1. See TB Berakhot 7a. R.Meir was of the opinion that Moses’ request to understand suffering (why the good suffer and evildoers prosper) went unanswered. R. Johanan, in the name of R. Jose, disagrees with R. Meir. Maimonides, in the Guide for the Perplexed, follows the view that the Holy One enlightened Moses as to the workings of all existence. See Guide for the Perplexed 1:54: “This dictum — ‘All My goodness’ — alludes to the display to [Moses] of all existing things … that is, he has grasped the existence of all My world with a true and firmly established understanding.” Guide for the Perplexed, trans. S. Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p.124.
2. The Rishonim dealt with the removal of choice from man as a result of his being deeply enmeshed in sin. See Maimonides, Hilkhot T’shuvah 6:3, and Ramban ad Exodus 7:3, 9:12.
3. The connection between adversity and repentance was expressed in the mitzvah of sounding a warning with trumpets when adversity is about to befall the community. Maimonides (Hilkhot Ta’anit 1:1-4), states: “A positive Scriptural commandment prescribes prayer and the sounding of an alarm with trumpets whenever trouble befalls the community. For when Scripture says, ‘Against the adversity that oppresses you, then you shall sound the alarm with trumpets’ (Numbers 10:9), the meaning is: Cry out in prayer and sound an alarm against whatsoever is oppressing you, be it famine, pestilence, locusts or the like. [And the Scribes teach us that we must fast until we are pitied from heaven on every misfortune that shall befall us.]” Translation from I. Twersky, A. Maimonides Reader (New York: Behrman House, 1972), pp. 113–114.
There are two unique mitzvot: (a) A positive mitzvah of confession and repentance for every sin that man commits. This mitzvah is explained in the biblical portion of Naso. “When a man or a woman shall [commit any sin that men commit], they shall confess the sins that they have done” (Numbers 5:6). Maimonides, in the Sefer HaMaddah, dedicated ten chapters to this mitzvah, entitled Laws of Repentance. (b) There is a specific mitzvah of repentance in an hour of misfortune, as recorded in the above-noted passage concerning the trumpets: “And when you go to war [in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound the alarm] ... and you shall be saved from your enemies” (Numbers 10:9). In practice, the biblical obligation to be aroused to repentance is accomplished by the sounding of the trumpets, to which the Rabbis added the vehicle of fasting.
Essentially, the obligation to repent is tied to the suffering of the community, as noted by the Mishnah: [that repentance is called for] “For every misfortune that shall befall the community” (TB Ta’anit 19a and Maimonides, loc. cit.). Indeed, the obligation of the individual who finds himself in extremis to return to God is also derived from this Torah portion. The fact that the halakhah recognized the individual’s fast as valuable, proves that the individual is obligated to repent in a time of trouble. According to Maimonides, there can be no fast devoid of repentance. In [Hilkhot T’shuva 1:9], Maimonides writes that “Just as the community fasts on the occasion of its adversity, so does the individual fast on the occurrence of his misfortune.” Similarly, the baraita cited in TB Ta’anit 22b states: “The Rabbis taught: In the case of a city that was surrounded by hostile gentiles, or by an overflowing river, or a ship being tossed by a stormy sea, or an individual pursued by non-Jews or by thieves or by a hurricane, etc. [in all these instances one may sound a voice alarm on Shabbat].” Maimonides ruled accordingly in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ta’anit 1:6 (it being understood that there is no sounding of the trumpet on a weekday for an individual who is being pursued). The trumpets are sounded only for communal adversity and not for individual misfortune. There are specific halakhot in tractate Ta’anit and in Maimonides’ Hilkhot Ta’anit, chap.5, that delineate the character of communal adversity. The baraita only sought to teach that an individual who finds himself in extremism may cry out (according to Maimonides even on the Shabbat). It is therefore established that the obligation of crying out is equally applicable to the individual and the community, and of what benefit is crying, if it does not issue forth from a soul that regrets its sins?
