Pidyon Kaparot Now

The Borders of the Holy Land


This week’s parsha, Masei describes the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel. This week’s article will present an overview of the various opinions concerning the southern border of Eretz Yisroel. Where does the border run? How far south do residents still fulfill the mitzva of living in Eretz Yisroel, and how far may an Israeli travel without transgressing the prohibition of leaving the Holy Land? This article is especially timely because next year, 5782, is a Shmitta (sabbatical) year. Which land is inside the borders of the Promised Land and cannot be tilled, and which is outside of it? This is important for residents of Chutz Lo’oretz as well since much produce that will come next year hinges on the opinions that will be discussed in this article. Seemingly, there are different opinions regarding the various swaths of land in the south of Israel. What are the differences in opinion and where do they stem from? How can we identify the borders today? What is the difference between scientific and halachic identification, and what size was Eretz Yisroel in biblical times? Did the land become consecrated during the Davidic wars or the Hasmonaean wars? And where does the city of Eilat fit in – must the residents of Eilat celebrate a second day of Yom Tov? Of this and more in this article.

The Arava and the Southern Border of Eretz Yisroel

Identifying the borders of the Holy Land is important for determining a great many halachos:

  1. The mitzvos that are practiced only in Eretz Yisroel such as separating trumos and ma’asros, leaving the land fallow on the seventh year (Shmitta), leket, shichecha, pe’ah, and many others.
  2. Leaving Eretz Yisroel is forbidden without specific halachically defined reasons. Travelers and tourists must be aware of the borders in order to refrain from transgressing this prohibition.
  3. Where Yom Tov Sheini must be observed.
  4. The mitzva to settle the Holy Land, beautify it and till its soil.
  5. The most questionable area is known as the Arava, a clearly defined geographical area south of the Dead Sea basin. The Arava is12 sparsely populated but it the source of 60% of Israel’s agricultural production. During the Shmitta year, kashrus agencies allow products of certain areas in the Arava into the market, and other areas not. Knowing the halachic status of every region in the Arava is especially important for people outside of Eretz Yisroel, as a large percent of the produce is exported to the international markets in Europe and the US.

The Southern Border of Eretz Yisroel

In this week’s parasha we read (Bamidbar 34:3-5): “Your southernmost corner shall be from the desert of Tzin along Edom, and the southern border shall be from the edge of the Sea of Salt [the Dead Sea] to the east. The border then turns south of Maaleh Akrabim, passing toward Zin, and its end shall be to the south of Kadesh Barnea. Then it shall extend to Hazar Addar and continue toward Azmon. The border then turns from Azmon to the stream of Egypt, and it ends shall be the sea”.

Rashi explains: “Whenever the term וְנָסַב (“turns”) or וְיָצָא (“extends to”) is used, this is to informs us that the border was not straight, but veered outward; the boundary line bent to the north, angling westward, so that the border passed south of Ma’aleh Akrabim, so that Ma’aleh Akrabim was within the border.”

The Torah describes the border as being along the desert of Tzin located near the ancient kingdom of Edom (Idumea). Although most biblical landmarks are not clearly identifiable nowadays, we know the Torah included some land south of the Dead Sea-which we know. Here we will try to identify precisely what is included.

Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky (Eretz Yisroel 26:2) identified Ma’aleh Akravim with the modern-day city of Akaba in southern Jordan, on the bank of the Red Sea. In his opinion, the border is drawn from the tip of the Dead Sea, south, with a slight westward angle along the Arava River until Akaba. Rabbi Pinchas Epstein, the Raavad of the Eida Charedis in Yerushalayim shared this opinion. Following their view, the Badatz saw the entire Arava region as part of Eretz Yisroel and did not give a hechsher to any of the produce grown there during Shmitta. Other contemporary poskim were divided on the issue and refused to identify Ma’aleh Akrabim with the city of Akaba. In their opinion, the southern border could not have been so far south.

The topic was revisited by the Eida Charedis when Rabbi Yosef Lieberman (Mishnat Yosef II, p. 126) claimed that since this border is described in the Torah as “the southernmost corner” and not a continuation of the eastern one, it necessitates a tilting of at least a 90⁰ westward angle — if the line would go mostly south it should have been called the eastern border, not the southern one. Therefore, in his opinion, all we have to do is identify the southeastern corner of the Dead Sea and draw a line at a 90⁰ angle to the west. Anything south of this line is outside of Eretz Yisroel.

