The Rebbe’s Letter on Who is a Jew?

David Ben-Gurion Asks “Who is a Jew?”

By the Grace of G‑d
8 Adar I 5719
[February 16, 1959]
Brooklyn, N.Y.

His Excellency
Mr. David Ben-Gurion,
Prime Minister of Israel

Greetings and Blessing:

This is in reply to your letter regarding my opinion on the registration of children of mixed marriages, when the father is a Jew and the mother a non-Jew who did not undergo conversion before the birth of the child. The intent of the inquiry is—as the wording of the resolution has it in the abovementioned letter—“to define instructions that should be in harmony with the tradition accepted in all circles of Judaism, both orthodox and non-orthodox of all trends, and with the special conditions of Israel as a sovereign state which guarantees freedom of conscience and religion as a center of ingathering the exiles.”

My opinion is absolutely clear, in conformity with the Torah and the tradition accepted for generations, that in these matters there can be no validity whatsoever to a verbal declaration expressing the desire to register as a Jew. Such a declaration has no power to change the reality.

According to the Torah and the tradition of ages, which still exists today, a Jew is only a person born to a Jewish mother, or a proselyte who had been converted in conformity with the exact procedure laid down in the authoritative codes of Judaism from ancient times down to the Shulchan Aruch.

The above applies not only to children whose parents or guardians declare their desire to register them as Jews, but to whosoever comes forward to declare his wish to change his status in order to enter the Jewish community. Such a declaration has no force whatever unless he actually fulfills, or has fulfilled, the appropriate conversion procedure as laid down in the Jewish codes and in the Shulchan Aruch, as above.

With honor and blessing,

P.S. I do not cite sources, since there are clear and detailed rulings on the matter in the codes of Maimonides, the Tur, Shulchan Aruch, etc.

All that follows now is merely an additional postscript, written with the intention of emphasizing that even if the following is not accepted, either in part or in full, this does not detract at all from the finality of the opinion I have outlined above. The following remarks are merely a reaction to the account of the situation delineated in your letter.

a) The question of registration, or however it may be described, is not a matter confined to Israel alone. It goes without saying—as explained in your letter—that no one may raise a barrier between the Jews of Israel and those of the Diaspora. On the contrary, all our brethren, wherever they may be, have constituted one people from the moment of their emergence, in spite of their dispersion in all the corners of the world. Consequently, the solution of the problem must be one that is acceptable to all members of the Jewish people everywhere, that is capable of forging and strengthening the bonds between and the unity of all Jews, and certainly not one that would be a cause, even the remotest, of disunity and dissension. Accordingly, even if you may argue that the present conditions in Eretz Yisraelcall for a special study of the abovementioned question, those conditions do not restrict the problem to Eretz Yisrael, but as noted constitute a matter of common concern to every Jew everywhere.

b) Belonging to the Jewish people was never considered by our people as a formal, external matter. It has always been defined and delineated in terms of the commitment of the whole being of the Jew, something intimately linked with his very essence and innermost experience. Accordingly, any movement which disregards or belittles any of the procedures in this connection degrades the feeling of belonging to the Jewish people, and cannot but be detrimental to the serious and profound attitude toward the Jew’s inner link with his people.

c) To ease the conditions of transition and affiliation to the Jewish people—particularly in the special circumstances of Eretz Yisrael, surrounded by countries and peoples unsympathetic towards it (that is an understatement)—is to endanger considerably the security of Eretz Yisrael.

d) What emerges from the above points is that even if an attempt is made to avoid the proper solution to the problem by a compromise, such as substituting for the word “Jew” a word of completely secular connotations, this will not constitute a way out, since the damage would remain both with respect to strengthening the bonds of unity with Jews everywhere, as well as from the point of view of inner strength and security.

e) Of course, no argument can be adduced from the cases of people who have been converted in the proper manner and have nevertheless caused harm to the Jewish people. On the other hand, there is the possibility that one who merely makes a verbal declaration of his Jewishness may benefit the Jewish people. The demand for a due conversion procedure is likewise not negated by the fact that there are non-Jewish “saints” who, as the description implies, are for all that still non-Jews.

f) In the frame of reference in which the question was put, the matter of discrimination was mentioned. Discrimination can, however, apply only to granting or withholding of rights, or meting out punishments; it can have no relevance to the question of registration, which has to do with existing reality.