The difference between the general mitzvah of repentance and the obligation to repent in a time of adversity may be distilled in one detail: Repentance for sin is tied to the knowledge that one has sinned. So long as a man is not aware of his sin he has no obligation [to repent]. One cannot be obligated to obtain forgiveness without knowledge of the sin for which he repents. As the verse states, “If his sin, wherein he has sinned, be known to him [he shall bring for his offering a goat, a male without blemish] (Leviticus 4:23, emphasis added). Knowledge of a sin obligates the bringing of a sin-offering. Similarly, with regard to repentance, man is not required to repent for those [misdeeds] that are hidden, but only those that are revealed to him. However, in a time of adversity, the sufferer must examine his deeds and inquire after his sins in order to repent for them. The essence of suffering confirms the existence of sin and commands man: find your sin and return to your Creator. Examining one’s deeds is characteristic of the obligation of repentance which is tied to suffering.
We know that on fast-days courts would sit and examine the deeds of the inhabitants of the city. The Talmud (TB Megillah 30b) states: “From the morning a group … examines the deeds of individuals.” Maimonides ([Hilkhot Ta’anit] 1:17) firmly establishes the halakhah: “On each fast day undertaken by a community beset by troubles, the court and the elders should remain in session at the synagogue from the end of the morning service until midday, to examine into the conduct of the citizens and to remove obstacles to righteous living provided by transgressions. They should carefully search and inquire after those guilty of extortion and similar crimes.” (Translation from I. Twersky, Maimonides Reader, p.114). 114). [Cf.TB Eruvin 13b, “And now that [man] is created let him examine his deeds, and we said he shall take hold of his sins.”] The obligation to examine one’s deeds relates to a time of misfortune. It appears that the special obligation to repent on Yom Kippur (as explained in Maimonides, Hilkhot T’shuvah 7:7 and in the Sha’arei T’shuvah of Rabbenu Yonah Gerondi) was established as a special obligation of repentance for undisclosed deeds and a requirement to examine one’s deeds in order to reveal the dishonorable aspects of a man’s life. In this regard the obligation of repentance on Yom Kippur coincides with the obligation of repentance in a time of suffering. Concerning these opportunities, the verse states: “Let us search and examine our ways and return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3:40).
Established as a special obligation of repentance for undisclosed deeds and a requirement to examine one’s deeds in order to reveal the dishonorable aspects of a man’s life. In this regard the obligation of repentance on Yom Kippur coincides with the obligation of repentance in a time of suffering. Concerning these opportunities, the verse states: “Let us search and examine our ways and return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3:40).
4. These statements and what follows are based on the passage in TB Bava Batra [15a–b] that cites diverse views as to the generation and time in which Job lived.
5. TB Sanhedrin 94a.
6. Cf. Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim 1:9 and the gloss of Rabad thereon. However, Maimonides’ approach is directed to the period after the kingship was given to David [after having been taken from Saul] and not to King [Saul] who preceded him. Cf. I Samuel 13:13–14. The rending of the kingdom of Judah [for generations] thus began with Saul. He too could have made amends for his sin by repentance.
7. This notion is expressed by Rava, TB Sanhedrin 72a,“Amar Rava mai ta’ama de-mahteret, [etc.]”
8. Maimonides (Hilkhot Bet HaBehirah 6:16) states almost explicitly that the fact that the second sanctification has endured till today and will last forever is based on the same rationale that he used in relation to the question of the sanctity of the Temple that cannot be nullified. Physical destruction cannot exile God’s Presence from among the ruins.
9. See Yalkut Shimoni, Nitzavim, s.v. shalosh beritot; TB Berakhot 48b and Rashi ad loc.
10. See the Sefer HaShorashim [“Book of Hebrew Roots”] of R. David Kimhi, shoresh “im” [lit. “with”]: “The import of this word is joining and cleaving … and the word am derives from it … since a collection of people and their joining together is called an am.” [The two Hebrew words are spelled with the same consonants and differ only in the vowels appearing below the consonants.] Cf. Gesenius, Hebrew and Chaldean Lexicon, s. v. am.
