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October 04, 2006

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Ethiopian Jews

Rav_moshe_feinstein_ej_1984Recently, I found Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's 1984 teshuva-letter on Ethiopian Jews stuck between two file folders. (You can click the thumbnail image for a larger, more readable image or download a PDF.) This letter was written in response to a question I asked through Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rav Moshe's son-in-law. He referred the question to his son, Mordechai, who then served as Rav Moshe's secretary-assistant. What follows is a (rough) translation:

With the Help of HaShem

26 Sivan 5744

To the honored, my beloved grandson ha rav ha-gaon moreinu ha-rav Rabbi Mordechai Tendler, shlit"a, with blessings of peace and blessing and all good:

With my best regards,

Here as per your request, I reaffirm what you wrote in my name several years ago regarding the "Falashas," that it is known what is written in the responsa of the Radba"z, section seven, §9, that it is understood he considers them to be Jews; however for practical application of the law it is difficult to rely on this, for it is not clear if the Radba"z knew well the reality regarding them, nor is it clear whether up until our time their status has [remained the same and] not changed. But in regard to practical application of the law they are not mamzerim or the like, for the Radba"z mentions there that many many doubts apply to them. Review my responsa where I detail at length the qualifications of the rabbinical prohibitions regarding the legal status of 'an illegitimate child of unknown fatherhood' and 'a child found in the street whose parents are (both) unknown'.

Regarding their Judaism, we must consider it a safek [doubt], and one must require of them true conversion before we permit them to marry within the Jewish community. Yet even before their conversion it is an active precept to save them from being drawn into a non-Jewish creed and from danger as the law is for any Jew, for "safek nefashot l'hakel" ["a doubt involving saving lives is judged leniently"] even where here the doubt is in their very status as Jews.

One should also know that even if in practical application of the law they are not Jews, nevertheless since they think they are Jews and sacrifice their lives for their Judaism, we are obligated to save them.***

As you mentioned, they should not be brought to the Land of Israel* unless they have underdone a conversion**, in order to not increase the concern for assimilation [i.e., intermarriage with Jews who do not have a doubt regarding their Jewish status and also a weakening of the faith of Ethiopian Jews themselves]. But if they have legally converted, and as I have heard they are doing, we shall consider them like all Jews, and one must assist them and support them for all needs of livelihood, both physically and spiritually. And I suffered great anguish because I have heard there are those in Israel who are not drawing them close in spiritual matters and are causing, G-d forbid, that they might be lost from Judaism. And it seems to me these people are behaving so only because the color of the Falashas' skin is black. It is obvious that one must draw them close, not only because they are no worse than the rest of the Jews – and because there is no distinction in practical application of the law because they are black – but also because one can say perhaps they are gerim [converts], and are therefore included in the mitzva "and you shall love the convert."

And I will conclude with the hope that the situation will improve, and in the merit in observing all the mitzvot, we should all soon merit to the ingathering of the exiles by our righteous messiah.

Your grandfather who loves you in heart and soul,

Moshe Feinstein

[All emphasis added.]

* Suggestions were made to bring Ethiopian Jews to Cyprus or Italy (or even the US or Canada) first to fulfill this request, but it proved impossible to do so. I told R. Mordechai Tendler this would not work. His answer based on conversations with his grandfather was to try anyway, which we did, and to note "safek nefashot l'hakel" in the teshuva. In other words, you have to save them no matter what. Rav Moshe wanted to give Baruch Tegegne and I brachot (blessings) to do so and asked us to come to the mountains, where he was vacationing, so he could bless us in person. Illness on our parts prevented this.

** Rav Moshe would later specify a giur l'humra, a form of pro forma conversion that allows conversion without first pushing away the potential converts and without first teaching them Jewish law. He would also later note that the Israeli Chief Rabbis' decision on these matters should be respected.

*** Rav Moshe had long before signed a public letter with non-Orthodox rabbis calling for the immediate aid for Ethiopian Jews and for rescue. It is linked here. Rabbi J. B. Soleveitchik signed the same letter. This is the campaign the late Lubavitcher Rebbe refused to join.


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Where do you see a Giyur Lechumra? He says clearly that they require a complete conversion.

WOW!!! And a very excellent translation it is. It captures the context perfectly. Not to be flippant, but what a sweet old man Harav Feinstien was. I knew he was "a nice guy" as it were, but I didnt know till reading this letter that his heart was as great as his learning.

Thank You Shmarya.

MA Rabbi –

As usual, your reading comp skills seem low. The quote: "Rav Moshe would later specify a giur l'humra …"


PishPosh –

Thanks. I did a rough, as did a friend. I ended up editing his.

My reading comp is just fine. You bring no proof whatsoever that Rav Moshe later said this.

Try looking it up. It is NOT in dispute. Your knowledge of your teacher's teshuvot and actions is appallingly weak.

The burden of proof is on you. If Rav Moshe ever made such a statement, please inform me which volume of Igros Moshe it is in.

