In the episode of the meraglim, which we read this week, the nation of Israel is described as having “despised the Land.” On account of the people’s despising the Land, and rejecting the Divine promise of inheriting it, the Land was denied them, and given instead to their children.
In the present article we will attempt to outline the principles and practical applications of the mitzvah to live in the Land of Israel—the mitzvah that the nation so tragically contravened. In particular, our focus will be on the question of the modern-day application of the mitzvah. We will discuss whether or not there is an obligation, today, of dwelling in the Land of Israel, and explore the parameters of the mitzvah?
A Threefold Obligation
According to the Ramban (Bamidbar 33:35; Hashmatos to Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos, Positive Commandment 4), an explicit biblical verse instructs us in the mitzvah of yishuv eretz yisrael (settling the Land): “Conquer the Land and dwell therein.”
The Ramban explains that the first part of the verse, “conquer the Land,” obligates the Jewish people to take control of the Land, and not to leave it in the hands of other nations. The second part of the phrase, “and dwell therein,” implies a positive commandment for each individual Jew to live in the Land, even if remains under foreign dominion.
These two mitzvos, according to the Ramban, are applicable throughout history, and remain as relevant today as they were for the generation that first entered the Land.
A third part of the mitzvah mentioned by the Ramban is that the land must not be left desolate. This tenet is apparently part of the general mitzvah of settling the Land, and included in the instruction of ‘dwelling.’ It is therefore incumbent on Jewish people in control of the Land to develop it, to build its infrastructures, develop its agriculture, and settle it in every possible sense.
Opinion of the Rambam: A Notable Omission
The above opinion of the Ramban was written as a disputation on that of the Rambam, who implies by means of omission that there is no mitzvah of yishuv eretz yisrael. This omission has perplexed commentaries over the generations, for although he omits the actual mitzvah, he does mention a number of Talmudic statements that imply the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel.
When somebody wishes to move to live in the Land of Israel, his spouse (wife or husband) has no right to object, and must move with him—even if the move is otherwise wholly unjustified (such as moving from a Jewish area to a predominantly non-Jewish area; Hilchos Ishus 13:19).
Indeed, the Rambam writes explicitly that although it is permitted to live anywhere in the world (with the exception of Egypt; Melachim 5:7), a person should make his place of residence the Land of Israel, even under poor conditions (Melachim 5:12; based on Kesubos 110b).
Many authorities, such as the Chazon Ish (Letters, Vol. 1, no. 75), thus write that even according to the Rambam there is a mitzvah of living in the Holy Land. Yet, if so, why does the Rambam omit the mitzvah from his Sefer Hamitzvos?
Torah, Rabbinic, Or No Mitzvah
In explaining the opinion of the Rambam, one possibility suggested by Acharonim (Sedei Chemed, Ma’areches Eretz Yisrael, quoting from Knesses Hagedolah, Yoreh Deah 239; Ar’ah Derabanan quoting from Radvaz) is that the Rambam considers living in the Land to be a rabbinic mitzvah. The verse quoted above (by the Ramban) applies to the initial generation that entered the Land, and not to all generations. Of course, this will explain why the Rambam does not enumerate the mitzvah among the taryag mitzvos.
The Avnei Nezer (Yoreh De’ah no. 454, sec. 6), however, who was asked whether there is a mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel (and if so, why the European rabbis don’t move to the Land), suggests that even according to the Rambam the mitzvah is a full Torah obligation. In a lengthy teshuvah, he explains that the reason why the Rambam did not count the mitzvah is because when one mitzvah is intended to facilitate the performance of another, the Rambam lists only the first of the two.
The mitzvah of destroying the nations hindering the Jewish conquest and settlement of the Land (Devarim 20:17) was given in order to enable up settle the Land. Having enumerated this mitzvah, which facilitates settlement, the Rambam does not mention the actual mitzvah of conquering and living in the Land.
The very opposite position is taken by the Megillas Esther (commenting on hashmatos 4), a leading commentary (written by Rabbi Yitzchak di Leon) on the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos. In his opinion, the Rambam maintains that in an exilic state there is no mitzvah of yishuv eretz yisrael, which is why the Rambam does not enumerate it.