11. Cf. Tosafot, TB Menahot 37a, s.v. ‘o. See also Shittah Mekubbetzet ad loc., par. 18.
12. TB Sotah 37b, TB Sanhedrin 43b, Rashi ad Deuteronomy 29:28.
13. See Maimonides, Hilkhot Yesodai HaTorah 5:11.
14. Maimonides, Hilkhot Matnot Aniyyim 10:2.
15. The Talmud states (TB Shabbat 88a): “One learns from this that the Holy One held the Mountain [i.e., Sinai] over their heads like an inverted cask.” This expresses the notion that God proposed to the Jewish people that they accept the Torah and deliver themselves to Him out of their free will in order to live the life of a holy people, instead of a compelled existence of destiny, which is likened to being perpetually threatened by a mountain hanging over one’s head like an overturned cask” Cf. Tosafot ad loc. s. v. kafah and moda’ah.
16. See R. Yonah Ibn Janah, Sefer HaShorashim (ed. A. Bacher), s.v. goy. See also R. David Kimhi, Sefer HaShorashim, “R. Jonah [Ibn Janah] said that the term goy [nation] is appropriate for [even] one person, as it says, ‘Shall you slay even a righteous goy?’ (Genesis 20:4).” See also (a) S.Mandelkern, Concordance. s.v. goy, where he states, “It refers to a group of people who belong to one nation that have formed a body [politic] (emphasis added),” and (b) Gesenius, Hebrew Lexicon, s.v. goy.
However, occasionally we encounter the term goy in relation to a group of animals, as in “For a goy [of locusts] has come up to my land” (Joel 1:6). It is understood that with regard to animals this term appears metaphorically. See (a) Radak and Rashi ad loc., and (b) R. Elijah of Vilna, Commentary on the Bible, ad Isaiah 1:4, “Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity,” wherein he states:
“Now … the term am will be used with respect to the collective of a large number of persons, even a multitude, … but [the term] goy is used only for those who are law-abiding … as our Rabbis have said, ‘“There he became a goy” (Deuterotomy 26:5). This teaches that the Israelites were distinctive there’ [Passover Haggadah] [i.e., by their observance of traditional norms of behavior].”
17. The phrase am kadosh [holy nation] connotes a collective that has been elevated in holiness. It is essentially equal in essence to the term goy kadosh [holy people].
18. The uniqueness of the Jew began to be forged in the crucible of the affliction in Egypt. The historical suffering in Egypt fashioned the image of the nation as a people, possessing a special physiognomy and an individual nature that readied it for the sublime moment of the concluding of the Covenant of Destiny at Sinai. Scripture attests to the birth of the Jewish collective in Egypt. “An Aramean attempted to destroy my father [Jacob], then [Jacob] descended to Egypt … and there he became a nation” (Deuteronomy 26:5). How beautifully our Rabbis expounded this verse: “This teaches that the Israelites were distinctive there” [ibid.]. Nationhood and being “distinguished as a special collective” mean the same thing. Truthfully, the forging of a Nation-People was the purpose of the enslavement of our forefathers in Egypt. They descended as the sons of Jacob, and they left as a nation tied to God and a people destined to the revelation of Providence and the conclusion of the Covenant of Destiny at Sinai. [As the Zohar says: “Similarly with [Jacob’s descendants] whom God desired to make a unique and perfect people and to bring near to Himself: if they had not first gone down to Egypt and been tested there, they would not have been God’s chosen people … ” [Zohar, Lekh Lekha 83a (New York: Soncino Press, 1933, vol. 1, p. 276–277]. However, until they went out from Egypt they were not yet a nation and did not appear in a fitting light. As it is written: “As a rose among thorns so is my love among the daughters” (Song of Songs 2:2). The Holy One desired to shape Israel on the celestial pattern, so that there would be one rose on earth, [similar to the] rose in heaven. Now the rose, which gives out a sweet aroma and is conspicuous among all other roses, is the one that grows among thorns” [Ibid., Ki Tissa 189b, vol. 4,p. 138].
