Land and Messianism

Aryeh Cohen
University of Judaism

The medievals staked out the full spectrum of opinions on the status of the Land of Israel. On the one hand, Nachmanides is of the opinion that settling in the Land of Israel is a positive commandment, and moreover, all the commandments are only intended to be fulfilled in the Land. Outside of the Land, Israel is urged to fulfill the commandments so that they will not forget them.

And of this matter they stated in the [midrashic collection] Sifri (Eqev 43): "And you will be quickly dispersed," (Deut. 11:17) even though I am exiling you from the land to the Diaspora, be marked by the commandments so that when you return they will not be as new to you. It is like a master who became angry at his wife and sent her to her father's house. He said to her: "Adorn yourself with jewelry so that when you return they will not be as a new thing upon you." So too did Jeremian state: "Erect markers [tziyunim]," these are the commandments by which Israel is marked [me-tzuyanim]. (Nachmanides, Commentary to Torah, Leviticus 18:25)

In the middle position, Maimonides does not list settling in the Land of Israel as one of the commandments in and of itself, however, the Land of Israel does hold special significance and it is better to live in the Land than in the Diaspora.

The greatest of the Sages would kiss the borders of the Land of Israel and kiss its stones and roll around in its dirt, and so too Scripture states: Your servants take delight in its stones, and cherish its dust. (Psalms 102:15) (Maimonides Mishneh Torah: Laws of Kings 5:10)

Further, Maimonides writes that a person should always prefer living in a city in the Land of Israel, even a city of idolaters, over living even in a completely Jewish city in the Diaspora.

Nachmanides commenting directly on Maimonides' listing of the commandments—or more accurately, commenting on the fact that Maimonides does not count settling in the Land of Israel as a commandment—writes the following:

And I say that the commandment that the Sages praise overmuch, that is settling the Land of Israel, to the point of saying: all who leave it and live outside the Land should be in your eyes as idolators, etc. … it is all from a positive command which we were commanded to inherit the Land and settle in it. It is therefore, a positive commandment for all generations, and every one of us is obligated to fulfill it and even in the time of the Exile. (Nachmanides, Comments on Maimonides' Book of Mitzvot)

In the post position is Rabbenu Hayim, one of the main scholars of the Franco-German Tosafist school of the late twelfth century—known as the central student of Rabbenu Tam, one of the founders of the Tosafist school. Rabbenu Hayim was asked about a case in which a man wanted to go up to the Land of Israel and his wife refused. Do we force the wife in accordance with the barraita found in b Ketubot 110b: "He wishes to go up [to the Land of Israel] and she refuses, they force her to go up." Rabbenu Hayim is recorded saying that this law does not apply "in these times."

For now there is no commandment to live in the Land of Israel, for there are many commandments which are dependent on the Land and many punishments [associated with them] so that we are not able to carefully fulfill them. (Tosafot commentary to b Ketubot 110b s.v. hu 'omer la-a lot)

Not only is it not a commandment to live in the Land of Israel, it is not even suggested to live there since there are so many commandments to fulfill once one is in the Land (the commandments of tithing, etc.) that it is inevitable that one will abrogate them.

So settling and living in the Land of Israel is either a positive commandment, a good thing to do or something which should not be done. It seems that all the possibilities are covered. Reading the tradition as a whole, one is inevitably drawn to the conclusion that the status of the Land of Israel is essentially contested. It is not an incidental matter that there is this debate on so seemingly central a component of the Jewish religious imagination. Torah, at times seems focussed on what will happen when the Children of Israel get to the Land. The Rabbinic construction of the religion however complicates this focus.

In reality, things get interesting already in Torah. While there is a drive towards "the place where I will choose," that is a centripetal locus of divinity and therefore worship; there is also centrifugal or decentered notion of divinity. The Temple would be only in "the place where I will choose" in the Land. The Torah would be given in the desert—a no-man's land. Ultimately the Temple would stand in one place, but before that the tabernacle would travel. Having God in one place was always a problem.1

It is into this tension between the ultimate importance of the one place, of the Land, and God in all places, the Diaspora, that Rabbinic Judaism flowers. From its earliest layers, the written Rabbinic tradition is unsettled about the ultimate centrality of the Land. The Tannaitic texts leave the question unresolved. Tosefta BK 7:3:

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai said five things … … Why was Israel exiled to Babylonia as opposed to any other land? Because our father Abraham's home was there. It is as a woman who went wrong on her husband. Where does he send her (i.e. divorce her)? To her father's house.

The "exile" then, was not an Exile but a return. A return to the aboriginal homeland. Babylonia held a primacy above even the Land of Israel. At the same time, however, Tosefta Avodah Zarah 4:2 writes that "settling in the Land of Israel is as weighty as all the commandments in the Torah."2 The continuation of that chapter of Tosefta has God saying: As long as you are in the land of Canaan behold I am your God, when you are not in the Land of Canaan it is as if I am not your God. (4:5)

The version of this Tosefta that is found in the Babylonian Talmud is even sharper.

