Bezalel Naor

Of Swords and Books: ‘The Land That I Will Show You’

Shnayor Burton. Ha-Arets Asher Ar’eka: Mitsvat Yishuv Erets Yisrael (The Land That I Will Show You: The Commandment of Settling the Land of Israel). 5783/2023. (14), 208 pages.

In the aftermath of World War Two, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum of Satu Mare experienced an epiphany: The incomparable tragedy of the Holocaust was divine retribution for the People of Israel having violated the legendary “Three Oaths” (Shalosh Shavu‘ot) administered by the Almighty, one of which was, “that Israel not ascend [to the Land of Israel] ke-homah, en masse.”[1]

The destruction of European Jewry evoked different responses from Hungarian rabbis. Whereas in the case of Rabbi Yissachar Teichtal of Pishtian (Piešťany), author of ’Em ha-Banim Semekha (Budapest, 1943), the persecutions evidently resulted in a volte face, a reversal of his earlier opposition to the Zionist movement, in the case of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, they only reinforced his vehement opposition to organized settlement of the Land of Israel.

After the War, the Rabbi of Satu Mare reconstituted his community in Brooklyn, New York. Eventually, he would sum up his ideology in two works: Vayyoel Moshe (Brooklyn, 1959)[2] and ‘Al ha-Ge’ulah ve-‘al ha-Temurah (Brooklyn, 1967). The latter work was written in the wake of the Six Day War in June of 1967, in order to dispel rumors that he had softened his stance. The catchy title (a quote from Ruth 4:7), “On the Redemption and the Exchange,” was designed to convey the Satmarer’s reading of the recent events: Israel’s stunning victory was the work of Satan to dupe gullible Jews into believing in the Zionist cause!

Since then, scholars of various stripes have taken upon themselves to refute the Satmarer ideology: Rabbis Mordechai ‘Atiyah,[3] Nahum Lamm,[4] Tsevi Yehudah Kook,[5] Shelomo Aviner,[6] and Yoel Kahn,[7] to name a few. The latest attempt to engage with the theories of Rabbi Teitelbaum is that of our author. Enter the fray, Rabbi Shnayor Burton, a Brooklyn-based rosh yeshivah.

Over the past few years, Rabbi Burton has made a name for himself as an out-of-the-box thinker. Educated in prestigious “Lithuanian” yeshivot, his works differ from those of his peer group both in style and content. Stylistically, his ideas are couched in an eloquent modern Hebrew (as opposed to the traditional “lishna de-rabbanan,” with its Aramaisms). In terms of content, there is a heavy reliance on TaNaKh, something rare in the yeshivah world.

Rabbi Burton takes a commonsensical approach to the Three Oaths. They were intended to be an advisory, not a prohibition.[8] In yeshivish terminology, “they are not a halakhah (law) but a metsi’ut (reality).”[9] The Jewish People’s struggle to reclaim its land will not be taken kindly by the nations of the world. Thus, one need not claim the clairvoyance required to read the mind of God; one must only be realistic enough to gauge the reaction of Israel’s adversaries. That is Rabbi Burton’s explanation why Maimonides quotes the admonition of the oaths in his Epistle to Yemen,[10] while deleting it from his legal code, Mishneh Torah. It was fitting to invoke the homily in a pastoral letter to the Jews of Yemen who sought Maimonides’ guidance how to deal with the appearance of a “Messiah” in their midst; it was unfitting to speak of the divinely administered oaths in a legal compendium. (The simpler explanation is that Maimonides generally does not include matters of Aggadah or homilies in his halakhic work.)