Let me conclude with the hope and expectation that Eretz Yisrael in all its aspects, both present and future, should constitute a factor uniting Jews everywhere, both orthodox and non-orthodox of all trends, by attuning itself in all its affairs more and more to the name by which it is known among all the peoples of the world—“the Holy Land.”


By Toby Saltzman – March 7, 2019 1474 0SHARE FacebookTwitter


The main square in Evora, Portugal (Toby Saltzman photo)

Leaving Lisbon on a southeast route to Alentejo, our guide Ruben Obadia explained that centuries ago this vast region extending to the Algarve – renowned for wine, olive oil, agriculture, cork and its gastronomy – served Jews as havens from the Inquisition.

Obadia, whose Jewish ancestors fled to Morocco in the 1600s, then settled in the Algarve in 1910, works as communications manager for Alentejo to develop an awareness of the region’s Jewish history. He recounted stories from locals of how crypto-Jews (Jewish converts to Christianity who secretly practised Judaism) camouflaged efforts to secretly pass traditions from mother to daughter. Friday nights they lit candles inside pottery jars pierced with tiny holes to hide the flames, Saturdays they hung carpets on balconies to fake working. Many changed first names to Jesus or surnames to names of fruits or flowers.

Driving through landscapes shifting from parched farms scattered with remote farmhouses, through bucolic fields dotted with grazing animals, past groves of cork trees, and little villages clustered around hills crowned by ancient fortified castles, Obadia echoed the words we’d heard earlier from Filipe Silva of Portugal’s Tourism Board. “There are places throughout Portugal where people are certain Jews existed, and archeologists are searching for physical remnants of synagogues.”

A building believed to have been a synagogue has an interior niche for an Aron Kodesh. (Toby Saltzman photo)

While navigating the 224-kilometre route, often up steep, hairpin turns into the Serra de Sao Mamede mountain range en route to Castelo de Vide – strategically built by Romans into a high mountain slope and later developed by medieval era Portuguese – Obadia explained that Castelo de Vide’s location, just 17 kilometres from Spain, attracted over 5,000 Jews in 1492. It has Portugal’s greatest evidence of former Jews.

Meeting in Castelo de Vide’s Dom Pedro V square, guide Patricia Martins led us past elegant homes embellished with Portugal’s quintessential azulejo tiles, through a maze of sloping alleys to the “suburbs” built to confine Jews. She pointing out signs of their existence: stone dwellings with two doors, the larger for merchants, the smaller leading to upstairs residences; and door frames carved with a groove for a mezuzah. Jewish legacies etched in the stones of time.

A building believed to have been a synagogue – with an interior niche for an aron hakodesh – is dedicated as the Jewish Museum. Ritual artifacts include a clay pot used to hide Sabbath candles. A black wall with names of local Jews executed during the Inquisition lists, among them, Garcia d’Orta, notable doctor to Portugal’s monarchs. Born in Castelo de Vide in 1501, d’Orta was a true renaissance scientist who researched herbal medicines in Goa, India – then a Portuguese colony – where he died. For all his renown, he could not escape the Inquisition. A year after his death in 1569, he was posthumously sentenced, his body exhumed and burned, and his family assets confiscated.

Following a cobbled incline to an ancient fountain that was likely connected to a mikveh – but that archeologists have yet to find – I couldn’t fathom how the crypto-Jews survived hiding their burden of culture.


Back in the lovely square – once the site of autos da fé, or burnings at the stake – Castelo de Vide’s Mayor Antonia Pita graciously greeted us at the 18th century town hall. A veritable ambassador for Portugal’s Jewish heritage, he noted that  the Inquisition House, opening this month, will outline the plight of some 300 local Jewish families who perished during the Inquisition.

A museum dedicated to Garcia d’Orta’s legacy opens in the fall. Two Orthodox lawyers are creating a kosher restaurant and luxury tourist accommodations. Pita showed two volumes, soon to be translated to English, that detail the genealogy of the town’s crypto-Jews and where their descendants settled around the globe. This year Alentejo expects 30,000 visitors keen to explore their heritage while relishing the region’s food, wine, biking and hiking activities.

