It was stated: If a man fathered children when he was an idolater, and then converted [to Judaism], R. Yochanan said he fulfilled the mitzvah of procreation, but Resh Lakish said he did not fulfill the mitzvah of procreation. R. Yochanan said he fulfilled the mitzvah of procreation because he had children, and Resh Lakish said he did not fulfill the mitzvah of procreation because a proselyte who converts is like a newborn infant.
[In another case,] they follow the same reasoning: It was stated: If a man fathered children when he was an idolater, and then converted [to Judaism], R. Yochanan said he cannot have a firstborn with respect to inheritance because [the child born before he converted] is the “first fruit of his vigor” (Deuteronomy 21:17), and Resh Lakish said he can have a firstborn with respect to inheritance because a proselyte who converts is like a newborn infant.
It is necessary [to mention both the case of procreation and the case of inheritance] because, had they told us only the first (i.e., procreation), [I might think] R. Yochanan [held his view concerning the legal status of children born prior to conversion] since originally he was obligated to procreation, but in the case of inheritance, I might have assumed that he agrees with Resh Lakish. And if [their dispute] were stated only concerning this (i.e., inheritance), [I might think] Resh Lakish says only here [in the case of inheritance, children born prior to conversion do not have legal status], but with regard to [procreation], I might have said that [Resh Lakish] agrees with R. Yochanan. [Hence, both cases are] necessary.
After a brief hiatus to learn some texts from Tractate Pesachim for Passover, we return to Tractate Yebamot (see TMT-72-75) and the Rabbi’s conversation about the obligation of procreation, which was inaugurated by a mishnah that recounted the differing views of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai concerning how many children one must have to fulfill this obligation. The discussion in the Gemara takes a detour to examine the first segment of two disputes between R. Yochanan bar Nappacha and Shimon b. Lakish (known as Resh Lakish), famous for their complicated relationship as teacher and disciple, study and sparring partners, and brothers-in-law. Gemara asks: What is the legal status of children born to a man prior to his conversion to Judaism vis-a-vis procreation and inheritance? Do these children count toward his obligation to procreate? Does the firstborn prior to conversion count as the firstborn for the purposes of Jewish laws of inheritance? And why does Gemara recount both disputes between R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish, rather than just one? With this discussion, we dive into a murky discussion of the status of non-Jewish children born prior to conversion and thereby, the nature of conversion itself. Another version of this passage is found on BT Bechorot 47a.
In the case of procreation, R. Yochanan says that children born prior to conversion to Judaism fulfill the obligation of procreation which the proselyte takes on with conversion because children are children. But Resh Lakish disagrees, arguing that a convert is like a newborn in the sense that only acts following conversion are considered to fulfill mitzvot. Gemara next recounts a similar disagreement concerning the laws of inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:17 grants the firstborn male a double portion of the inheritance over his siblings; therefore identifying the “firstborn” has tangible implications. R. Yochanan defines the firstborn in biological terms: a son born prior to conversion is the “firstborn.” Resh Lakish says that being like a newborn infant means that the first son born following conversion is his “firstborn” with respect to inheritance.
In both cases (procreation and inheritance), R. Yochanan argues that children born prior to conversion have legal status under halakhah, and Resh Lakish argues that they do not. R. Yochanan argues on the basis of biology; Resh Lakish argues on what sounds like spiritual grounds. We might expect Gemara to proceed with a discussion about the spiritual versus legal meaning of conversion, but that is a modern distinction. Rather, Gemara wonders: Why do we need to know about both disagreements, given how similar they sound?
Gemara explains that had we known only case #1 (procreation), we might think R. Yochanan claims the only mitzvah for which we recognize the legal status of children born prior to conversion is procreation, but with respect to inheritance, R. Yochanan would have agreed with Resh Lakish. Conversely, had we known only case #2 (inheritance), we might think that Resh Lakish believes that a convert is “like a newborn infant” only with respect to inheritance, but regarding procreation, he agrees with R. Yochanan. Hence Gemara presents both cases.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Jewish laws of inheritance (indeed, all mitzvot) do not apply to the proselyte prior to his conversion. According to Resh Lakish, for whom conversion is a spiritual rebirth, prior children have no halakhic legal standing. What happens to the status of a son he already has? How does this compare with the view of R. Yochanan, for whom conversion does not alter familial relationships? What is your response to these two views?
- In a midrash (Tanchuma B, Lekh Lekha 6), Resh Lakish suggests a comparison between conversion and Revelation at Sinai, claiming, “More beloved is the proselyte than Israel when they stood at Mount Sinai” because Israel accepted Torah after experiencing revelation directly, but the convert accepted Torah without having that immediate experience. How do you think conversion and Revelation are related?
- Lurking behind the conversation in the Talmud is the very real concern about the relationship between converts and their families of origin and children born prior to conversion. How do the opinions of R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish contribute to, or complicate, this conversation?