19. A congregation can also signify devotion to a negative ideology by people who sow evil. “And he shall not be as Korah and his congregation” (Numbers 17:5) [and] “All this evil congregation” (Numbers 14:35).
20. See Maimonides, Hilkhot T’shuvah 3:11, “One who secedes from the commonweal, even though he commits no transgressions other than separating himself from the congregation of Israel, and does not perform mitzvot in its midst and does not share in its suffering and does not fast on its fast-days, but goes his own way like a gentile who is not part of the congregation, has no portion in the world-to-come.”
21. [I.] Maimonides [Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 13:1-3, based upon TB Keritot 9a] states explicitly that in Egypt there was no immersion required [for conversion], which took effect solely by means of circumcision. It was at Mount Sinai that the children of Israel were commanded to immerse themselves as part of the conversion process. As Maimonides says: conversion process. As Maimonides says: “With three [rituals] did the people of Israel enter the covenant: circumcision, immersion, and the offering of a sacrifice. Circumcision took place in Egypt, as it is written, ‘But no uncircumcised person shall [eat of the Paschal offering]’ (Exodus 12:48); [thus] Moses circumcised them. ‘Immersion was in the desert before the giving of the Torah, as it is written, ‘And sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments’ (Exodus 19:10). “Maimonides interprets the talmudic statement (Yebamot 71a) that one may not convert through circumcision alone as referring solely to posterity, but not to the first Passover, where all agree that circumcision was sufficient to effect conversion. Similarly, Maimonides would explain the position of R. Joshua that immersion was required as part of the conversion of our forefathers as dating from the revelation at Sinai, in accordance with the plain import of the verses cited there (see Yebamot 46b, s. v. R. Joshua). However, Maimonides would concede that with respect to the women in Egypt immersion was required. As the Talmud states explicitly in that portion: “For it is impossible to defer the immersion of the women from the time of the liberation from Egypt to the revelation at Sinai.” This is because of a powerful question that arose in the Talmud and was noted by Rashi (ad loc., s.v. b’imahot): “[This refers to] their wives who immersed themselves, as is explained below. For if they had not immersed themselves, by what act would they have entered under the wings of the Shekhinah?” In other words, they required some formal rite of conversion. Similarly, the Tosefta (TB Pesahim 8:18) asserts that the requirement that non-Jewish maid-servants immerse themselves prevented [their masters from] bringing the Paschal offering according both to the view stated in the Mishnah and that of R. Eliezer b. Ya’akov. Cf. Rabad, Hilkhot Korban Pesah 5:5.
In truth, we could maintain that immersion for males was also practiced in Egypt, and that at Mount Sinai the males were commanded to immerse themselves again because the giving of the Torah would endow them with an extra level of sanctity. Every act of convers ion requires immersion, and the conversion in Egypt conformed to this general rule.
