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The Mitzvah of Settling in the Land of Israel – Part II

Written by Rabbi Nadel, 22/2/2020

 The Mitzvah of Settling in the Land of Israel – Part II

Rambam’s View

Much ink has been spilled concerning the view of Rambam. Arguably the greatest of the Rishonim, many grapple with why Rambam himself does not includes a specific mitzvah to settle in the Land of Israel in his count of the 613 mitvot. 

Rav Chaim Benvenisti writes that according to the Rambam, the Torah command to settle the Land applied only during the initial conquest of the Land of Israel in the days of Joshua. Today, he explains, the mitzvah to settle the Land is only Rabbinic (Knesset ha-Gedolah, YD 239:38). Rambam, per the Introduction to his Sefer HaMitzvot, enumerates only Biblical mitzvot. The fact that according to this view, Rambam believes Yishuv Eretz Yisrael is only Rabbinic would not impact our performance of this mitzvah, as rabbinic mitzvot are also to be observed with the same care as Biblical mitzvot.

Another famous explanation as to why this mitzvah is seemingly missing from Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, is that of Rav Isaac de Leon.  He writes:

“It appears to me that the Rabbi [Rambam] did not count the mitzvah of taking possession of the Land and settling it because it applied only during the days of Moses, Joshua and David and at all times when they [the Jews] are not exiled from their land.  But after they have been exiled from their soil, this mitzvah does not apply until the arrival of the Messiah.  On the contrary, we were commanded with what is said at the end of Ketubbot (111a), not to rebel against the nations and take the Land by force.  They proved this from the verse, ‘I have adjured you, O maidens of Jerusalem…’ and expounded that ‘they not ascend like a wall’” (Megillat Esther to Nachmanides’ Addenda to Sefer HaMitzvot, positive commandment no. 4).

This explanation is difficult to accept since Rambam includes in his work many mitzvot which, ‘do not apply nowadays,’ like the sacrifices in the Holy Temple, for example. It also contradicts the view of many authorities who rule in accord with a simple reading of the text, that the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel applies at all times. The opinion of R. Isaac de Leon is based on the ‘Three Oaths,’ a passage from Tractate Ketubbot, which will be discussed in these pages in future weeks. 

Rav Avraham Borenstein of Sochatchov explains that the Rambam does indeed consider living in the Land to be a Biblical mitzvah that applies at all times. Like in other instances, however, he includes it within another, more general mitzvah (Avnei Nezer YD 454:5-6), Here, he explains, the Rambam includes the mitzvah of settling the Land under the commandment to conquer the Land and rid her of her inhabitants (Deut. 7:2, 20:17). A similar approach has been taken by others, as well: Rav Shaul Yisraeli writes that Rambam includes the mitzvah of Yishuv HaAretz in the mitzvah of Birkat HaMazon. Rav Hershel Schachter suggests that the Rambam includes Yishuv HaAretz in the commandment to appoint a king.

In the cases we discussed at length last week, the Rambam rules that a spouse can be compelled to ascend to Israel (Hil. Ishut 13:19-20), and one may ask a gentile to write a contract on Shabbat in order to purchase Land in Israel, “because of [the mitzvah to] settle the Land of Israel, they [the Sages] did not prohibit this”(Hil. Shabbat 6:11). He also rules that a servant can compel his master to ascend. This serves to prove that the Rambam too believes the mitzvah of dwelling in the Land is a Biblical commandment, which applies at all times (See Rav Shlomo Goren, Mishnat HaMedinah, p. 21: Chazon Ish, Kovetz Igrot ,Vol. 1, no. 175; Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. 7, no. 48, sec. 12).

For anyone who still questions his position on the Land of Israel, the Rambam’s own words provide clarity. Based on statements in the Talmud, he writes: 

“It is forbidden for one to leave the Land of Israel for the Diaspora at all times, except: to study Torah, to marry, or to save [one's property] from the gentiles, and then he must return to the Land. Similarly, [one may leave] to do business. However, it is prohibited settle permanently in the Diaspora unless the famine there [in Israel] 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 produce is expensive. However, if produce 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.  Although it is permitted to leave [under these circumstances], it is not pious behavior. Behold, Mahlon and Khilyon were two of the great men of the generation and they left only out of great distress. Nevertheless, God found them worthy of death.

Great Sages would kiss the borders of the Land of Israel, kiss her stones, and roll around in her dust. Similarly, it is said: ‘For your servants have cherished her stones, and favored her dust.’ 

The Sages said, ‘Whoever dwells in Eretz Yisrael will have his sins forgiven,’ as it is stated: ‘The inhabitant shall not say I am sick, the people who dwell there shall be forgiven of sin.’ Even one who walks four cubits there will merit the World to Come. Similarly, one who is buried there receives atonement as if the place in which he is buried is an altar of atonement. As it is stated: ‘His land will atone for His people.’ And as [an expression of] punishment it is said, ‘You will die in an impure land.’ There is no comparison between the merit of a person who lives there and one whose body is brought there after his death. Nevertheless, great Sages would bring their dead there. Take for example our patriarch, Jacob, and Joseph, the righteous.

A person should always dwell in the Land of Israel even in a city whose population is primarily gentile, rather than dwell in the Diaspora, even in a city whose population is primarily Jewish. For whoever leaves to the Diaspora is considered as if he worships idols…” (Hil. Melachim 5:9-12).

These statements by the Rambam should not be understood as mere hyperbole as they make up a section of his Code of Law, the Mishneh Torah. 

Some suggest that the reason the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel is not stated explicitly by the Rambam is due to how central or basic or fundamental the mitzvah is. It is a mitzvah, which includes many other mitzvot. Per his introduction to his Sefer HaMitzvot, the Rambam does not include mitzvot “which encompass the entire Torah or [include] many mitzvot.” This mitzvah need not be stated explicitly, as all of the other mitzvot in the Torah are predicated upon it! (See Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. 7, no. 48, sec. 12).

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