. (See Tosefos in Kesubos 11a, Ger Katan.)
The sefer Medabeir Kadumos offers a third explanation of the phrase “a convert who converted.” He writes that the soul of any individual who was destined to convert at any time through the ages was present at Har Sinai. In effect, even before the individual converted he was already on the road to conversion based on his soul being present at Har Sinai. Hence, it can be said “a convert who converted.”
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.
By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow