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From Parsha to Halakha Shlach: Do we need permission to enter Israel?

Sivan 5784 | June 2024

The Torah relates a curious incident the day after the Sin of the Spies.

“They rose up early the next morning and went up to the crest of the mountains saying, ‘Here we are, we will go up to the place the Eternal said, because we have sinned.’”[1]

Who are the Ma’apilim?

The Israelites unquestioningly believed the report of the meraglim (spies or scouts) and accused God of bringing them to the Promised Land to die by the sword, claiming it would be better to die in Egypt or the desert. They start talking about returning to Egypt and threaten to stone Calev and Yehoshua for telling them they can prevail while God is with them. Fittingly, God decrees the people will get what they wish for. The adult Israelites will not enter Canaan; they will die over forty years in the wilderness and their children will receive the land their parents scorned.

The people’s response makes sense. They are doing teshuva – admitting they sinned and trying to rectify the situation by showing their faith in God and sticking to the original plan. Moshe doesn’t see it the same way:

“Moshe said: ‘Why are you doing this, transgressing the word of the Eternal? It will not succeed. Do not go up because the Eternal is not in your midst, [so] you won’t be struck down before your enemies. For the Amelekites and the Canaanites are there before you and you will fall by the sword, because you have turned away from following the Eternal, [so] the Eternal will not be with you.’”

This unnamed and unnumbered group of people do not heed Moshe. The Torah relates they go up while the ark and Moshe remain in the camp, and the Amelikites and Canaanites who dwelled in those mountains descended and annihilated them.

What does this word mean?

The verb used to describe their response – “va’yaapilu la’alot” – is forever associated with this sin, the Sin of the Ma’apilim.[2] But the meaning of the term itself is debated. In the Bible the word root is rare, its most common use is the noun “ofel” which is used for protruding tumors like hemorrhoid (piles).[3] Biblical dictionaries suggest two possible meanings – one related to the Arabic word for heedless, the other the Assyrian and Arabic word for swell.[4]

The verb form of va’yaapilu is Hiph’il – which can be a causative, permissive, or denominative verb.  Both Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan offer interpretations that may be derived from causing or allowing heedlessness: “arsha’u” – they purposely did evil, or caused evil to be done, and “va’izdarzu” – they rushed or exerted themselves.  This explanation is close to the term used in the parallel story in Devarim to describe their actions, “va’tazidu va’taalu” – interpreted as purposeful defiance, acting proudly, presumptuously, or rebelliously.

But if such a term exists why use “vaya’apilu” in the original context? It’s probably not a coincidence that the word root means painful swollen body parts. Many Torah scholars have compared sin to chametz – leavened bread – because both are swollen and falsely inflated. So, it seems possible the Torah language alludes that the Ma’apilim’s sin was based in their purposeful heedlessness of God and Moshe’s warnings, exerting themselves to force something to happen instead of waiting for it to come in the proper time, and they tried so hard their efforts resulted in painful, swollen piles.

But how is this a transgression?  Is “making aliya” without Divine permission prohibited?

Indeed, classic commentaries seem divided as to whether the Ma’apilim defied a direct order or simply acted on their own accord. Perhaps they defied the decree they must die in the desert or God’s explicit rejection of their proposal, and therefore, “transgressing God’s word is never successful.”[5]

Ramban expressly rejects the idea that the sin was defying the decree they will not enter Israel, and points to Moshe’s retelling of the story in Devarim, where God explicitly tells Moshe these people should not go and should not fight.[6] This may be indicative of a larger approach to Divine decrees, specifically decrees of exile and redemption. In several places Ramban teaches that even if when God specifies the length of an exile, our actions can hasten or delay the redemption.[7]

Midrash Tanaim notes that in our parsha it seems as though Moshe was using his own judgment, only in Devarim is it clear he is relaying God’s message that they should not go up and should not fight.[8] Bamidbar leaves out this information, giving the impression that the Ma’apilim are defying a pre-existing Divine commandment, as opposed to an explicit rejection of their plan.

Indeed, Rashi indicates that Ma’apilim comes from strength or force and brings the Midrash Tanchuma that they went without permission, indicating that the issue is less a transgression of an explicit command and more the acting on their own judgement.[9] This can also explain why Bamidbar uses va’yaapilu and Devarim vayazidu. In Bamidbar the issue is they are trying to force something, they are causing heedlessness because they don’t ask for permission. In Devarim they are purposely acting wickedly, in defiance of an express order.

What about God?

Several commentaries ask: Why isn’t God with the Maapilim? Why aren’t they successful?[10] After all, they seem to be doing teshuva – vidui, acknowledging their wrongdoing, and then fixing their mistake.

Netziv states that even though doing teshuva by trying to fix the mistake is good, this isn’t the case when the teshuva also defies God’s words. These people were willing “limsor et nafshem” to give their lives for the Land of Israel. Many consider that a mitzvah. According to Netziv, they thought that their mesirut nefesh would cause God to intervene and miraculously save them. This did not happen, instead they were killed by the Amalekites and Canaanites.

Netziv further teaches that this was not a punishment, since they did do some form of teshuva, but this teshuva was not sufficient to grant them the Divine intervention of miracles, because it contained an element of the sin – neglecting that we can win the wars with God’s help, but only with God’s help.

