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Settling the Land of Israel – A Contemporary Mitzvah?

In this week’s Parashah, Parashas Lech Lecha, we find that Hashem instructs Avraham Avinu to go to “the Land that I will show you” – the land where he was destined to become a great people, and that his offspring would ultimately inherit.

The covenant that Hashem made with Avraham and with the other Forefathers underscores the tremendous significance of the Land of Israel to the Jewish People. The promises that Hashem made centered around the land: “To your offspring I shall give this land” (Bereishis 12:7); “To your offspring I have given this land” (15:12).

These and other verses highlight that the optimal location for the keeping the Torah is the Land of Israel: “These are the laws and the ordinances that you shall keep to perform, in the land that Hashem, your God, has given you to inherit” (Devarim 12:1).

The mitzvah to live in the Land of Israel derives from its unique status. In this article we will attempt to outline the principles and practical applications of this mitzvah. In particular, our focus will be on its modern-day application. We will explore the parameters of the mitzvah, and discuss whether or not there is an obligation, today, to dwell in the Land of Israel.

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” (Bamidbar 33:53).

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 it is 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 upon Jewish people in control of the Land to develop it, to build its infrastructures, develop its agriculture, and to settle it in every possible sense.

Opinion of the Rambam: A Notable Omission

The above opinion of the Ramban was written to argue with the Rambam, who implies by 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 the Land of Israel, his spouse (wife or husband) has no right to refuse and must move with him – even if the move is otherwise not positive (such as moving from a Jewish area to a predominantly non-Jewish area; Hilchos Ishus 13:19 – though issues such as earning a living can be exceptions).

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), write that even according to the Rambam there is a mitzvah to live in the Holy Land. Yet, if so, why does the Rambam omit the mitzvah from his Sefer Hamitzvos?

The Rambam: A Torah or Rabbinic 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 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 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 to enable settling the Land. Having enumerated this mitzvah, which facilitates settlement, the Rambam does not mention the actual mitzvah of conquering and living in the Land.

No Mitzvah at All

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 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 supported 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 a cause for omission, and only instructions given as a one-time order (such as the instruction to Moshe to raise his staff upon the sea) are not enumerated as mitzvos.

Most Acharonim thus conclude that settling the Land is a mitzvah according to both the Ramban and the Rambam.

Exemptions from the Mitzvah

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 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 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 writes that both reasons are no longer relevant. In his times and from his perspective, neither danger nor hardship was severe enough to excuse one from the mitzvah. This is all the more true 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.

Some authorities continue to cite the ruling of Rabbi Chaim Cohen as a cause for exemption. However, this is far from agreed.

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 to earn a living (Avodah Zarah 13a). The other reasons are the study of Torah and 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 exempt from the obligation to settle the Land just because his living standards will drop. Only if the new standard of living is intolerable can poverty be used as grounds for exemption. Also, 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 a living 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 followers 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 not, 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 Yeshuas Malka is highly enthusiastic about the issue – a full obligation cannot be said to apply.

It is questionable if this rationale can apply today. 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 is 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 a non-obligatory mitzvah. If one moves to Israel, he performs a mitzvah; if one doesn’t, he does not commit any sin.

By this reasoning, 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.[1]

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.”

Partial Fulfillment

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 buy a property in Israel. Doing so has an extra aspect of settling the Land by 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. 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 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.

[1]               It should be noted that this approach is highly original, and that other examples of non-obligatory mitzvos are virtually not found.

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