He thus explains that “these mitzvos applied only in the days of Moshe, Yehoshua, and David, before the Jewish nation was exiled, and they will be reinstated only in the days of the Mashiach, when the Jews will be returned to their land.” Because these mitzvos are limited to a specific time, the Rambam omitted them from his taryag mitzvot. The Minchas Elazar, who staunchly opposed immigration to the Land, wholeheartedly supports this understanding of the Rambam.
The vast majority of Acharonim, however, reject this explanation. The Rambam, as the Avnei Nezer points out, does mention the mitzvos of bringing offerings, even though these could only be performed in the Temple. The fact that a mitzvah cannot be fulfilled at certain times in Jewish history is therefore not cause for omission, and only instructions given as a one-time occurrence (such as the instruction to Moshe to raise his staff upon the sea) are not enumerated as mitzvos.
Furthermore, part of the Megillas Esther’s interpretation is that after the coming of the Mashiach, a new mitzvah of living in the Land will be added. Acharonim find difficulty with this contention, in that it appears to contravene the principle of the immutability of the Torah, which is part of the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith.
On account of these difficulties, most Acharonim conclude that settling the Land is a mitzvah according to both the Ramban and the Rambam.
Exemptions from the Mitzvah: Poverty
Although many authorities, as noted, conclude that there is a mitzvah to live in the Land of Israel, it remains notable that many religious and even pious Jews continue to live outside the Land. Moreover, as noted above, the Rambam himself writes that it is permitted to live anywhere in the world, with the exception of Egypt.
If there is a mitzvah to live in the Land, how can Orthodox and conscientious Jews continue to live outside it, with the apparent approval of the Rambam? This was the question asked of the Avnei Nezer (op. cit.): If there is a mitzvah to live in the Land of Israel, how can great rabbis of Europe continue to lead their congregations outside the Land?
Tosafos (Kesubos 110b) suggests two reasons for why the mitzvah might not apply in their times. First, the journey to Israel and subsequent life in the Land are fraught with danger, and a person is not obligated to endanger himself in performing the mitzvah. In addition, Rabbi Chaim Cohen explains that we are not obligated to live in the Land, for it is impossible to observe the mitzvos connected to the land, and to be wary of their attendant punishments.
Yet, the Avnei Nezer dismisses both reasons, writing that they simply are no longer relevant. In his times, neither danger nor hardship were perceived as severe enough to excuse one from the mitzvah—and the more so for our times.
Indeed, the Maharit (cited in Pischei Teshuvah, Even Ha-Ezer 75:3) takes issue with the question of performing the mitzvos of the Land, and writes that the words of Tosafos were surely penned by a mistaken disciple. Like all other mitzvos, the mitzvos of the Land can be performed, and bring great merit to those who succeed in doing so.
The Exemption of Poverty
The issue of poverty provides a possible exemption from the mitzvah. One of the reasons for which a person is permitted to leave the Land of Israel is for the sake of earning a living (Avodah Zarah 13a), the other reasons being the study of Torah or marriage.
This ruling clearly recognizes that some people will not be able to make it financially in the Land—or find the right Torah master, or the right companion. If it is permitted to leave the Land for these purposes, there is clearly no obligation to move to the Land if doing so would mean forfeiting them.
Thus, we find that the Gemara (Baba Basra 91a) mentions poverty as grounds for exemption from the mitzvah. One who cannot make a living in Israel is not required to live there in penury. This rationale is cited by the Pischei Teshuvah (op. cit.), and by many poskim (see Ha’elef Lecha Shlomo, Even Ha-Ezer no. 118-120; Sedei Chemed, Eretz Yisrael, sec. 9).
It should be noted that that a person is not obligated to settle in the Land at the expense of lowering his living standards. Only if the new standard of living is intolerable can ‘poverty’ be used as grounds for exemption. Yet, it would not be right to move to the Land of Israel if this would mean being dependent on charity funds, rather than being able to earn an income.
After disputing the opinion of Rabbi Chaim Cohen, and stating that even today there is a great mitzvah of living in the Land, the Me’il Tzedakah (26, as cited in Pischei Teshuvah) writes that one who does not have ready means of earning should not leave chutz la’aretz. Doing so, he states, places oneself and one’s children in spiritual danger.
The Spiritual Dimension of Poverty
The Avnei Nezer adds a spiritual dimension to the poverty consideration. In his eyes, the purpose of moving to the Holy Land is to deepen and enhance one’s relationship with Hashem.
