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Is there an obligation to live in Israel?

Sivan 5782 | June 2022

While the Land of Israel is often referred to as the Promised Land in the Torah, the Torah’s approach toward the obligation to move to Israel and settle there is not entirely clear. Abraham was commanded by God to go to Canaan, but after arriving at his destination he leaves due to the famine. Isaac is commanded to remain in the land, but Jacob leaves to escape from his brother and find a wife. The Children of Israel were promised the land when they were delivered from Egypt, and the Spies were punished for rejecting the land before they even arrived; on the other hand, the maapilim who tried to ascend to the Promised Land despite God’s edict that the nation will die in the wilderness were punished for their attempt. Throughout the Torah we find many mitzvot which can only be kept in Israel, reinforcing its unique status.

In light of all this, is there an actual obligation to live in Israel?

Chazal, Rishonim, and Ahronim offered various positions on this matter.

Generally speaking, there is an agreement regarding the merit of residing in Israel: “One who resides in the Land of Israel is likened to one who has a God, and one who resides outside of Israel is likened to one who does not have a God,” and in a more extreme formulation, “is likened to an idolater” (Ketubot 110b). Owning land in Israel is also considered of unique value, as demonstrated in the rabbinic allowance to write a deed for purchasing a home in Israel even on Shabbat by means of a non-Jew (Gittin 8b).

But do these indicate an actual obligation to live in Israel? Chazal relate to both sides of the coin: moving to Israel and leaving Israel – and the relationship between them is not symmetrical.

There are two different approaches to moving to Israel in Chazal.

According to some sources, Chazal valued making Aliyah. The Mishna (Ketubot 13:1) describes a situation where a couple argues about whether to move to Israel or leave the country – and in both cases the side that prefers to be in Israel has the upper hand (and the one who wants to leave, or remain outside of Israel, is considered ‘guilty’ of breaking up the marriage). However, the Jerusalem Talmud (Ketubot 13a) states that only the husband can compel his wife to move to Israel or remain in Israel. This indicates that while the choice to remain in Israel or move there is the preferred option, there is no actual obligation to make this choice. This is demonstrated by the fact that Chazal prohibit going on a convoy three days before Shabbat (to avoid being delayed on the road when Shabbat begins), but the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Haim 248:4, following the Rashbatz) states that one may do so for the purpose of making Aliyah, since this is a mitzvah; this indicates that moving to Israel is a halakhic priority, but not a formal obligation. On the other hand, Rav Ovadiah Yosef understood this not just as a priority but a formal obligation (Kovetz Torah she-bBe’al pe 11).

According to other sources, moving to Israel is not always the halakhic preference. The Gemara cites a debate between R. Zeira and his teacher, R. Yehuda. R. Zeira wanted to move to Israel, but R. Yehuda objected, since he was of the opinion that God had made Israel promise not to hasten the redemption before its time. R. Zeira believed that the prohibition only affected the nation as a whole, not the individual. R. Yehuda expresses the position that moving to Israel and living there was not a value, but a privilege, and one which is limited to times in which God chooses to bestow that privilege on the People of Israel. R. Yehuda assumed that just as the maapilim made the mistake of ascending to Israel at the wrong time and were punished, in his time the nation did not have the privilege of inheriting the land. According to Tosfot there was no preference to move to Israel in their time, and since the journey is dangerous, one cannot compel a spouse to move to Israel. The author of Megillat Esther (shikhehat he-asin, mitzvah 4) wrote that even if there was a mitzvah to move to Israel, this was not applicable for all generations, but only for times in which the nation is settled in Israel. This may indicate that today, since travelling is not unsafe and the nations of the world have accepted our nation’s right to the land (at least to some extent) – there may indeed be an obligation to live in Israel.

While according to the Mishna and the Gemara it seems there is a value or privilege (although it is not always bestowed) in making Aliyah (and this seems to be the Rambam’s view), the Ramban ruled that conquering and settling in the land is an obligation. The Ramban places a great deal of significance on the mitzvah to make Aliya (hasagot le-sefer ha-mitzvot, shikhehat he-asin, mitzvah 4; Torah commentary on Num. 33:53). R. Yehuda Halevi penned a similar approach in the Kuzari (2:23). The Ramban and R. Yehuda Halevi both also implemented this philosophy in practice in their own lives, and moved to Israel.

With regard to leaving Israel, the sources are more explicit that this is prohibited. The Gemara (Gittin 76b) describes the Babylon Jews who would come to study in Israel. When they were ready to return home, they were accompanied by the Jews who lived in Israel only as far as Acre, since they believed there was a prohibition to leave the country. According to Rashi, people who live in Israel are not permitted to leave, and Rashbam explains that by leaving, they exempt themselves from mitzvot that are dependent on being in Israel. According to the Gemara in Baba Batra (91a) one is permitted to leave Israel only in the case of a famine, but at the same time cites the example of Elimelech and his sons who were punished for leaving the country during a famine. The Rambam (Melakhim 5:9) explains that while they were permitted to leave, their action was not midat hasidut (‘a measure of piety’). Other texts added that one may leave Israel for the purpose of marriage or learning Torah (Avodah Zara 13a). The Rambam (ibid.) distinguishes between cases in which one may leave Israel temporarily, and a heavy famine, during which it is permissible to leave and settle outside of Israel. In all these cases, it seems that the focus of the prohibition is on those who already live in Israel.

While according to Tosfot there is no preference to make Aliyah due to the dangers of the journey, Rabbeinu Haim is cited (Tosfot, Ketubot 110b) explaining that the reason there is no obligation to live in Israel is the difficulty to keep the mitzvot that are dependent on the land. In other words, the Gemara prohibits leaving the country because by doing so one would become exempt from these mitzvot, whereas according to Rabbeinu Haim there is no mitzvah to make Aliya because this would obligate one to keep these mitzvoth that are too difficult to keep (although according to Resp. Meshane Halakhot III 189 in the name of Maharit II Yore De’ah 29 and others, this was written by an errant pupil, and not by R. Haim; in light of the widespread concern today regarding properly keeping the laws of Shmitta, this position seems understandable). The discussion in the Gemara clearly assumes that there is no obligation to commit to keeping the mitzvot which depend on living in Israel – but there might be a problem with exempting one from these obligations by leaving. This was the ruling of R. Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Even ha-Ezer I 102).

In conclusion, the sources indicate that it is more problematic to leave Israel – even temporarily, but especially permanently. Rishonim and Ahronim debate whether there is a formal obligation to move to Israel, or a value in moving to Israel without obligation, or even a restriction against moving to Israel due to the concern to become obligated in mitzvot one will be unable to keep, or the concern that one may bring about redemption before its time. Today there should be no concern about making Aliyah due to the dangers of the journey, or bringing redemption before its time; what remains is therefore the important value of making Aliyah, or perhaps even a formal obligation to move to Israel.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.