Eliezer Finkelman

The Contested Commandment to Live in Israel

The Commandment to Inhabit the Land of Israel

I intend to use this opportunity to try to resolve a difficulty in Rambam.

But first, a story:

About forty years ago, there was a teachers’ strike at Akiva.  My friend and teacher, Rabbi Eliezer Cohen, of blessed memory, decided that there were students prepared to learn Torah, so the Limmudei Kodesh teachers should continue teaching.  He recruited substitutes to teach the classes that lost their regular teachers.  So I began teaching in high school, a role that I thought I had escaped forever.   My regular job was Director of the Hillel at Wayne State University.

I had been teaching part time for a few weeks when the treasurer of Akiva called me to say that I had to cash my salary checks.  I explained that I did not want to cash the checks, because I was not working for the money.  I was just filling in to see that the students could keep learning.  The treasurer prevailed on me to cash the checks, saying that the school could not balance its books with outstanding checks.

Now for the difficult Rambam.

Ramban, Commentary on the Sefer haMitsvot of Rambam, “Commandments that the Master Omitted” #4

We are commanded to inherit the land which the exalted Lord gave to our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not to abandon it to others than us of the nations or to desolation, and this is written, “You shall inherit the land and dwell there, for to you have I given the land, to inherit it. And you shall settle the land . . . (Numbers 33:53-54).

Ramban elucidates two aspects: To rule over the land, and to settle all parts of it. Ramban rules that this mitsvah applies to all generations, in contradistinction to the opinion that it applied only with the original conquest begun by Joshua.

Rambam, as is apparent from the location of this mitsvah in Ramban’s commentary, does not enumerate this as a mitsvah.

The sages of the Mishnah and Talmud present legal rulings, and hyperbolic extravagant words of praise, privileging life in Israel.  You can find many of these statements in the end of Tractate Ketubot. The Mishnah provides the occasion for this discussion with a ruling in marital law: “All may force their family to ascend to the land of Israel, and all may not remove their family from the land of Israel” (Ketubot 13:11).  Rambam quotes this Mishnah (Marriage 13:11), explaining:  If the husband wishes to go to Israel, he can compel his wife to join him, or she must accept a divorce without collecting her Ketubah, if she will not go.  If the wife wishes to go, she can compel her husband to divorce her and pay the full Ketubah, if he will not go (Marriage 13:19, 20).

The ancient rabbis do not consider an option that the husband will simply leave his wife, without granting a divorce and without paying the ketubah.  That counts as an innovation of the modern rabbis, if you will pardon my snark.

Similarly, Rambam rules that an individual can fulfill the personal responsibility to live in the land.  “A person should always prefer to live in Israel, even in a majority non-Jewish village, and not outside the land, even in a majority Jewish village” (Ketubot 110b).

Rambam quotes other related rulings (Kings and their Wars 5:12), that privilege living in Israel.

For example:

It is forbidden to leave Eretz Yisrael for the Diaspora at all times except:
to study Torah;
to marry; or
to save one’s property from the gentiles.
After accomplishing these objectives, one must return to Eretz Yisrael.
Similarly, one may leave Eretz Yisrael to conduct commercial enterprises. However, it is forbidden to leave with the intent of settling permanently in the Diaspora unless the famine in Eretz Yisrael is so severe that a dinar’s worth of wheat is sold at two dinarim.

When do these conditions apply? When one possesses financial resources and food is expensive. However, if food is inexpensive, but a person cannot find financial resources or employment and has no money available, he may leave and go to any place where he can find relief.

Though it is permitted to leave Eretz Yisrael under these circumstances, it is not pious behavior. Behold, Mahlon and Kilyon were two of the great men of the generation and they left Eretz Yisrael only out of great distress. Nevertheless, they were found worthy of death by God.

The ancient rabbis present extravagant praise of living in Israel, such as “Living in Israel weighs as much as all the commandments of the Torah” (Sifrei Reeh 53). Rambam even quotes extravagant praise of those who live in Israel, beginning: “whoever lives in Israel has sins forgiven” (Kings and their Wars, 5:11).

How does it make sense for Rambam to have rabbinic laws privileging dwelling in Israel when Rambam does not have a Torah law to live in Israel?

Megillat Ester, a defense of Rambam written by R. Yitzhak de Leon (Spain, 1240-1305), asserts that Rambam classifies the commandment to live in Israel as applying only to the first conquest in the time of Joshua. Thus Rambam would not count it in Sefer haMitsvot, according to principle #3 in the introduction to Sefer haMitsvot.  This well explains why Rambam has no Torah commandment to live in Israel, but it does not explain why Rambam includes the rabbinic rulings encouraging living in Israel.  With no underlying Torah commandment, the rabbis cannot simply invent rabbinic commandments.

If living in Israel constitutes only a rabbinic commandment, we do not understand why Rambam codifies all the rabbinic laws privileging living in Israel.

A contemporary scholar, R. Yaakov Kaniefsky, author of Avnei Nezer, suggests that destroying the 7 nations implies a commandment to live in Israel. Living in Israel thus becomes a kind of implicit value, without having an explicit commandment.

Perhaps living in Israel serves as prerequisite for many commandments, and so implicitly has the status of a commandment. I find these suggestions not compelling.  The Torah knows how to express a commandment clearly.

Rav Yisochar Shelomo Teichtal, in Eim haBanim Semeihah, argues that living in Israel counts a general principle, so important that it underlies many commandments, and so, according to Rambam’s Principle #4 in the introduction to Sefer haMitsvot, should not to be listed as a specific commandment. That would make it like the general exhortations, such as “Whatever I have said to you, observe” (Exodus 23:13). R. Teichtal, like other Hungarian Hasidic leaders, had belonged among the most extreme opponents of Zionism, until, as the Holocaust unfolded, he repented of his opposition to Zionism.  He lived through most of the Holocaust, but was murdered near the end of the destruction of European Jewry.

The general exhortations, though, demand a commitment to observance, rather than any specific performance, such as “settling in the land of Israel.”

My suggestion: All through Devarim, especially, we find the refrain, “keep the commandments in order to live long in the land that I promised your ancestors.” (Deut. 4:1; 6:23; 8:1; 11:21 and others). Living in Israel constitutes the reward for keeping the commandments.  Keeping the commandments without living in Israel resembles working without bothering to collect your salary.

Is collecting your salary part of the job requirements?  Or is collecting your salary the reward for working?

If an employee does not collect his or her salary, does that indicate failure to perform the job, or failure to understand what working is for?

I have taught this explanation for the difficulty in Rambam for many years now, though I have visited, but never lived in the land of Israel.  My wife and I plan to move to Israel next week.

Sources: Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Peninei Halakhah

Accessed August 3, 2023

  1. David Slverberg, “Maimonides and the Obligation to Live in the Land of Israel,” Maimonides Heritage Center.

Accessed August 3, 2023

About the Author
Louis Finkelman currently resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Until recently, he taught Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, and served as half the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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