israel flags 298.88.
(photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
Q Is there a mitzva to live in Israel?
- N.H., New York
A The choice to live in Israel, an option with which we are uniquely blessed today, encompasses many dimensions, including cultural, historical and nationalistic. While related to many of these elements, the particular legal obligation has taken many different formulations over the centuries.
A quick perusal of Scriptures clearly indicates the centrality of Israel to God's vision for the Jewish people. From the covenant with Abraham to the sacrificial rite enunciated in Leviticus to the military conquest planned and implemented in Deuteronomy and Joshua, the Bible emphasizes the importance of Jewish settlement in the Promised Land. As such, the subsequent exile from the land, forewarned by the later prophets as divine punishment for sinful behavior, was bemoaned in Lamentations and subsequent Jewish thought and liturgy.
Nahmanides formulated this biblical legacy as a two-fold normative mandate (Hashmatot Lesefer Hamitzvot Aseh No. 4). On the national level, the Jewish people, as a collective, must conquer the land and establish sovereignty over its borders. Even when this remains unfeasible, as in times of exile, Jews, as individuals, remain commanded to dwell in the Holy Land. As proof for his thesis, he cites a number of talmudic statements emphasizing the centrality of living in Israel, such as "a person should live in Israel, even in a city full of idol worshipers, and not outside of Israel, even in a city of Jews, as the mitzva of living in the Land of Israel is equivalent to all the mitzvot in the Torah" (Tosefta AZ 5).
As historians have noted, this statement and others emerged following the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion and subsequent Roman persecutions (second-third centuries CE). While many Jews fled to Babylon and other communities with more secure environs, the sages remaining in the former Judean province continued to exalt the land's centrality. However, some Babylonian sages, like Shmuel and Rav Yehuda, contended that living within the epicenter of Jewish life remained more important, even going so far as to forbidding emigration to Israel and proclaiming that "living in Babylon is like living in Israel" (Ketubot 111a). All agree that those who suffer from serious financial hardships, or who desire marriage or Torah learning opportunities, may dwell, at least temporarily, outside the land.
Interestingly, Maimonides omitted residing in Israel within his numeration of the mitzvot. Some commentators asserted that he believed that this commandment remains dormant until the messianic era (Megilat Esther). They cited a now-famous passage, also attributed to Rav Yehuda, asserting that following the exile, God made the Jews swear not to attempt to retake the land by force or rebel against their host countries, who in turn swore not to persecute the Jews (Ketubot 111a).
While religious anti-Zionists quote these lines fervently, many have responded that the homiletic passage was never cited in subsequent legal literature. Moreover, the Jewish people received permission to return to Israel from the Balfour and UN declarations, while the non-Jews didn't keep their end of the deal not to persecute the Jews. Other commentators have explained that Maimonides omitted the commandment because the ordinance was included in other commands (Avnei Nezer YD 454), or because Israel remains so central to the entire Torah that it cannot be encompassed within one mitzva (Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook).
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein offered an intermediate position, suggesting that while one fulfills a commandment by making aliya (mitzva kiyumit), there exists no obligation to do so (Igrot Moshe EH 1:102). Two 20th-century colleagues, Rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer 7:48:12), demurred, positively citing Nahmanides's position, especially in light of the state's creation. The former further contended that the mitzva overrides any parental objections (Yehaveh Da'at 4:49), a position which the latter felt he - and youth groups - could not unequivocally endorse (Tzitz Eliezer 14:72).
Maimonides, who himself moved to Israel toward the end of his life, did emphasize the significance of the land, citing many talmudic aphorisms praising its habitation (Hilchot Melachim 5:9-12) and deeming it as the exclusive place chosen by God in which one could perform many judiciary, ritual and agricultural commandments. Analogously, the Talmud rules that a person can demand a divorce from their spouse if they refuse to move to Israel with them, thereby negating their ability to perform these virtuous actions. The financial and political inability to properly perform these commandments, along with concerns for safety, led Rabbi Haim Hakohen to assert that this rule was not applicable in his time (Tosafot Ketubot 110b).
These concerns, however, did not deter 300 of his 13th century colleagues to mass immigrate to Israel. Indeed, the self-sacrifice of centuries of our ancestors to dwell here might provide the greatest inspiration to settle in the center of the past, present and future of the Jewish people.
The author, on-line editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.
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