[Translator’s note: A non-Jew who is acquired as a slave by a Jew must undergo immersion and circumcision. He thus acquires the status of a quasi-Jew and is obligated to perform some of the mitzvot. When the slave is freed and becomes a full-fledged Jew he requires a second immersion]. This view is supported by the position of many Rishonim, among them Maimonides, that the second immersion of a non-Jewish slave [as part of his manumission] is a biblical requirement. This results from the slave’s being endowed thereby with an added dimension of obligation to perform mitzvot, through his elevation, as a free man, to the status of a full-fledged Jew. It is thus understandable, that at Sinai, when the Jews embraced Torah and mitzvot, they were required to undergo an additional immersion, aside from the one undergone in Egypt. Even according to the view of Nimmukei Yosef, who holds that the immersion of a manumitted slave is only rabbinically ordained, the Jews at Sinai were nevertheless required to undergo a second immersion. The case of a slave, who was already [partially] converted through circumcision and immersion and had there by already entered the Covenant, is different from that of the children of Israel at Sinai, who needed to be endowed with an added dimension of sanctity which served as the basis of the Second Covenant. Regarding the slave, in the opinion of Nimmukei Yosef, there is no need [i.e., biblically] for an added act of immersion, because we are dealing with the presence of an obstacle [to full Jewish status, i.e., servitude]. Once the servitude is cancelled through manumission, removing the obstacle that precluded the slave from an obligation to timebound mitzvot as well as from marriage to a Jewish woman, he lacks nothing [i.e., he needs no further formal act of conversion]. At Sinai, however, the Jews were imbued with a new form of sanctity that had been unknown before and thus were enjoined to perform a second act of conversion. Therefore, they required a second immersion.
[II.] One could ask why the children of Israel were not required to undergo a second symbolic act of circumcision [hatafat damberit; lit. “the letting of blood from the place of circumcision”] at Sinai. To this one could reply that circumcision (of a convert), which normally precedes immersion and (as noted above) does not generate a new dimension of sanctity, need not occur a second time on the occasion of an individual’s acquiring added sanctity. We require simply that a proper act of circumcision be performed for a conversion to proceed. Thus, if the circumcision had already been performed, when the convert had entered into a lower degree of sanctity, we need not [symbolically] circumcise him again when he enters into a state of higher sanctity. So, too, the slave, when he is emancipated, he need not be circumcised even though he becomes obliged to perform new mitzvot and is raised up to a higher level of sanctity. This is because his first circumcision, undertaken for quasi-conversion [lit. “slavery conversion”] was properly performed. However, the immersion, which completes the conversion, and from which full Jewish status [kedushat yisrael, lit. “the sanctity of Israel”] issues, must be repeated when the convert ascends from a lower level of sanctity to one that is higher.
However, upon broader examination (of the Rishonim), how shall we account for the opinion of Nahmanides, who maintains (novellae ad Yebamot 47b, s. v. nitrape) that a convert who immerses himself, and only subsequently is circumcised, has undergone a perfectly valid conversion? In line with this opinion we would periodically encounter situations in which circumcision comes (after immersion) and thus at the end of the conversion process. If so, the elevating factor would be reversed, and we would be required to perform hattafat dam berit after the immersion since this would bring him to a higher degree of holiness and not the immersion.
However, note that Ramban [loc. cit.] asserts that even the members of the tribe of Levi, who had been circumcised prior to the Exodus from Egypt in fulfilment of the mitzvah [i.e., the one given to Abraham] and not for purposes of conversion, did not require hattafat dam berit, as he wrote: “And if so, how did the tribe of Levi enter the covenant? They went through the process of hattafat dam berit. Yet it appears to me that as regards the requirement for circumcision, they did not require hattafat dam berith because they were already circumcised for the sake of the mitzvah of circumcision; unlike the circumcision of an Arab or a Gibeonite, who were not given the mitzvah of circumcision, and therefore are [legally] considered uncircumcised.” It is apparent from Nahmanides’ statement that circumcision is not as integral an act as immersion in the process of conversion. The object of circumcision is to remove the convert from the category of the uncircumcised. If he was not circumcised, he cannot become infused with kedushat yisrael, because an uncircumcised person may not enter the covenant. Accordingly, if the convert is circumcised, he need only immerse himself in order to convert. An Arab who was circumcised but not for the purpose of conversion is legally uncircumcised and must undergo hattafat dam berit. (See TB Nedarin 31b,Yebamot 71a, Abodah Zarah 27a.) However, the sons of Levi, who were descended from Abraham and were circumcised according to the command of the Holy One,were not enjoined to undergo hattafat dam berit
In light of this suggestion [and employing the above supposition] we [are able to] resolve our question as to why recircumcision [hattafat dam berit] is not required when going to a higher state of sanctification according to the view of Nahmanides, who holds that at times conversion is completed with circumcision.