Ohr HaChaim answers the question similarly. Moshe points out two problems with the actions of the Ma’apilim – they planned to go into Israel without “God in their midst,” in itself rebellion against God, and they will be “smitten before their enemies” because both the acceptance of the spies’ report and the rejection of Moshe’s message here show that these people do not understand God’s part in their wars. As Calev and Yehoshua told the people, “If the Eternal desires us and brings us to this land and gives it to us…” While we can only conquer the land if we desire the land, that is not enough, God must desire us as well.

In other words, while we must trust in God and have faith that we will be successful, this alone is not enough. We must be people that God chooses to give the land to. Our considerations are not necessarily the same as God’s. For example, God explains that, at least in part, the Israelites must wait several hundred years to inherit the land “for the sin of the Emorites is not yet complete.” In addition to Israel needing to deserve the land, the current occupants must be underserving.

Is Aliyah prohibited without Divine permission?

Indeed, it seems that there are two sins here – entering Israel without God’s permission and fighting without God’s approval. Are these general prohibitions or only in this case?

There are several midrashic and halakhic opinions that prohibit certain type of immigration to Israel. Perhaps the most notable is based on a gemara in Ketubot that relates that Rabbi Zeira was avoiding Rav Yehudah because he was planning on making Aliyah, which Rav Yehudah believed was prohibited.[11]

“Rav Yehudah said: Anyone who ascends from Babylon to the Land of Israel transgresses a positive commandment, as it says, ‘They will be taken to Babylonia and they will be there until the day I recall them, said the Eternal.’”

Rav Yehudah brings a verse from Yirmiyahu that interprets God’s decree of exile as a commandment. Rabbi Zeira does not dismiss the assertion that this is not merely warning Israel of God’s decision, but an imperative to abide by it until God brings them back. Instead, he points out that in context the verse clearly refers to the Temple vessels.

The gemara brings another source for Rav Yehudah’s opinion, the verse in Shir HaShirim: “I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem… do not awaken or stir up the love until it’s desirous.”[12] Rabbi Zeira accepts the premise that this verse is a prohibition against ascending to Israel against God’s wishes, but he does not think it applies to individuals, but rather “that Israel will not go up as a wall.” Rashi explains this means Israel may not all go up together, forcefully. Meaning that going up in small numbers or not by force is permitted.

The gemara then brings Rabbi Yossi b’Rabbi Chanina’s explanation that this is one of three oaths in Shir HaShirim – another that Israel should not rebel against the rule of the nations, and the final that the nations shouldn’t subjugate Israel too harshly.

Rabbi Zeira and Rav Yehudah seem to view this oath as established halakha, but it’s largely neglected until the modern Zionist movement. It’s not codified as law by Rif, Rambam, Shulchan Arukh, or Rema. Quite the opposite, at least as far as individual Aliyah all agree that “everyone may make Aliyah to Israel,” as the Mishna teaches that people can be coerced or somewhat forced to move to Israel. Additionally, these authorities bring the continuation of the gemara that it’s better to live among Gentiles in Israel than Jews in exile.[13]

Yet there are a few rabbinic figures who use these oaths as a source prohibiting the actions and beliefs of the Zionist movement and the formation of a Jewish State in Israel, the most vociferous being Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmer Rebbe. In VaYoel Moshe he rejects the opinions that claim the oaths are not halakha or are no longer relevant, and claims that Rambam accepted this when he writes that Israel will do teshuva before the redemption. If a man claims to be Mashiach and gets the Jewish People to do teshuva, then we can follow him to Israel. Otherwise it is prohibited.

Against these claims scores of Torah scholars and halakhic authorities have dismissed the claims that the modern Jewish State is a transgression on multiple grounds. The strongest refutation is also the simplest – these oaths are never codified in halakha and are not mentioned in other Talmudic sources, nor do we see them referenced at any other point in Jewish history.

It should be clear that the oaths are not accepted as halakhically binding. Yet if they contained no truth they wouldn’t be included. It seems the truth here is similar to the plain reading of the story of the Ma’apilim. Exile is not an unrelated punishment for our sins; exile is the consequence of our unworthiness to dwell in the Land of Israel. Yes, one way to rectify that is want to live in this special place, be grateful for this Divine gift, and have faith in God to deliver us from our enemies.

Yet this alone is not enough. The time must be desirous, and that includes full teshuva. We are not the ones who judge if we are deserving or if the nations currently living in the land are undeserving. That is up to God.

Without prophecy there is no way to be certain of God’s will. We reject the notion of a halakha prohibiting national aspirations, but we should not make the same ideological mistake of the Ma’apilim, assume all that matters is our own judgement and try to force God to miraculously defeat our enemies. Instead of their haughtiness we must truly do teshuva and ensure God is in our midst before we set out.

Please God, may we speedily merit this redemption and victory over those who seek to destroy us.


[1] Bamidbar 14:40

[2] Bamidbar 14:44

[3] Also used to mean a mound or hill, Ibn Ezra ibid brings Yishayahu 32:14, and explains it is simply because they ascended the hill.

[4] BDB Dictionary


[6] Ramban Bamidbar 14:41 brings Devarim 1:41.

[7] See Rambam Shemot 12:40

[8] Midrash Tana’im Devarim 1:42

[9] Rashi Bamidbar 14:44

[10] See Akeidat Yitzchak and Netziv ad loc.

[11] TB Ketubot 110b-111a

[12] Shir HaShirim 2:7

[13] Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Melakhim u’Milkhamot 5:12; Hilkhot Ishut 13:19; Tur and Shulkhan Arukh Even Ha’Ezer 95. Rif Ketubot 65b brings the former as it is halakha, but not the latter, which is aggadta or a piece of advice.

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.