Furthermore, acting against the advice proffered does not mean ipso facto that one denies divine ability to bring about the redemption. (Parenthetically, in the rabbinic reading of the situation, the Meraglim, the spies dispatched by Moses to reconnoiter the Land of Canaan, who advised against ascending to the land, were guilty of denying the Almighty’s ability to take possession of the Land).[11]

Rabbi Burton’s foil for Vayyoel Moshe is the Book of Kuzari by the Sephardic poet Yehudah Halevi, a work that in no uncertain terms calls to the dispersed of Israel to return to their ancient land. Yes, mass ‘aliyah![12] As the book was issued roughly a millennium after the destruction of the Second Temple,[13] Rabbi Burton views the clarion call of the Kuzari as an event of epic proportions. (There are midrashim that limit the decree of exile to a thousand years.) In Rabbi Burton’s words: “As in a voice from heaven, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi called to the entire People of Israel to ascend to the Land of Israel.”[14]

Unfortunately, it was “a voice crying in the wilderness.” Its lyrical quality aside, the Kuzari produced no “facts on the ground” other than Yehudah Halevi’s own personal ‘aliyah.[15] Nothing to compare to the apocryphal ‘aliyah of three hundred French rabbis a century later.[16]

In this reviewer’s opinion, a better choice of a foil to the halakhic claims made by Vayyoel Moshe would have been Ishtori ha-Parhi’s Kaphtor va-Pherah (1322), whose tenth chapter is devoted to the laws of Erets Yisrael. While the suasion of the Kuzari remains rhetorical, Kaphtor va-Pherah puts some halakhic teeth into the argument. Kaphtor va-Pherah maintains that the opinion of the third-century Babylonian amora, Rav Yehudah, that “whoever ascends from Babylonia to the Land of Israel transgresses a positive commandment”[17] is a lone opinion (and even then, the commandment is rabbinic). Furthermore, Parhi gives us to understand that though the status of the agricultural laws has been altered, the commandment to dwell in the Land is unchanged and persists into the present.[18]

Kaphtor va-Pherah might have been an obscure work, yet its decisions gained considerable traction in the halakhic literature. On the other hand, Kuzari, despite enjoying immense popularity, rarely made its way into the mainstream of Halakhah.[19] (Rabad of Posquières went so far as to cast aspersions on Yehudah Halevi’s halakhic competence.)[20]

While measuring the halakhic weight of various works, we would be remiss if we did not address Megillat Esther, a commentary to Maimonides’ Book of Commandments. From a passage in Megillat Esther, Rabbi Teitelbaum mustered support for his position that the Three Oaths place in abeyance the commandment of settling in the Land of Israel until the coming of the Messiah. Nahmanides counted the commandment of settling in the Land in his roster of the six hundred and thirteen commandments. Maimonides’ omission is glaring. Megillat Esther reasoned that according to the guidelines established by Maimonides in the preface to the Book of Commandments, whereby only eternal commandments qualify for inclusion in the six hundred and thirteen, settling the Land was disqualified, for it is in abeyance from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple until the advent of Messiah, on account of the Three Oaths.[21]

For some time, confusion reigned as to the identity of the author of Megillat Esther. It was once thought that the author was Rabbi Isaac de Leon, one of the last Spanish luminaries before the Expulsion in 1492. The great bibliographer, Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai (HYDA) cleared matters up. The author of Megillat Esther functioned half a century after the Expulsion, in Ancona, Italy. Leon was not his family name but his middle name. His family name was Ibn Tsur. Thus, Rabbi Isaac Leon ibn Tsur.[22] What this means from the halakhic perspective is that Megillat Esther is no longer to be considered the work of a rishon (early authority) but that of an aharon (late authority).[23] Which is not to say that it is an unimportant work, but it is stripped of its magisterial status.

As for the cogency of Megillat Esther’s thought, the reader should be aware that Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ginzburg of Minsk and Metz, author of Sha’agat Aryeh, devoted a chapter of his work to demolishing Megillat Esther’s unheard-of assertion “that the times of prayer instituted by the rabbis are not indispensable (le-‘ikuva) but merely a mitsvah.”[24]

(To be continued)

[1] b. Ketubot 111a.