We have seen [as delineated above] that circumcision is not at all part of conversion. All circumcision does is remove the convert from the category of the uncircumcised. Therefore, one who is already circumcised [according to the halacha] does not require hattafat dam berit when he ascends from one level of sanctity to another level. Immersion is different because it instills Kedushat Yisrael and is thus an integral part of the conversion process. Therefore, when additional sanctity is to be added we require immersion but not hattafat dam berit. Nahmanides, however, is of the view that immersion can take place before circumcision, even though one does not become a full-fledged Jew immediately thereafter. It is, however, effective for the future. When the convert is circumcised [and the obstacle removed], his conversion and Jewishness take hold as a result of the prior immersion.
[III.] The basic question of whether circumcision is a part of the conversion process or merely removes the convert from the status of being uncircumcised is dependent upon a dispute among the Rishonim as to whether a bet din need be present at the time of the circumcision. From the manner in which Maimonides formulates his opinion, we can deduce that the presence of a bet din (religious court) is required only for the immersion. In line with this, one could argue that circumcision achieves nothing more than the removal of a legal bar to the conversion [See Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 13:6 and 14:5-6].
Tur and Shulhan Arukh note the necessity of the [formal] process of bet din for circumcision as well, and so it is explicitly stated in the novella of Ramban (TB Yebamot 45b). If this is the case, our suggestion that Nahmanides views circumcision as simply the removal of the status of being uncircumcised is incorrect. The very fact that Nahmanides requires the presence of a bet din at the time of circumcision testifies that the act of circumcision is an integral act of conversion and therefore susceptible to the requirement for the presence of a bet din. The question thus rearises: Why did the tribe of Levi at Mount Sinai not undergo hattafat dam berit, since their original circumcision was not for the purpose of conversion?
(Nahmanides’ view is actually similar to that of Tosafot [Yebamot 41b, s. v. mi lo], that immersion and circumcision are sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah of circumcision [and do not need to be done explicitly for the sake of conversion]. Nahmanides relied on the statement of the Jerusalem Talmud that he cited. This, however, will not provide a solution to our quandary. Circumcision and immersion for the sole purposes of fulfilling these mitzvot are acceptable for conversion only once the Torah was given and the halakhah of conversion was established requiring that conversion is accomplished through circumcision and immersion. In this framework, circumcision and immersion are effective even if performed solely in fulfillment of a commandment and not explicitly for purposes of conversion. However, the tribe of Levi, which was circumcised in Egypt before the people of Israel were given the mitzvah of circumcision for purposes of conversion, concluded an act of conversion through circumcision. This [pre-Sinaitic] act of circumcision cannot effectuate the conversion which the Jews were later commanded to undergo at Sinai.)
It would appear that Nahmanides was of the opinion that circumcision constitutes an act of conversion only so long as it (is an halachally mandated circumcision) has not yet been fulfilled, but not after such a [legally binding act] has been performed. Circumcision as an act of conversion finds its expression only when the subject lacks a legally valid circumcision. Therefore, a circumcised Arab who converts requires hattafat dam berit because his previous circumcision is of no legal value. Through hattafat dam berit he will fulfill the commandment to enter the covenant of our Father Abraham, which is an integral part of the mitzvah of circumcision. However, the Levites who had fulfilled the mitzvah of circumcision in all of its detail [which they were mandated to perform] as descendants of Abraham and flawlessly fulfilled their obligation, did not require hattafat dam berit, for what more would they achieve thereby?
