Tosefta Demai 6:12-13

Converts and inheritance
3d CE
Literary genre: 
Legal text
Title of work: 
Demai 6:12-13

This text addresses the circumstance of a convert who is about to inherit possessions from his late non-Jewish father which are problematic from a Jewish legal perspective: namely, idols (or objects related to idolatry), wine that could be used for libations, or a bathhouse that operates on Shabbat.

Section A discusses idols and wine. According to rabbinic law, Jews are prohibited from deriving any benefit from such items (whether through direct use or profiting from their sale). This tosefta allows the convert to ask his non-Jewish brother to divide their father’s property so he receives possessions that Jewish law permits. In a passage that is parallel to Section A, Mishnah Demai 6:10 rules that, if the convert has already taken possession of the problematic items, he cannot retroactively change the distribution from his father’s estate; thus, he is unable to derive benefit from that portion of his inheritance. The Tosefta does not mention this restriction.

Section B speaks of Onqolos (often spelled Onqelos), a proselyte who applied even more stringent standards upon himself by taking the full portion of his inheritance to the Dead Sea to utterly destroy it. Whereas idols and other materials used in polytheistic worship were subject to such treatment (see, for example, Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:3), Onqolos disposed of his entire inheritance in the Dead Sea, seemingly in an effort to avoid benefitting from any of his non-Jewish father’s possessions. Gary G. Porton writes that “This act symbolizes Onqelos’s total rejection of his former family and their way of life” (The Stranger, p. 40). As Willem F. Smelik notes, the Tosefta portrays Onqolos as “a most scrupulous convert, who attains to high degree of purity and even outdoes Rabban Gamliel the Second on one occasion”; he further explains that “Onqelos refused to benefit indirectly from the idols of his father, by accepting an equivalent share from the estate that was not tainted by idolatry” (Rabbis, Language and Translation, p. 435-436). The Jerusalem Talmud (Demai 6:10, 25d) offers three interpretations of Onqolos’ action (in the Talmud, he is referred to as Aqiles): First, he brought the full monetary value of his father’s idols to the Dead Sea. Second, he took the monetary equivalent of his portion of those idols to the Dead Sea. Third, he brought his father’s idols to the Dead Sea to uproot idolatry from his father’s household. According to the third explanation, rather than receive his share of his father’s possessions in a permissible form, he chose the idols so he could eradicate them, thereby freeing his father’s household from instruments of idolatry. This Tosefta seems to approve of Onqolos’ actions, although it does not present his choice as an halakhic imperative.

In Section C, a convert has inherited a bathhouse with his non-Jewish brother (or brothers). In such a case, the Tosefta permits them to distribute the revenue that the bathhouse yields according to the days when it was earned; thus, the convert could avoid income that was generated on Shabbat. It seems that the brothers continued to co-own (and, perhaps, jointly operate) this bathhouse. Thus, the Tosefta offers a model which enables a convert and his non-Jewish brother(s) to own a bathhouse.

This Tosefta indicates that converts did not fully relinquish their relationships with non-Jewish family members. In that respect, tannaitic literature seems inconsistent since converts were not permitted to bequeath property to their non-Jewish children (Sifre Numbers 4; Mishnah Bava Qamma 9:11). Moreover, even if these children had converted with their father, they could not be his heirs. This asymmetry complicates our understanding of the relationships between a ger and his original family. It is unclear whether the rabbis had a systematic legal concept of the relationship between converts and their non-Jewish relatives. According to Gary G. Porton, the sages did “not rule that converts were prohibited from inheriting from their gentile parents … because this could make conversion unappealing” (The Stranger, p. 24). According to this explanation, the rabbis would have preferred for conversion to end these family relationships; however, they permitted gerim to inherit from their non-Jewish relatives to remove a potential barrier to conversion. Although this source does not indicate Onqolos’ motivation for destroying his portion of the inheritance, he may be adhering to this rabbinic concept and, thereby, severing all connections with his original family. In sum, despite its inclusion of this tale, the Tosefta does not generalize from Onqolos’ example; rather, it is normative for a convert to receive an inheritance from his non-Jewish father.

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