[2] The book is divided into three sections: Ma’amar Shalosh Shavu‘ot; Ma’amar Yishuv Erets Yisrael; and Ma’amar Leshon ha-Kodesh. The final section is a response to a question from Rabbi Pinhas Hirschprung of Montreal whether to adopt Hebrew as the language of instruction in the religious girls’ school there.

[3] Mordechai ‘Atiyah, Sod ha-Shevu‘ah (Jerusalem, 1964). Rabbi ‘Atiyah (1898-1978), a native of Aleppo, Syria, served for some years as rabbi of the Aleppoan community of Mexico City. After settling in Jerusalem in 1936, he founded there (in 1967) the Kabbalist yeshivah, Ha-Hayyim ve-ha-Shalom.

[4] Norman Lamm, “The Ideology of the Neturei Karta—According to the Satmarer Version,” Tradition 12:2 (Fall 1971), pp. 38-53.

[5] Tsevi Yehudah Kook, “Birurei Devarim be-Ta‘anat Shalosh ha-Shavu‘ot,” HaTzofeh, 18 Elul, 5733 [i.e., 1973]; reprinted in idem, Li-Netivot Yisrael, vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 1979), pp. 115-116.

[6] Shelomo Aviner, ‘Aloh Na‘aleh (Beit El, 2012).

[7] Yoel Kahn, Ma‘aneh Hakham (Brooklyn, 2014). Rabbi Yoel Kahn (1930-2021) was the official hozer” of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Though unstated in the book, the two letters that comprise the book were addressed to Rabbi Mendel Wechter, a member of the Satmar community who gravitated to Lubavitch. The first letter is internally dated 5743 [i.e., 1983]. See Ma‘aneh Hakham, Letter 1, par. 16 (p. 46).

[8] Ha-Arets Asher Ar’eka, 26ff. See earlier Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, Erets Hemdah (Tel-Aviv, 1957), 1:1:5 (22b-23a).

[9] Ha-Arets Asher Ar’eka, p. 32.

[10] See Iggeret Teiman, in Iggerot ha-Rambam, transl. Rabbi Joseph Kafih (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1994), p. 55.

[11] b. Sotah 35a, quoted in Rashi, Numbers 13:31, s.v. hazak hu mimenu.

[12] Judah Halevi, Book of Kuzari, transl. Hartwig Hirschfeld (New York: Pardes, 1946), II, 23 (p. 87); V, 27 (p. 261).

[13] The earliest mention of the Book of Kuzari is in a letter by the author, Yehudah Halevi, to Halfon ben Netanel from the year 1129. See Moshe Gil and Ezra Fleischer, Yehuda ha-Levi and His Circle (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 2001), pp. 182-184. The letter was found in the Cairo Genizah. See the facsimile on page 526 (document 19).

[14] Ha-Arets Asher Ar’eka, p. 102.

[15] See the concluding paragraph of the Book of Kuzari (V, 28).

[16] See Ephraim Kanarfogel, “The ‘Aliyah of ‘Three Hundred Rabbis’ in 1211: Tosafist Attitudes toward Settling in the Land of Israel,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series 76:3 (January, 1986), pp. 191-215.

[17] b. Berakhot 24b; Shabbat 41a; Ketubot 110b.

[18] Ishtori ha-Parhi, Kaphtor va-Pherah, ed. Havatselet, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 2004), chap. 10 (pp. 198, 253).

Of presumably Provençal origin, Parhi wrote his work in the Land of Israel. Kaphtor va-Pherah is vaunted as the first Hebrew book on the geography of the Land of Israel.

[19] One ventures to say that the one outlier is Halevi’s opinion regarding the International Date Line, which was adopted by Rabbi Zerahyah Halevi (Ba‘al ha-Ma’or), and subsequently by the sage of B’nei Berak, Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz (Hazon Ish) in his Kuntres Shemoneh ‘Esreh Sha‘ot (and in turn, by Rabbi Hayyim Zimmerman in his work, Agan ha-Sahar).