Vol 8, should be. And there is no burden of proof on me. This issue has been discussed in halakhic circles for years, circles you uquite obviously do not travel in.

Hi Dear Shmarya, and Pish-Posh

Reb Moshe actually uses the term "GERUS AMITI" a strong term (stronger than "sofek gerus"). SO although reb Moshe felt that they were sofek yidden (as he writes there) he did not want they should go to Erets Yisroel without the "gerus amiti" so that it does not increase "hitbolelut".

Shana Tova and a great Yom Tov to both of you,


A –

I realize that. Please see the footnote.


Ma Rabbi –

Last time I checked, any teshuva written after a book is published is not in that book. In other words, since Iggros Moshe is chronological, and since this teshuva dates from late 1984 or 1985, it would seem by default to be in Vol 8. It certainly can't be in 1-6 and proabably not 7 either. Check the dates.

Rav NMoshe's yeshiva published a piece on this in its journal, I think in 1986. That may be the most complte source, and it may include the teshuva I posted as well.

Hi shmarya,

thanks for the footnote. I would appreciate if you can give me a direct reference. I will try to look it up.

PErhaps there can a few ways to refer to gerus: 1) Meikor hadin (which would mean that it is prerequite midoraysso, in a form of "vaday", "certainity"). 2) GIyur Mitoras Safek: Giyur in for of Safek, ie. in a state of a doubt, in which case it could be a giyur mideorayyso since it is a "safek deorayta". 3) Giyur lechumroh: something like a requirement miderabbanan, where it is only a additional stringency.

From the letter you posted it would appear that it is something like #2 and he calls it here "giyur amiti" (for we have a real strong safek on their status as he explained in the begining of this letter: 1) it is uncertain if the Radbaz knew all details, 2)IT is uncertain if the situations hasn't change since then).

Again if you find the reference i would be gfrateful to you.

Shana Tova and gut yom tov,


Should be in Igros Moshe vol 8

Hi Shmarya,

Sorry to bother you. Where in Chelek 8?

Otoh, I found from Chacham Ovadya quoting Reb Moshe mentioned here before:

שו"ת יביע אומר חלק ח - אה"ע סימן יא

ד) גם הלום שמעתי שהגאון רבי משה פיינשטיין שליט"א, כתב מכתב להר"מ טנדלר, ביום כ"ז סיון תשמ"ד, שאף שהרדב"ז כתב שאין ספק שהפלשים יהודים משבט דן, לדינא קשה לסמוך על זה, כי לא ברור אם הרדב"ז ידע היטב את המציאות אודותם, וגם לא ברור אם עד זמנינו לא נשתנה מצבם. ע"כ. [וכעת ראיתי שחזר לכתוב כן לנכדו הרב ר' יעקב טנדלר במכתב מיום כ"ח סיון תשמ"ה].

Which seems to be the letter you mentioned. and in both cases Reb Moshe holds that they are "sofek yehudim" and need gerus missofek. Chacham Ovadya objects to his opinion on this very point. It seems clear that Reb Moshe did not holds that there is only a need for "Gerus lechumroh" but a higher level of "gerus": "gerus missofek" as i explained before.

A great Yom tov to you,


It seems that virtually 100% of the 20,000 2001-2006 Falash Mura undergo Halachic geirus ie mikveh and hatofas dam.

Is it known how many of the 100,000 Falashas of 1984-98 underwent Halachic geirus? 20% or even less?

Modern scholars of Ethiopian history and Ethiopian Jews, such as James Quirin, Steve Kaplan, Kay Shelemay, and Harold Marcus, consider the Beta Israel to be a native group of Ethiopian Christians, who took on Biblical practices, and came to see themselves as Jews. As Paul B. Henze explains:

These groups came into conflict with the military colonies and Christian missions which were the main instruments of the extension southward of the Ethiopian state. They may have been joined by dissidents or rebelling northern Christians who felt their interpretation of ritual, sacred texts and traditions of art represented a more ancient Israelite connection than Orthodox Monophysite Christianity itself. The Beta Israel can thus be understood as a manifestation of the kind of rebellious archaism that has often come to the surface in Christianity -- e.g. Russian Old Believers and German Old Lutherans. Assertion of Jewish derivation, they felt, provided them with a stronger claim to legitimacy than their Christian enemies. (Paul B. Henze. Layers of Time. Palgrave, 2000. p. 55)

1. Learn your halakha before you campaign.

2. There are other scholars who disagree, including Wolf Leslau.

"Is it known how many of the 100,000 Falashas of 1984-98 underwent Halachic geirus? 20% or even less?"

They were discouraged from converting, more by the actions of Orthodox rabbis than anything else. If Rav Moshe and Ovadia Yosef had been listened to, this would not be a problem today. Unfortunately, haredim and Mafdalniks chose racism over halakha.

Moshe Feinstein, Elazar Shach, Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, and Shlomo Zalman Auerbach have all ruled that the Falashas of the Beta Israel is seriously suspect.

