Joshua Gerstein

The Land of Israel and the Three Oaths

One of the main topics of this week’s Torah portion is the discussion surrounding various laws related to keeping the vows and oaths that a person might make during his lifetime. The verse states:“If a man takes a vow to Hashem, or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth he shall do.”(Bamidbar 30:3) Over the course of the next several verses, the Torah continues to elucidate the different aspects of annulling vows in order to ensure that a person can either fully fulfill their vow or to properly nullify their obligation. The fulfillment of an oath or vow is of extreme importance in Jewish tradition, so much so that on the eve of Yom Kippur the Jewish people collectively annul their vows so as not to enter that Holy Day with vows unfulfilled. In addition to the various individual vows that a person can make, there are also vows that can be accepted on behalf of an entire community. An example of this is found at the end of this week’s portion, whereby the tribes of Gad and Reuvan swear a vow that they will only settle their land and inheritance after crossing the Jordan in order to help their brethren conquer the Land of Israel. As the verse states, “We shall do as the Lord has spoken to your servants. We shall cross over in an armed force before the Lord to the land of Canaan.”(Bamidbar 32:31-32) There is an extremely important and fundamental connection between vows and the Jewish people’s return and settlement of the Land of Israel in our times.

The Talmud Tractate Ketubot quotes a verse from the Song of Songs 2:7 which states,“I made you swear, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you not awaken nor arouse the love until it desires.”The Sages comment on this verse and explain that at this time God administered Three Oaths when they were exiled amongst the nations: two oaths to Israel, and one oath to the Gentiles of the world. He charged Israel not to ascend “as a wall” (some versions read, “against the wall”) and not to rebel against the nations in an effort to return to the Land. He commanded the Gentiles not to overly subjugate the Jews during the years of Exile. ( Ketubot 111a)

This above Talmud commentary is one which is often quoted while trying to detract from the significance of the present day mitzvah of settling the Land and lauding the merits of the modern day State of Israel. This perspective was made most famous in the Rebbe of Satmar zt”l’s work “Vayoel Moshe.” Since its publishing in 1961 under the section Maamar Shalosh Shevuos (The Three Oaths), the Satmar Rebbe dedicates 153 pages to using the above-mentioned Talmudic section as a platform to undermine the current legitimacy of the modern day return to Zion. In simple terms, the core message brought in his work is that since God put the Jewish people into Exile so too we must wait until He miraculously redeems us before returning to our homeland. Although it is permissible for individual Jews to reside in the Land of Israel, according to the Satmar Rebbe it is prohibited to organize mass immigration as was done by the Zionist movement and it is certainly prohibited to organize a Jewish government and army to oversee the country. Since God put us into the Exile and He has not yet miraculously redeemed us, taking matters into our own hands and creating our own State is an evil act – nothing less than a rebellion against God Himself.

Though it is beyond the scope of this Dvar Torah to fully discuss this topic in depth, I would like to raise a few points which consider alternative explanations to The Three Oaths. These opinions are based upon the writings of eminent Torah scholars who have a different perspective on The Three Oaths and how they are to be applied to our present day situation here in the Land of Israel.

Firstly, Rabbi Abraham Bornstein (d.1910), the Head of the Rabbinic Court of Sochaczew, writes in his work “Avnei Neizer” that if the Jews ascend to the Land of Israel with the permission of the Gentile nations then it cannot be considered a strong-handed or rebellious act.(Avnei Neizer Y.D. 453) In addition, Rabbi Bornstein writes that in accordance with Jewish tradition one cannot derive Halacha from non-legal statements in the Talmud and therefore it would not be possible to apply legal legitimacy to The Three Oaths as that sections is an aggadata and therefore non-legal in nature. (ibid 454). It is for this reason that the Rif, the Rosh, nor any of the other early commentators or Halachik codifiers (with the single exception of Rabbi Yitzchak de Leon) mention the prohibition of The Three Oaths in their collective works. On the contrary, they write that there is a commandment for the Jewish people to ascend to the Land of Israel. Furthermore, both Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Caro’s The Shulchan Aruch leave the Oaths out of their works entirely. Although the Talmud may contain important reasons to question the permissibility of the establishment of the State of Israel on a philosophical level, it should not be misunderstood to contain any Halachik legal prohibition.

In addition, in his work Peninei Halacha, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed writes that The Three Oaths are in need of great clarification as the wording in many places requires definition in order to lend context. He writes, “For example, the Oath “do not to ascend as a wall” is in need of further clarification so as to understand its true meaning. Several commentators explain this phrase to mean that we must not precipitate the end of the Exile and ascend to the Land forcibly without first considering the matter realistically. There was reason to fear that due to the hardships of Exile and the protracted anticipation for redemption, people would ascend to the Land impetuously without any practical means by which to build the Land and stand up against the nations of the world. This would then lead to destruction and crisis instead of the beginning of redemption. Therefore, God made us swear that we will not attempt to return before carefully calculating our actions. Rather, we should ascend and build the Land gradually, in coordination with the nations of the world.” (Peninei Halacha, Zmanim, Page 74-75. Translated from Hebrew.) Indeed, if we consider the modern day return to the Land of Israel we will find that it occurred in a gradual process. The Jewish community in the Land established itself step by step, one small farming community and one small kibbutz after the other over a period of many years. At the same time, the Zionist Organization simultaneously engaged in international diplomatic efforts until the nations of the world recognized the Jewish people’s right to return to their homeland and to build their national home. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the United Nations vote of November 29, 1947 both granted the Jewish people permission to establish a Jewish State. This being so, it cannot be asserted that we “rebelled” or that we took Eretz Yisrael by force. In fact, when in 1920 the League of Nations agreed in San Remo to return the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk zt”l wrote that “the fear of the oaths has faded away.” In an entirely different approach, The Vilna Gaon writes in his commentary to Shir HaShirim 2:7 that The Oaths actually relate to the building of the Temple rather than to the settlement of the Land of Israel itself; The Oaths are warning us not to burst forth and build the Temple without Divine authorization through the message of a Prophet.

Should one disagree with the opinions of Rabbi Abraham Bornstein, the Rif, the Rosh, Maimonides, Rabbi Yosef Caro, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk and the Vilna Gaon, there is still reason to assert that the Jewish people have been released from our commitments under The Oaths by virtue of the fact that the Gentiles of the world have certainly failed to abide by The Third Oath, “do not overly subjugate the Jews during their Exile.” The structure of the Talmud statement makes it clear that The Three Oaths were a contractual relationship — once one of the sides breaks its commitment so too the other side is released from the contract. Though the Talmud does not define precisely how much is subjugation is too much, it can be assumed that centuries of Crusades, Inquisitions, Blood Libels, Pogroms, and the horrors of the Holocaust have effectively severed the Jewish people’s obligation to remain in Exile.

In closing, the entire subject of The Three Oaths is one that has been heralded as a reason to negate the importance and significance of settling the Land of Israel today. However, upon closer examination of the topic it becomes clear that there is much more to weigh and consider before passing judgment and leveling such a heavy statement with such tremendous consequences. It would seem that with a world of enemies bent on our nation’s destruction we have every right, if not a moral responsibility, to embark upon the monumental task of bringing to a close the 2,000 year Exile of the Jewish people. In this way we can fulfill the verse of “As God has spoken to your servants so shall we do. We shall cross over armed, before Hashem to the Land of Canaan”and to usher in the Final Redemption. We pray that God watch over and protect our chayalim as they battle for the safety and security of the restored State of Israel and for the Jewish people.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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