Estimating the exact location of southeastern tip of the Dead Sea during biblical times is difficult — the fluctuating sea level depends on the year’s rainfall, and nowadays, the overall shrinking of the Dead Sea is attributed to the Degania Dam and the Dead Sea mineral factories. Nevertheless, according to this opinion most of the Arava region still remains outside of Eretz Yisroel.

The Minchas Yitzchok accepted this approach when he was the Ga’avad of the Eida Charedis and as a result, nowadays, the Eida Charedis allows distribution of most of the Arava’s produce under their hechsher for the Shmitta year. In their opinion, the Arava region is almost entirely outside of Eretz Yisroel’s borders for all intents and purposes.

Other poskim, including Rav Elyashiv, were of the opinion that any degree of a tilt to the west can classify the border as a “southern” border. Therefore, he did not see the above-mentioned opinion as necessarily valid.

What we Know

Nowadays, only two topographical points can be identified at all: the southernmost point of the Dead Sea and Nachal Mitzrayim – the River of Egypt – the southwestern corner of the border. The Rishonim are split regarding identification of this river – either it is the eastern branch of the Nile River or Wadi Al Arish. The border did not run in a straight line between the two locations but bent further south. How much so remains up to debate.

Scientific vs. Halachic Identification

Before trying to identify the exact borders, it is important to clarify two points:

  1. Many landmarks mentioned in the Torah are unknown today, both in the north and south. In addition, Chazal mention numerous enclaves in Eretz Yisroel’s heartland which remained unconsecrated. The borders of these areas are also unidentifiable. Although we may know where the ancient cities of Beit She’an, Kfar Ludim, Beit Guvrin, Caesarea and others were, we still do not know their exact size and city limits.

Contemporary poskim consider these areas “safek chesoron yedeo a doubt based on lack of knowledge”. The status of this type of doubt does not permit even rabbinic prohibitions.

Some evidence, suffices to categorize an area as a doubtful place, categorizing the land beyond that area as part of the Promised Land. Therefore, for example, we have a reliable source that Eretz Yisroel reaches about 80-100 aerial km south of Hebron. Although this rule is not supported by a definitive borderline, anywhere in this area is considered questionable. Similarly, as we know that Eretz Yisroel (from the Rambam amongst others) is between the 30⁰ to the 35⁰ latitude lines. Therefore, we can safely say that anywhere outside of the defined area is doubtful.

  1. An additional point is the difference between halachic and scientific authorities: historians and archeologists in particular. While the latter are not obligated to provide definitive proof for their claims and often rely upon circumstantial conjectures, a halachic authority must provide absolute proof for a definitive ruling.

Archeological proof of an ancient city’s location can be a pottery shard with an inscription or an Arab village carrying a phonetically related name. Halachic determination requires solid evidence, not proof based on lack of a better assumption. For more on this topic, see Chazon Ish (Shviis 1:18-19). In addition, archeological finds keep changing as newer discoveries are made.

Furthermore, scientific literature has historically disregarded halachic sources, holding historical accounts on higher regards. These accounts, commissioned by ruling monarchs, were often penned to accommodate their patrons. While some of the accounts may certainly be facts, discerning fact from fiction is difficult.


Rabbi Chaim Greinman zatal (Chiddushim U’viurim, Makkos 9b) suggested identifying the southern border by means of the Gemara (Makkos 9b) where we learn of the location of the Arei Miklat – the cities of refuge for unintentional murderers. The pasuk writes (Deavrim 19:3): “Prepare the road for yourself and divide into three parts the boundary of your land, which the Lord, your G-d, is giving you as an inheritance, and it will be for every killer to flee there”.  The Gemara learns from the word(s) “divide into three” that there should be an equal distance from the southern border to the first city, from there to the second city, and from there to the third, and from there up till the northern border.

The cities of refuge were Chevron in the south, Shechem in the center of the country, and Kadesh Naftali in the north. Chevron and Shechem were continuously inhabited and their location is unquestionable. Therefore, in order to know where the southernmost border runs, we would only need to measure the distance between Chveron and Shechem.

The distance between the ancient city of Chevron and the old city of Shechem is nearly 80 km. Therefore, the southern border should run 80 km south of Chevron. This line runs north of Moshav Chatzva and south of Sde Boker. If, to be safe, we assume it is about 100 km, it reaches the yishuvim of Sapir and Mitzpe Ramon.