It appears that Nahmanides was of the opinion that circumcision constitutes an act of conversion so long as the conversion process remains unfulfilled in its entirety. Circumcision is only a “converting action” when the convert still lacks the full effectuation of his conversion. For this reason, a circumcised Arab requires a ritual letting of blood because his original circumcision is of no [legal] value, and with a ritual letting of blood the convert will achieve his entry into the covenant of our Father Abraham, which is an integral part of the mitzvah of circumcision. However, the Levites, who fulfilled the mitzvah of circumcision qua descendants of Abraham, in all of its details, and flawlessly fulfilled thereby their obligation, did not require a ritual letting of blood, for what more was to be achieved thereby? Therefore, their conversion was, willy-nilly, limited solely to immersion, as in the case of women and castrati. (Compare the manner in which Nahmanides concludes his comment [loc cit.]: “Therefore, the children of Levi were judged to be in the same category as women, such that they were allowed to convert through immersion alone.”) Therefore, when a [gentile slave belonging to a Jew] converts [and thereby is elevated] from a lesser to a greater level of sanctity, he does not require a hattafat dam berit, for was not the commandment of circumcision already fulfilled in its entirety. In contrast to circumcision, the role of immersion in the conversion process is not due to any commandment or requirement that needs to be satisfied. It has no legal significance aside from its role as effecting conversion. Immersion, as a means of imbuing kedushat yisrael, can take place any number of times, and wherever there is an increase in sanctity, one undergoes immersion.
22. The fact that the acceptance of the [obligation to perform] mitzvot (lit. Kabbalat Ol Mitzvot) is tied to the immersion which is an integral part of the conversion [process] is almost axiomatic, as is explained in Yebamot 47a-b and in Maimonides, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 13:12 and 14: 6– 7. Rashi expresses this point explicitly. “For now, by the act of immersion, he effectively converts; hence at the time of the immersion he must accept the commitment to observe mitzvot” (lit. yoke of the commandments). However, Tosafot (Yebamot 45b, s. v. me lo taula) states that kabbalat ol mitzvoth can occur before immersion.
Maimonides (Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 13:17) states: “A convert who was not questioned [as to whether he would be faithful to the performance of the mitzvot] or who was not informed of the mitzvot and the punishments for transgressions, but who was circumcised before a lower court of three is a convert.” I once heard from my father ([R. Moses Soloveitchik] of blessed memory) that Maimonides did not intend to say that a convert who converted with the intention of not fulfilling the mitzvot is considered a true convert. Such a notion would uproot the entire concepts of conversion and kedushat yisrael, which [derive] from our obligation to observe the mitzvot of God. Maimonides’ opinion is that the acceptance of mitzvot is not a distinct act in the conversion process that requires the oversight of a bet din as does immersion, but is rather an overriding characteristic theme in the conversion process that is predicated upon acceptance of the responsibility for observing mitzvot. Therefore, if we know that a convert by his immersion is willing to accept the “Yoke of the Torah” and mitzvot, even though there was no formal notification of the mitzvot and formal acceptance by the convert, the immersion will be legally sufficient because the convert intends to live the sacred life of a committed Jew. [In contrast,] the Tosafot that we cited before seems to maintain that the acceptance of the “Yoke of Mitzvot” is a discrete act in the conversion process, and that the requirement for the bet din’s involvement was restricted thereto. Immersion (according to this view) does not require the presence of a bet din; only kabbalat ol mitzvoth must occur in its presence.
Nahmanides (Hiddushei HaRamban, Yebamot 45b) states: “Even a male convert who accepted the mitzvoth prior to circumcision must do so again at the time of immersion.” Ostensibly, it appears that in his opinion kabbalat ol mitzvoth occurs at the time of [a prior] circumcision as well. However, one could interpret Nahmanides as not intending to refer to the acceptance of mitzvot as a discrete act, but as a general characterization of the act of circumcision. Circumcision must be fulfilled out of a commitment to mitzvot, as I noted above with respect to Maimonides’ view. Maimonides, however, is of the opinion that the formal act of kabbalat ol mitzvoth is not at all determinative. Maimonides agrees with the view of the Tosafists that there is a distinct act [of kabbalat ol mitzvoth] and it requires the presence of a bet din. Aside from the special acceptance of mitzvot, the circumcision and the immersion must also be done out of a commitment to mitzvot, which is identical to conversion.
