In 1848, a respectable-looking man presented himself before the Beth Din (religious court) of Jerusalem, seeking conversion to Judaism.1 Although usually a lengthy and complicated procedure, the rabbis quickly cleared his path for reasons that will become clear later on.

Who was this man?

Based on the wording of a seminal text relating to this incident, the assumption has always been that he hailed from Morocco. It turns out, however, that this reading is incorrect.

On March 28, the gentleman formally accepted all the observances of the Jewish faith and underwent circumcision, an essential step in the conversion process. Because he was 50 years old at the time, and his healing process was therefore slow, the rabbis mandated that he not perform the final step of the conversion process—immersion in a mikvah—until he had healed from the circumcision.2

Days passed, and with Shabbat imminent, a problem presented itself. A non-Jew—even one in the process of converting—may not fully observe the laws of Shabbat.3 Was this individual considered a Jew required to keep Shabbat fully, or was he still considered a non-Jew since he had yet to immerse in a mikveh, and his conversion was therefore incomplete?

On Friday afternoon, the matter was brought before the head of the Jerusalem court, Rabbi Asher Lemil Levy (1798-1850), formerly of Golina (Gallin), Poland. Rabbi Levy determined that since the man had not completed the conversion process, he was still considered a gentile and was required to perform at least one halachically forbidden form of work on Shabbat. Indeed, the man wrote several words on Shabbat in compliance with the ruling.

The next day, however, word of Rabbi Levy’s ruling got out and an uproar ensued. The other rabbis of Jerusalem were up in arms! How was it possible that a person who had undergone circumcision and accepted upon himself the Jewish faith was considered a gentile and instructed to violate Shabbat?!

Rabbi Levy was a relative newcomer, and many other scholars, residents of Jerusalem for their entire lives, had no recollection of any similar ruling. “Who heard such a thing before, and who gave him the right to invent a practice against longstanding precedent?” they protested.

Stung by the ferocious criticism, he sought support from his European colleague, the illustrious Rabbi Yakov Yukeb Ettlinger (the Aruch La-Ner, 1798-1871), the most senior halachic authority in Germany and one of the most distinguished Talmud scholars of his day. In his letter, Rabbi Levy acknowledged that it may have been wise, in hindsight, to have consulted his colleagues before issuing his ruling. But, he protested, the question came to him just hours before the onset of Shabbat, and he did not consider his ruling the least bit controversial.

Rabbi Levy eruditely set out his defense: The Talmud,4 in fact, presents a dispute regarding the status of a would-be convert who has been circumcised but not yet immersed in a mikvah. Most of the Talmudic sages argued that a convert is considered a Jew only after all the steps required for conversion have been completed, and that is indeed how the halacha was codified.5

In this case, the man had not yet immersed in a mikvah, so it seemed clear to Rabbi Levy that his conversion was incomplete.

He further articulated his position, citing the ruling that Shabbat observance—in its strict halachic sense—is reserved solely for Jews. This halacha6 is derived from a statement in the Talmud7 that people should always be productive. The specific Biblical command which obligates Jews to observe Shabbat exempts them from this imperative. Thus, concluded Rabbi Levy, he was entirely justified in his ruling that the man should not observe Shabbat in a halachic sense.

We may presume that Rabbi Levy was expecting a supportive response from his esteemed colleague, but that is not what happened. With wisdom and humility, Rabbi Ettlinger wrote to specific rabbinic courts throughout Europe that dealt with conversions (most did not). From them, he learned that the universal custom in such situations was to allow the convert to keep Shabbat. “I therefore put my mind to the task of understanding the reasoning behind this, given that your arguments are based on foundations of justice and truth,” he wrote.

In a fascinating exposition, Rabbi Ettlinger suggests that once the circumcision is performed the convert is no longer considered a non-Jew, but it is immersion in the mikvah that actually confers upon him the status of a Jew. Between the two, he is neither, so there is no problem with observing Shabbat (and he is possibly even obligated to).

Circumcision, he explained, is called “entering into the covenant,”8 and Shabbat is also described as a covenant.9 “How can it be that after a person has entered into one covenant [via circumcision], he should be required to violate another covenant [Shabbat]?”

Rabbi Ettlinger included additional proof from the Biblical narrative. “The Talmud10 states that while the Israelites were stationed in a place called Mara, they were commanded to observe Shabbat. [The episode at Mara occurred before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai,] thus, it is obvious that they observed Shabbat before receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. However, the Israelites did not complete their conversion with immersion in a mikveh until the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.” It follows, therefore, that one is considered a Jew to some degree even before immersion in a mikveh. This is proof positive, concluded Rabbi Ettlinger, that after being circumcised, a convert must observe all the Shabbat laws.

The question remains, however: Who was this man? Is it even possible that he was from Morocco? Morocco is a Muslim country where all males are circumcised. Furthermore, there were virtually no Christians living in Morocco during this period, so one could safely assume that the entire male population was circumcised. How, then, could this story be possible?

It turns out, however, that a key word in this responsa has been misread. For over a century, it was assumed that the convert was from Morocco, as Rabbi Levy’s letter states “Maraka” (in Hebrew, מאראקא). A 2013 excavation on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, however, shed some light on this. Among the many discoveries was the grave of a convert named Warder Cresson.

Warder was born into a family of prominent Quakers in Philadelphia in 1798. He was a bright young man, and after gaining knowledge and experience in agriculture, he turned his family’s farm into a thriving enterprise. Although financially successful, he was spiritually restless. By the time he was 30, he was questioning his faith, and spent the next decade changing his religious affiliation multiple times in an effort to find something authentic.

When he was approximately 40, Cresson met Reverend Isaac Leeser, a leader of Orthodox Judaism in America and spiritual leader of the Mikvah Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia. This led him to become interested in Judaism. Eventually, he became convinced that the Jews were to settle in the Holy Land and pledged his considerable agricultural capabilities to assist in the task.

In the spring of 1844, Cresson left his business, his family, and his children to travel to what was then Palestine in pursuit of truth and to fulfill his mission. Cresson knew Samuel D. Ingham (1779-1860) who had previously served as Secretary of the Treasury in President Andrew Jackson’s White House. He had Ingham persuade his contacts in the US government to award Cresson the title of American Consul to Jerusalem.

En route to Israel, objections were raised about Cresson’s suitability as an American diplomat, and the appointment was revoked. Nevertheless, when Cresson arrived, he presented himself as American Consul. He advocated strongly for the Jewish population of Jerusalem and worked diligently to alleviate their plight. He became a close friend of Chief Yaakov Shaul Elyashar. Eventually, he decided to convert to Judaism, taking the name Michael Boaz Yisrael.

After his conversion, he returned to America to settle his affairs, only to discover that his wife, Elizabeth, had taken sole possession of his business interests and sold off his farm. This resulted in a three-year court case in which the argument was made that Warder Cresson was a confirmed lunatic due to the fact that he had converted to Judaism. Ultimately, Warder was exonerated, a result widely celebrated in the American media as a victory for freedom of religion.

Now divorced, and significantly less wealthy, Cresson returned to the Holy Land. He married a Sephardic woman, Rachel Moledano, and they had two children together, both of whom sadly died in their youth. He assumed the life of a Sephardic Jew, becoming a leader of the Sephardic community of Jerusalem.

When the life story of Warder Cresson resurfaced in 2013, rabbi and author Yirmiya Milevsky had the idea that he was the convert from the Levy-Ettlinger correspondence. He did a quick check, and indeed the dates matched perfectly. And so it turns out the man from “Morocco” was actually from America. In Hebrew, these two words are spelled similarly. A very satisfying end to a longstanding mystery.