The Land of Israel is described in the Torah as “the land upon which the eyes of Hashem are always turned” (Devarim 11:12), a statement that implies a special measure of Divine Providence. The Gemara states further although livelihood is given to a person by Hashem, outside the Land a person receives his livelihood via an angel, whereas in the Land Israel it is provided directly by Hashem.
The Avnei Nezer brings a number of sources to demonstrate this theme, and the point can be summed up by the sharp words of the Gemara (Kesubos 110b): “He who lives in Israel is like one who has a G-d, and he who lives outside of Israel is like one who has none.” Living in the land of Israel enables a person to enter a closer, deeper relationship with Hashem.
Having no source of income in the Land, the leaders and their communities would have been forced to subsist from funds sent them by Chassidim or past congregants from outside the Land. Thus, even in the Land their livelihood would have come from the diaspora, through the agency of an intermediary angel. They would not have fulfilled the purpose of yishuv ha’aretz, for this only happens when one finds an independent means of support from the land itself.
This reason, too, is not generally applicable today, and certainly not on a universal level. Although some have trouble adapting to life in Israel and making it financially, many do ‘make it,’ finding the special hashgachah of the Land in their parnasah as well as in other matters of their lives.
The Mitzvah Today
An additional reason for which the mitzvah might not apply at all times is given by Rabbi Yehoshua of Kutna (Yeshuas Malka, Yoreh De’ah 66), who writes that the obligation to settle the land only applies when the country is ruled by a Jewish Government. Although it is nevertheless recommended for one to live in the Land—indeed, the author is highly enthusiastic about the issue—a full obligation cannot be said to apply.
This rationale would presumably not apply today. Although the government of Israel is not religious, it is certainly Jewish. As mentioned, the objection raised by the Avnei Nezer is also hard to apply under today’s conditions, and the very move to Israel brings funding and capital to the Land, and helps to bolster its economy.
A possible justification for why many nonetheless continue to live outside of Israel can be found in a teshuvah of Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer Vol. 1, no. 102). Addressing the issue of moving to Israel, Rav Moshe writes that even if there is a mitzvah to live in the Land (as most authorities conclude), it is not an obligatory mitzvah, but only a non-obligatory mitzvah. If one moves to Israel, he performs a mitzvah; if one doesn’t, he does not commit any sin.
By means of this explanation, Rav Moshe explains why even scrupulous Jews are not particular about moving to Israel. Because the mitzvah is non-obligatory, he adds that there is room to take the concerns of Rav Chaim Cohen (mentioned above) into consideration, and remain in chutz la’aretz.
Further grounds for leniency can be found in the Maharam Schick (Yoreh De’ah 227), who takes the needs of the chutz la’aretz community into consideration. Writing to a European rabbi, he states that a rabbi battling against reform should not move to Israel and teach Torah—his battle against reform takes precedence, and “one who is occupied in one mitzvah is exempt from fulfilling another.”
Even for those living outside the Land, it is noteworthy that according to one possibility mentioned by the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 248:15), a partial fulfillment is also an option.
Based on the statement of the Gemara whereby one who merely walks four cubits on the Land’s soil attains atonement for his sins, the Magen Avraham states that a person fulfills the mitzvah of yishuv eretz yisrael even by visiting the Land.
Not everyone can or is ready to visit the Land, but most can at least pay it an occasional visit, or even buying a property in Israel. Doing so has an extra aspect of “settling the Land” is supporting the local economy.
Much of the opposition to the current return to the Land of Israel is based on the “Three Oaths” mentioned in the Gemara. We have discussed the issue of the oaths elsewhere (see this week’s Q & A); whereas the oaths address a national return to the Land, this article has focused on the personal mitzvah of living on the Land.
Further to the Oaths, the Minchas Elazar (Vol. 5, no. 12) argues that since the expulsion from the Land was intended as a punishment, we are not permitted to avoid Divine wrath by ending the exile (prematurely), and must await redemption by the hand of Hashem, at the time of His choosing. Others, of course, argue that the fact that an opportunity exists to return to the Land is proof that Hashem no longer wishes to punish us.
Our hope and prayer is that the time of our “punishment” should be brought to its total end, in the coming of the Redeemer, speedily and in our days.
 It should be noted that this approach is highly original, and that other examples of non-obligatory mitzvos are virtually unfound.