23. With respect to the seven nations of Canaan Maimonides wrote in Hilkhot Melakhim 5:4: “It is a positive mitzvah to destroy the seven nations [of Canaan], as it is said:‘You shall utterly destroy them’ (Deuteronomy 7:2), and anyone who encounters one of them and does not kill him has violated an injunction, as it is said, ‘Do not keep alive a soul’(Deuteronomy 20:16), and [in fact] their memory has already been erased. “Radbaz [R. David Ibn Abi Zimra, sixteenth century] located the source of the last line, “and their memory has already been erased,” in the words of R. Joshua (M. Yada’im 4:4), “Sennacherib, king of Assyria, has already arisen and intermingled all of the nations” [i.e. so that none retained their distinct identity].
But note something strange : in relation to the destruction of Amalek, Maimonides does not add the words “and their memory has already been erased.” In Hilkhot Melakhim 5:5, Maimonides writes: “And similarly it is a positive mitzvah to erase the memory of Amalek, as it said: ‘Erase the memory of Amalek’ (Deuteronomy 25:19), and it is a positive mitzvah to forever remember his evil deeds and his laying ambush (against you), in order to arose anger against him. As it is said, ‘Remember what Amalek did to you.’ Tradition teaches: Remember — with your mouth; do not forget in your heart, for it is prohibited to forget his enmity and hatred.”
From Maimonides’ words it appears that Amalek still exists in the world, whereas the seven nations of Canaan have descended to the depths of oblivion. One wonders why Maimonides did not employ the rule of R. Joshua that “Sennacherib came and intermingled all the nations” with relation to Amalek. The answer to this question is very simple. The Bible testifies that Amalek still exists in this world. Go and see what the Torah says: “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). Accordingly, it is impossible for Amalek to be blotted out of the world until the coming of the Messiah. So said our Sages: “God’s name and throne will not be complete until the children of Amalek are blotted out” (Rashi to Exodus 17:16). But where is Amalek? I heard the answer from my father of blessed memory. Every nation that conspires to destroy the Jewish people is considered by the halakhah to be Amalek. My father added that as concerns Amalek itself we were commanded to perform two mitzvot: (a) [for the individual] to blot out the memory of Amalek, which is incumbent on everyone [to slay] any individual member of Amalek [that he encounters], as expounded in the Torah portion of Ki Tetzeh, “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek” (Deuteronomy 25:19), and (b) [for the community] to engage in communal military preparedness for war against Amalek, as it is explained in the Torah portion of B’shalach, “The Lord will wage war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). With relation to any other nation that stands ready to destroy us, we are [now after the time of Sennacherib] commanded to wage war against it [even] while it prepares for war against us,and our war against it is a “War of Mitzvah”, in accordance with the command of the Torah that “The Lord will wage war with Amalek from generation to generation.” However, the destruction of individuals, which is derived from the Torah portion of Ki Tetzeh, refers only to the biological descendants of Amalek. The words of Maimonides include the obligation to wipe out individuals, which does not apply to any other nation that plots destruction against the People of Israel. However, since the obligation of warring Amalek pertains to such a nation (as well), he did not employ the phrase “And its memory has already been lost.” The status of Amalek exists even now after the nations were intermingled [by Sennacherib]. And perhaps this is the basis for Maimonides’ view (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:1) that a defensive war by Jews against an enemy who comes to wage war against it is a “War of Mitzvah”. For this kind of war is subsumed by the notion “The Lord will have war against Amalek from generation to generation.” To be sure, Maimonides especially singled out the war with Amalek [in that regard]; nevertheless, one may say that saving Jews from an enemy that has arisen to destroy them is encompassed to this Torah portion [i.e., the destruction of Amalek]. Cf., Sotah 44b, s. v. amar R. Jochanan.