If we accept the researchers’ opinions that see Tel Kadesh in Ramot Naftali as the biblical city of refuge Kadesh, the distance between Shechem and Kadesh is approximately 100 km. Therefore, the norther border runs 80-100 km. north of that, around the city of Beirut, or slightly south of the Lebanese city of Jabal.

This measurement carries more halachic weight than others as it is derived from a practical halacha, compared to other identifications which rely upon divrei agada-anecdotes (for which the rule of not learning halachos from divrei agados applies. See Yerushalmi 2:4; Rashba 1:50; Rosh 13:21).

This calculation method, although seemingly fool-proof, has several drawbacks: while our measurements are based on aerial measurements, measurements during biblical times was made on the ground, based on ancient roads. While the Rambam writes (Hilchos Rotzeiach 8:5) that the roads to the cities of refuge were straight and where there was a valley or river a bridge was constructed, the roads were still not straight lines, and these measurements are general suggestions, not precise dimensions.

In addition, it is possible that the southern border referred to here is not the border of the consecrated land but the southernmost tip of inhabitable land, excluding the desert which was uninhabitable.

Furthermore, this measurement only provides a general suggestion as it indicates only straight lines, and does not take the fact that the Torah’s lines bend to the south or to the north. However, some contemporary poskim see this measurement as defining the areas which are certainly Eretz Yisroel and where the doubtful areas begin.


The Rambam (Kiddush Hachodesh 18:15) writes that Eretz Yisroel is located between 30⁰ – 35⁰ latitude lines. This measurement can easily help us define the borders of the land. This opinion is quoted in Kaftor V’ferach (chapter 9) and Mor U’Ketziah (Orech Chaim 306). The 30⁰ line runs north of Kibbutz Lotan in the southern Arava and south of Neve Charif and Neot Smadar on the Negev plateau. Rav Eliyashiv ruled that south of this line can be considered Chutz La’aretz and agricultural produce can be purchased there during Shmitta.

Obviously, this measurement is not exact as it does not detail the exact route the border took. However, one can be relatively safe that outside of these lines is not Eretz Yisrael.

An additional apparent drawback to this method comes from the Rambam himself: this information appears in Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh – the laws of consecrating the Jewish Month. They are mentioned in order to help people living within these latitudes in calculating the new moon, not as a halachic directive. Therefore, perhaps the Rambam did not intend for this halacha to determine the exact borders of Eretz Yisroel. In addition, there are claims that the Rambam’s calculation of latitude lines differs slightly from the ones that are used today.

Assuming that everything inside the area designated by the Rambam is Eretz Yisroel, anything outside of it can be safely assumed as a doubtful area.

The Chozon Ish ruled that Kibbutz Yotvata (the only settlement in the Arava in his time) was certainly outside of Eretz Yisroel. This is not to say that anything north of Yotavata is inside the borders of the Holy Land. It only indicates that anywhere from Yotvata – south, is, certainly, outside of it.

Surrounded by Rivers

Rabbi Chaim Kaniyevsly shlita (Derech Emuna 1:7) attempted to identify the borders based on the Gemara (Bave Basro 74b) indicating that Eretz Yisroel is surrounded by rivers on all sides. He proves that there should be a river that begins at a certain point and drains into the Dead Sea, while at the same point a river turns west and drains into the Mediterranean. He points out two possible options on the map – Nachal Tzin which runs from the Dead Sea to Wadi El Arish, or the routes of Nachal Ha’Arava, Nachal Nikrot, Nachal Ramon, Nachal Nitzana till Wadi El Arish. It is important to point out that the route of Nacha Tzin matches up with the assumed kilometrage that divides the land into threes, as presented earlier in this article.

Rav Chaim, though, notes that his father in law, Rav Elyashiv, although appreciating the theory, did not accept it as sufficient basis for a halachic ruling.

400 X 400

Chazal mention numerous times that Eretz Yisroel is the size of 400 parsa’os X 400 parsa’os. One parsa equals 4 mil, and 1 mil is between 1-1.2 km. According to this calculation, Eretz Yisroel should measure 1600 square km. This areal measurement does not match anything we know today. Some suggest this is the measurement of the land as it will be in the future (la’asid lavo). This remains to be explained, as the size still does not match up.

