Parshat Shelach: Are We Required to Live in Israel?

“They will not see the land that I promised to their forefathers. All that anger Me will not see it.” (BeMidbar 14:23)

Where should we live? Are we obligated to live in Israel? True, there may be legitimate reasons for not picking up tomorrow and moving. But should we have as a personal objective relocating – at some point – to Israel? There is significant popular confusion regarding this question. It is not my purpose to resolve this question conclusively. But hopefully, this discussion will clarify some of the key issues.

Nachmanides wrote a critique of Maimonides Sefer HaMitzvot. Sefer HaMitzvot is an enumeration and description of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. As part of his critique, Nachmanides provided a list of commandments that Maimonides neglected to count in his enumeration of the 613 mitzvot. In his list of positive commandments that Maimonides “missed”, Nachmanides includes the mitzvah to posses the land of Israel. According to Nachmanides, we are commanded to posses the land. We are not permitted to leave the land in the control of any other nations. Neither are we permitted to leave the land in a state of desolation. In other words, according to Nachmanides, the conquering, defending, and developing of the land of Israel is a positive commandment.

Nachmanides quotes many passages from the Torah that seems to confirm his contention. One of his proofs is derived from this week’s parasha. In this week’s parasha, the spies discourage Bnai Yisrael from conquering the land of Israel. Bnai Yisrael heeds to the advice of the spies and refuses to enter the land. Both the spies and the nation are punished severely for this rebellion against Hashem. As a result of their refusal to conquer the land the nation is condemned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. The clear implication of the entire incident is that the Bnai Yisrael are commanded to posses the land of Israel and that they rebelled against Hashem and His commandments by refusing to proceed into the land.[1]

So, Nachmanides’ position is clear. There is a mitzvah to posses and settle the land of Israel. The mitzvah – like all mitzvot included in the 613 commandments – applies for all generations. According to Nachmanides, it is time to pack our bags! Incidentally, this thesis provides some justification and halachic basis for creating a Jewish State. It is unlikely that Nachmanides expects us to posses and control the land and not establish some sort of governmental structure. But this issue requires more extensive discussion.

But Maimonides’ position is less easily understood. As Nachmanides observes, Maimonides does not count possessing or living in the land of Israel as a mitzvah. Meggilat Esther offers a well-known explanation for Maimonides’ position. He explains that according to Maimonides, a commandment can only be included among the 613 mitzvot if it applies for all generation. Any commandment that is given to be performed at a specific time in history cannot be included among the 613 mitzvot. For example, at the time of the giving of the Torah Bnai Yisrael were instructed to not approach or ascend Sinai. This injunction was related to a specific time – the Revelation. After Revelation, the mitzvah no longer operates. There is no prohibition against climbing Sinai today. Therefore, this injunction cannot be counted among the 613 mitzvot.[2] Meggilat Esther contends that the command to posses the land of Israel was given to Moshe and Yehoshua to perform. The command continued to be binding and active until the exile from the land of Israel. But with exile, the command was suspended. It will reemerge with the Messianic era. But in the interim, there is no requirement to posses or conquer the land. Therefore, this is not a command that applies for all generations. Like the injunction to not ascend Sinai, the requirement to conquer the land of Israel emerges and reemerges at specific moments in history. As a result, it cannot be counted among the 613 mitzvot.[3]

This is an amazing assertion. It seems to be in direct opposition to numerous statements and rulings of Maimonides. One obvious contradiction is found in Maimonides comments in his Mishne Torah regarding the significance of the land of Israel. Maimonides states that a person should live in the land of Israel – even in a city dominated by pagans. He explains that it is prohibited to leave the land of Israel even to live in a city that is predominately populated by Jews.[4] It seems very unlikely that Maimonides is referring to some past or future point in history but would not apply his comments to his own times or to ours!

Another ruling of Maimonides seems to contradict Meggilat Esther’s thesis. Maimonides explains that if a man wishes to resettle in the land of Israel and his wife refuses, the man may divorce his wife and he has no obligation to pay his wife the amount she is promised by her ketubah – her marriage contract. Similarly, if a woman wishes to settle in the land of Israel and her husband refuses, she may demand a divorce with full payment of her ketubah.[5]

This ruling clearly seems to contradict Meggilat Esther’s thesis that there is no commandment in our times to live in the land of Israel. It would be remarkable and completely unlikely for Maimonides to rule that a woman is deprived of her ketubah for refusing to settle in Israel if living in Israel is of not a commandment and obligation. It is also unlikely that Maimonides – in his code of law – is stating a law that was irrelevant in his time and remains irrelevant.

However, the contradiction to Meggilat Esther’s thesis is even clearer if the Talmudic source for Maimonides’ ruling is explored. Maimonides bases his ruling on a discussion in Tractate Ketubot. Tosefot explain that there are some authorities that do indeed contend that there is no obligation to live in Israel in our times. Tosefot maintain that these authorities would contend that the Talmud’s ruling – as quoted by Maimonides – does not apply in our times.[6] In other words, the Talmud’s discussion and Maimonides’ ruling are premised on the assumption that there is a mitzvah to live in Israel. If this mitzvah were suspended, the ruling would be void. It is clear from Tosefot’s analysis that according to Maimonides, there is a mitzvah to live in Israel at all times.