Wolf Leslau is one scholar, I mentioned 5 scholars who are more respected above.

I find it odd that you listen to modern scholars regaridng everything in Judaism besides the Falashas!

Shamariya and all of you gazilion liars...what do modern scholars know about the Falasha - by the way they are called Baita Yisrael in contrast to the name Ashke-NAZI. Your claims are all false. Many Beita Israelis count/trace several generations of Jewish family lines. Did any of these scholars translate any Amharic scholarly works?

I went to Jerusalem once and saw Ethiopian guards standing at the malls and the HaKotel wall for hours without moving. (just like the royal british guards). Not to mention that it was really hurting to hear their stories of the past and their fate in that freaking israel.
Israel is like 1910 in America in the South. I wouldn't be surprized to see if you american jewish race masterminds start buring the David star (as opposed to the cross of the KKK) and walk around the Deizengoff, Mea Shearim, and Beni Brak to boast your white jewish supremacy!

The reason Rav Moshele Feinstein was so in favor in bringing possible non jews to the beloved garden of G-d is because he in allprobability was not himself jewish. For instance he never wanted to move here which in itself shows he was missing a jewish instinct. And then there is the fact that he never shook when he prayed which is a sign of non jewishness as per Rav Yonatin Eybshitz. In any event someone that is not a resident of a country has no business of giving any opinion no matter how true concerniong that country's activities. Anyway it is interesting that both Jesus Christ and Arafat found Israel an important place to live yet Rav Moshele Feinstein could only come here when it was time to find a place to dump his carcass. And how can anyone even consider to pollute the holy land of the United states when there is that dumping ground of Israel?

Moshe Fienstien was always untouchable to me BUT....

In light that he is in love with his EVIL grandson Mordi Tendler it seems he is at best naive or worst stupid. The incredible complements he gave his Evil Rasha grandson nauseate me!

i am an want to be your jewish friend,
please call me to here from me.
my GSM NUMBER:2348035652462AND 2348078126191.

And let me ask my fellow readers if Moshele feinstein is really so concerned with drawing closer to judiasm jews why didn"t he want to live here in the Beloved Garden of G-d? How did Avrom or Avrohom as he would later be known know in which direction to go when he was told to leave his fatherland? The answer is EVERY Jew has in him or her a magnet to holiness. The only esxception being Moshele Feinstein who sent 23,000 Israeli soldiers to their deaths not to protect the Jewish Ethnic homeland or the Zionist state but so that this erev Rav Murderer could have a grave outside of America which he did not want to contaminate with his useless carcass

Mike, with all due respect, don't think your comments will go unpunished. You can't reasonably expect to slander a man of Gcd like HaGaon Feinstein, without feeling the horrible effects in this life and the next. Indeed, your name to me suggests you are in fact a Gilgul, I'm trying to figure out of whom. Perhaps Haman or Amalek.

indeed rav moshe was a tremendous tzadik of the highest order in fact i am named after him

There has been significant rabbinic controversy as to whether the Beta Yisroel or Falasha community are in fact Jews, and if they are, whether they should be considered mamzerim. Rav Ovadiah Yoseph said that they are Jews and not mamzerim, The rabbonim Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Shelomo Zalman Auerbach (zichronam livracha) and yibdeil l'chaim tovim v'aruchim Rav Yoseph Shalom Eliashiv shlita have at best expressed doubt. In their opinion, the Ethiopians must undergo a full conversion procedure which includes accepting the entire Torah as interpreted by Chazal . Someone who underwent such a conversion while clinging to his holiday of Sigd, did not accept even the written Torah, and presumably his conversion is completely null and void. DNA evidence apparently also does not indicate that the Ethiopians are descended from the same people that we are. Y chomosomes are similar to other Ethiopians, not to other Jews, and mitochondrial dna indicates that on the maternal side they share common ancestry with Somalians. Secular scholars write that they are descendants of Christian groups who adopted certain Biblical customs.

1. Moshe Feinstein held that a giur l'humra was required, NOT a full conversion.

2. SOME secular scholars hold like you claim. Others do not, including many who hold EJs are Jewish.

3. Someone who underwent such a conversion while clinging to his holiday of Sigd, did not accept even the written Torah, and presumably his conversion is completely null and void.

No one, perhaps with the exception of Edha Charedis, holds like this.

It is unfortunate to read the abuse and insult directed to the venerable Rav Moshe Finestein.
I cannot understand what is so controversial about people who want to be identified with Moshe Rabbeinu.
"Remember the Ger because Why?
"You were once Gers!
No, you disagree? Ok answer me this who was the first Jew? Was Noah the first Jew?
Everyone well almost everyone know that the Jewish story started with Avraham Aveinu.

Hmm why is that important, well for one simple reason and it is this, a nation of converts can not refuse or rather refuse converts. If they do, then they make the Torah a lie and cause the glory of Hashem to sit in the darkness of bigotry and prejudice.

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