The Kaftor V’ferach calculated there were 400 parsa’os from north to south, depending on calculation 1 parsa = 2 mil. The Achronim point out that we never found a conversion of 1 parsa = 2 mil and the Kaftor V’ferach’s source must be discovered. In any event, according to this calculation, the northernmost border runs from the Amanus mountains and Antiochia in southern Turkey, on the Mediterranean coastline. The areal distance between the 30⁰ latitude line until that point is approximately 720 km. Since the actual traveling distance on land is longer than the aerial distance, it is easy to see that this is the length of Eretz Yisroel. As for the width – according to the opinions that identify Nachal Mitzrayim as the eastern branch of the Nile, a straight line until the Syrian Euphrates is 800 km long. Seemingly, the 400 pars’os include the eastern side of the Jordan river.

The Ya’avetz (Mor U’Ketzia, Orech Chaim 306) compares the Rambam’s assertion that Eretz Yisroel runs between the 30⁰ to the 35⁰ latitude lines and that it is 400 pars’os X 400 parsa’os. He concludes that reconciling the two opinions is impossible. From Jerusalem to the Euphrates there are only 150 parsa’os. Therefore, from Jerusalem — south there should be an additional 250 parsa’os. He continues and presents various other questions, but remains inconclusive.

Some see this as justification of Eretz Yisroel’s title “Eretz Ha’Tzvi” (“The Land of the Deer”). When a deerskin covers the animal it is one size, but when skinned off the deer, it shrinks. Similarly, Eretz Yisroel – when her children (the Jewish people) inhabit her, the land grows in size. But when they are exiled from her, she shrinks.

Consecration of the Southern Border

While we have discussed the various methods for identifying the location of the southern border of Eretz Yisroel as it appears in the Torah sources, we still need to clarify the facts on the ground – what areas were consecrated by the Jewish nation when they entered the land with Yehoshua, and which were re-consecrated when the Babylonian exile returned to the land during the second Temple period.

There is much to be said on this topic beyond the scope of this article. We will only mention here that while in the western Negev certain areas were not consecrated despite their being included in the borders of the Promised Land, the eastern Negev was consecrated in full.

According to the Ya’avetz (Mor U’Ketziah Orech Chaim 306) Shlomo Hamelech and Uzzia conquered the Arava and settled it during the First Temple period, and the Chashmonain kings conquered Idumea during the Second Temple period. Therefore, the entire area is consecrated and included in the bordered of Eretz Yisroel, despite it being outside the borders of the Promised Land as mention in this week’s parasha.

This opinion is accepted by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Karp (Mishmeresh Shvi’is) – in his opinion the entire Arava including Eilat is part of Eretz Yisroel for the above-mentioned reason, and produce grown there during Shmitta is forbidden.

Contemporary poskim do not follow this opinion, and no kashrus organization refuses distribution of produce grown south of the 30⁰ latitude.


Inclusion of the Arava in Eretz Yisroel is questionable. Those who are lenient to eat produce grown during Shmitta even from the northern Arava have upon whom to rely, while many who follow Rav Eliashev are stringent and don’t eat produce from anywhere north of the 30⁰ line. The consensus is that south of this is outside of Eretz Yisroel.

The halacha forbidding leaving Eretz Yisroel calls for Israelis to refrain from traveling to these areas, and settling them does not fulfill the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisroel.

As for keeping a second day of Yom Tov: halachic opinions are divided on this topic, especially since there was a known Jewish settlement in Eilat during both Temple periods, and Beis Din emissaries reached Eilat in time to deliver news of the new month (according to the afore-mentioned Ya’avetz). Therefore, according to the Rambam (Kiddush Hachodesh 5:8) Yom Tov Sheini is not observed in Eilat, while the Ritva (Rosh Hashana 18a) argues it should be celebrated.

The Minchas Shlomo (2:46) of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and the Chazon Ish (Orech Chaim 132:2) rule that only one day of Yom Tov should be observed in Eilat. However, the Or Letzion (volume 3, chapter 23:12) rules that a permanent resident of Eilat should observe two days of Yom Tov, but since the general custom is to observe only one day, an Israeli who is visiting temporarily may keep only one day of Yom Tov, even in public since he is not differing from local custom-even if is incorrect. Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Tshuvos V’Hanhagos, volume 3, chapter 332) maintains that one is obligated to celebrate a second day of Yom Tov in Eilat just like anywhere in Chutz Lo’oretz.

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