Of course, this creates a problem. If Maimonides agrees that there is an obligation at all times to live in the land of Israel, then Nachmanides’ criticism of Maimonides seems well-founded. Why does Maimonides not count this obligation among his 613 commandments?

There is an enigmatic comment of the Sages – quoted by Rashi – that may provide an insight into this issue. The Sages comment that even when we are in exile we should continue to practice the mitzvot. We must wear tefillin and observe the mitzvah of mezuzah. We should continue to practice the mitzvot so that they will not be new to us when we return to the land of Israel.[7]

This is an amazing comment! Some of the mitzvot are clearly tied to the land of Israel. For example, we are obligated to abstain from working the land during the Sabbatical year. We must give portion of the annual harvest to the kohanim and leveyim. These commandments only apply in the land of Israel. But other – indeed most – mitzvot are not tied to the land of Israel. Most mitzvot – for example, observing Shabbat, the laws of kashrut – are personal obligations. They must be observed regardless of our place of residence. The mitzvot of tefillin and mezuzah have no apparent connection to the land of Israel. Yet, according to the Sages, our observance of these mitzvot in exile is only practice for our return to the land of Israel!

Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, deals with this question. But his treatment of the issue is almost as mysterious as the very statement of the Sages that he is attempting to explain. Nachmanides explains that the mitzvot were primarily commanded to those living in the land of Israel.[8] It seems that Nachmanides is merely confirming that the Sages are positing an intimate relationship between all commandments – even personal ones – and the land of Israel. But he does not seem to communicate any information regarding the nature of this relationship.

However, a more careful consideration of Nachmanides comments may provide an important insight. We tend to regard the 613 mitzvot as a number of independent commandments. We observe Shabbat, we pray, we place mezuzot on our doorposts. We recognize that various mitzvot reinforce one another. But nonetheless, we regard each as a separate and independent entity. Nachmanides seems to reject this popular interpretation of the 613 mitzvot. Apparently, he maintains that the individual mitzvot are all part of a single complex and integrated system. It is true that a specific mitzvah can independently function and be significant. If a person prays but does not place a mezuzah on his doorpost, the mitzvah of prayer has been fulfilled. But any individual mitzvah only achieves its full significance in the context of the overall system of Taryag – the 613 mitzvot.

Consider an analogy. A human heart can be removed from the body. Using modern technology, we can cause the heart to continue to beat outside of the body. Is the heart working? Is it beating? Of course, it is. But does the heart have its full significance outside of the body? No, we are keeping it alive until we can reintegrate it into the body. So too, it is important that we observe the mitzvot in exile. But we delude ourselves if we think that these performances have their full significance. Each mitzvah is part of a system of Taryag. This is a system that regulates the life of the individual Jew, within the nation of Bnai Yisrael, in the land of Israel. If the land of Israel is removed from the system, the individual mitzvah is isolated from the body in which it is designed to best function. Now, Nachmanides comment can be understood. The mitzvot were primarily commanded to those living in the land of Israel. In other words, the individual mitzvot were given to be fulfilled as part of a totality. A fundamental element of this totality is the land of Israel.

We can now return to Maimonides’ position. Why does Maimonides not include the requirement to live in the land of Israel among the 613 mitzvot? Maimonides explains that he does not include within his list of mitzvot admonishments to observe the Torah. In other words, in order for a command to be counted among Taryag, it must enjoin us to perform a specific activity or prohibit a specific behavior. Admonishments to observe the Torah do not meet this criterion.[9] This same principle may explain Maimonides’ reasoning for not including the obligation to live in the land of Israel among Taryag. As Nachmanides explains, the obligation to live in the land of Israel stems from the very nature of Taryag. Taryag is a system that only functions in its entirety in the land of Israel. Perhaps, Maimonides agrees with this interpretation of the mitzvot of the Torah. We are obligated to observe the Torah in its entirety. Therefore, we must live in the land of Israel so that we can perform the mitzvot of the Torah in the context of the entire system of Taryag. If this is correct, Maimonides may maintain that although this obligation engenders a specific requirement, it is essentially a general admonishment to observe the Torah in its entirety. In other words, according to Maimonides, there is no specific obligation to live in the land of Israel. Instead, there is a general obligation to observe the Torah in its complete form. This general obligation generates a requirement to live in the land of Israel – only there can the Torah be observed in its complete form and context. But nonetheless, the requirement to live in the land of Israel stems from a general requirement to observe Taryag properly. And according to Maimonides, general admonishments are not counted among Taryag.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Critique on Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot — Positive Commands that Maimonides Neglected to Include.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Pinciple 3.

[3] Rabbaynu Yitzchak DeLeon, Meggilat Esther, Commentary on Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Comments on Nachmanides’ Critique.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:9-12.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Eyshut 13:20.

[6] Tosefot,Mesechet Ketubot 110b.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 11:18.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 18:25.

[9] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Pinciple 4.