Down the mountain, we arrived in Marvao and the sublimely beautiful scene of the Old Portagem Bridge straddling the Sever River. This medieval stone bridge aroused heart-wrenching visions of thousands of Jews streaming over rushing water, only to pay a tax to enter Portugal. A memorial plaque dedicated in 1996 marks 500 years since the Edict of Expulsion.

Elvas – located just 12 kilometres from the Spanish border – was a shortcut between Madrid and Lisbon for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Originally ruled by Romans, then Moors, today Elvas is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the medieval era’s most fortified city, its Roman/Moorish castle dating to 1226. Although Jews lived here since the 13th century – authenticated by remnants of two Jewish cemeteries – of Elvas’ two areas that burgeoned in 1492 with the influx of 10,000 Jews, one was demolished in 1511 to build a church at the main square, Praca da Republica. Leading us through a warren of tight alleys, archeologist Margarida Ribeiro pointed to walls etched with signs of a cross, denoting New Christians (Jewish converts).

As we passed a former animal slaughterhouse under renovation, Ribeiro said, “Maybe this was a synagogue…a house nearby has a cistern, maybe for a mikveh.” She unlocked the hoarding to expose an elaborately arched medieval interior. In 2017 it was inaugurated as the Casa da Historia Judaica de Elvas, to open as a Jewish museum later this year.

In Elvas, a former animal slaughterhouse under renovation has an elaborately arched medieval interior. It will soon become a museum. (Toby Saltzman photo)

On to Evora. Founded by Romans in the first century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a precious trove of history with ruins of a Roman temple, two fortified walls, a Moorish gateway, massive arches of a 16th century aqueduct, and centuries of significant architecture including arcaded streets, the Cathedral and Public Library.

Jews inhabited Evora since Roman times. It thrived as a centre of learning and arts and by the late 1400s it had one of Portugal’s largest Jewish communities.

It’s poignant to imagine that Praca do Giraldo – the beautiful main square – is where the Inquisition court conducted autos da fé. Guide Melanie Wolfram – who holds a doctorate in history and archeology – led us to the former Jewish quarter that once housed two synagogues as well as a mikveh, school, hospital and treatment home for lepers. Showing the steel posts of gates that enclosed the Jews, she said, “These weren’t to keep Jews in, but to keep Christians out.”

Along the way, she pointed out grooves on doorposts that may have held mezuzot and explained, “Evora’s blackest history is that Jews were forced to convert when all Jewish children under 14 were baptized and sent by boat to Cape Verde, where many died.” The Evora Museum has a stone with Hebrew inscriptions dating from around 1378.

Literally thrilling was a visit to the public library where we had the rare privilege to see a 1496 first edition of Almanac Perpetuum and Nautical Guide written by Jewish astronomer Abraham Zacuto. Born in Salamanca, Spain in 1450, Zacuto fled to Lisbon where he served as astronomer for King Joao II, creating most of the marine charts used by navigators including Pedro Alvares Cabral and Vasco de Gama. He fled Portugal’s Inquisition for Constantinople, and likely died in Damascus or Jerusalem.

Back in Lisbon – after hearing Filipe Silva say: “It’s in our Portuguese DNA to respect our Jewish heritage,”  I sensed that the beauty of Portugal today is its genuine welcome to Jews, among all people. Yet to search for Jewish history in Porto, Belmonte, Tomar, Trancoso, Guarda, I’m determined to return.

Visit for details of Portugal’s “Jewish Legacy” trail featuring 30 sites. TAP Portugal offers a Toronto-to-Lisbon route with connections to Tel Aviv and a “free air stopover” in Lisbon up to 5 nights

SHARE FacebookTwitter

Toby Saltzman

Comment: This is a nicely written article. Even though there was once a thriving Jewish community in Brisbon. Nevertheless if someone were to come to Israel or to another state his claim to be a Jew will not be more acceptable by the mere fact that he can trace his ancestry to this community.

© 2019 Canadian Jewish News