[20] Rabad wrote concerning the Kuzari: “We should not learn from the words of those who are not Talmudists” (Katuv Sham: Hassagot ha-Rabad ‘al Ba‘al ha-Ma’or [on Sukkah and Rosh ha-Shanah], ed. Bergman [Jerusalem, 1957], p. 60). Quoted in Isadore Twersky, Rabad of Posquières (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 266, n. 23.

Ta-Shema found preposterous Rabad’s allegation that Yehudah Halevi was halakhically deficient. See Israel M. Ta-Shema, Rabbi Zerahyah Halevi Ba‘al ha-Ma’or u-B’nei Hugo (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1992), p. 4, note 9; pp. 142-143. Rabbi Zevin made the case that the Kuzari is a work of halakhic significance; see Rabbi Shelomo Yosef Zevin, Le-’Or ha-Halakhah (Jerusalem, 1978), “Ha-Kuzari ba-Halakhah,” pp. 281-301.

My two teachers in Jerusalem, Rabbis Tsevi Yehudah Kook and Shelomo Fisher, of blessed memory, were diametrically opposed in their views of the Kuzari. Rabbi Kook regarded the Kuzari as a work of supreme significance; Rabbi Fisher did not put much stock in the book.

Once, after Rabbi Fisher had spoken at a se‘udat berit milah, sometime later in private conversation, I confronted him with the words of the Kuzari that circumcision is not a logical, rational commandment. See Kuzari III, 7 (p. 125). Rabbi Fisher dismissed lightly the Kuzari, countering that circumcision was practiced by other ancient Near Eastern peoples besides the Hebrews.

[21] Rabbi Isaac Leon ibn Tsur, Megillat Esther [on Maimonides’ Book of Commandments] (Venice, 1592), Positive Commandments According to Nahmanides, commandment 4 (97b); Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, Vayyoel Moshe (Brooklyn, 1961), Ma’amar Yishuv Erets Yisrael, par. 2 (198a).

[22] Hayyim Yosef David Azulai, Shem ha-Gedolim I, Yod, par. 333, s.v. Yitzhak de Leon. Azulai discovered in manuscript a decision of Isaac Leon ben Eliezer ibn Tsur, a resident of Ancona, from the year 1546.

[23] For halakhic purposes, the period of the Rishonim came to an end with the Spanish Expulsion of 1492.

[24] The context is defense of Nahmanides’ opinion that prayer is not a commandment that originates in the Torah but a rabbinic commandment. Rabbi Isaac Leon ibn Tsur, Megillat Esther, Maimonides’ positive commandment 5 (86a); Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ginzburg, Sha’agat Aryeh (Frankfurt on Oder, 1756), chap. 15 (f. 19).

Unfortunately, Rabbi Shmuel Yerushalmi, in his invaluable work on the Sha’agat Aryeh, consistently unpacked the initials MA (for Megillat Esther) as Magen Avraham. See Shmuel Yerushalmi, Ha-Sha’agat Aryeh: Hayyav ve-Torato (Jerusalem, 1974), vol. 1, pp. 76, 78-79. Somehow, it escaped Yerushalmi’s notice that in the first iteration (chap. 14 [18b]), Sha’agat Aryeh spells out “Megillat Esther.”

Otherwise, Yerushalmi provided a great service by summing up the chapters of Sha’agat Aryeh and the secondary literature that arose in response to its arguments.

About the Author
Bezalel Naor is an author, teacher, and public speaker. He is recognized as a scholar in the thought of Rav Kook, Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, and Hasidism, as well as many other areas of Jewish Thought. Recent publications include a bilingual edition of Rav Kook's seminal work, Orot (Maggid, 2015); When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (Kodesh, 2016); The Koren Rav Kook Siddur (2017); Navigating Worlds: Collected Essays (Kodesh, 2021); and The Souls of the World of Chaos (Kodesh, 2023).
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