One who dwells in the Land of Israel is as one who has a God. One who dwells outside the Land of Israel is as one who has no god. As it says: "[I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,] to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God." (b Ketubot 110b)

The anonymous Sage of the barraita reads the phrase "to be your God" as dependent on the previous clause. Thereby rendering: it is only in the Land of Canaan that I will be your God.

This baraitta , lauding the Land of Israel, privileging it to the point that living in the Land of Israel is tantamount to believing in God—while living outside the Land is tantamount to idolatry—is embedded in a much longer sugya or Talmudic text. In that sugya we also find the following statements attributed to the Babylonian Amora of the late third century-early fourth century Rabbi Yehudah:

One who goes up from Babylonia to the Land of Israel abrogates a positive command as it says: They shall be brought to Babylon, and there they shall remain, until I take note of them — declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 27:22)

One who lives in Babylonia, it is as if he lives in the Land of Israel, as it says: Away, escape, O Zion, you who dwell in Fair Babylon! (Zechariah 2:11)

In the former statement, Rabbi Yehudah rereads a prophetic statement from God to Jeremiah as a normative statement, an obligation, a commandment. It is, then, a positive commandment to remain in Babylonia. In the second statement Rabbi Yehudah forcefully reads the two clauses of the verse from Zechariah as synonyms: Zion, that is, you who dwell in Fair Babylon. This radical rereading yields a levelling of the status of Israel and Babylonia or the displacement of the Land of Israel as the one center.

Appended to the latter statement of Rabbi Yehudah is a statement attributed to Abbaye, one of the two most prominent Sages in the fourth generation of Babylonian Amoraim. He says: "It is an accepted tradition that Babylonia will not experience the birth pangs of the coming of the Messiah."

This primacy that is bestowed upon Babylonia is reiterated by Rav Sherira Gaon in his famous tenth century epistle about the development of the Talmud. He situates and, literally, grounds, the Babylonian community in the line from Ezra as a, or the, Jewish center.

Know that when Israel was originally exiled in the Exile of Jeconiah and the craftsmen and smiths (Jeremiah 24:1) and several prophets with them, they came to Nehardea [a site of one of the academies in Babylonia]. Jeconiah the King of Judah and his party built a synagogue and set its foundation with stones and dirt that they brought with them from the Temple, in order to fulfill what is said: "Your servants take delight in its stones, and cherish its dust." (Psalms 102:15)3 And they called that synagogue the Synagogue that Slipped and Settled in Nehardea, that is that the Temple travelled and settled here. And the Divine Presence [shechinah] was with them was with them as they say in [Babylonian Talmud] Megillah (29a) "[…this teaches that the Holy One of Blessing settled with them them in the Exiles.] Where [did the Holy One of Blessing settle] in Babylonia? Rav says in the synagogue of Hutzeal, and Shmuel says in the Synagogue that Slipped and Settled in Nehardea. Do not say it was here and not there, rather at times it was here and at times it was there. Abbaye says, Whenever I am within a parasang from there, I go there to pray." That synagoguge in Hutzal was close to the study hall of Ezra the Scribe below Nehardea.4 (Iggeret R. Sherira Gaon, ed. B. M. Levin, p. 725)

This myth of origins of the Babylonian Jewish community is a subtle (or perhaps a not-so-subtle) reworking of texts we have already encountered. The Psalms verse which is later quoted by Maimonides as a prooftext for underscoring why the Sages of old kissed the stones of the Land of Israel and rolled around in its dirt, is deployed by R. Sherira to ground the Temple in Babylonia. The Land itself is moved, and then the Temple travels. Finally, the Divine Presence settles in Babylonia. Furthermore, this is not a new exile but, as is already implied in the statement attributed to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai above in the Tosefta, this is homecoming to almost the same spot on which Ezra the Scribe had his bet midrash his rabbinic study hall. The Rabbinic tradition in Babylonia goes back to Ezra, and then perhaps back to Abraham.

In case we do not get the point R. Sherira goes further and comments as follows on a comment in Bavli Sanhedrin (5a):

"The scepter shall not depart from Judah," (Genesis 49:10)-these are the Exilarchs in Babylonia who rule the people with the staff. "Nor the ruler's staff from between his feet,"—these are the descendants of Hillel, who teach Torah in public.

R. Sherira comments on this:

Obviously, then these in Babylonia are better since they are [compared to the] scepter.

As we have seen there is no end point to these contentions. The place of the Land is therefore essentially contested. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai to R. Yehudah to Rav Sherira to Rabbenu Hayyim in the Tosafot to the Satmar Rebbe who viewed the Land of Israel as demonic. The anonymous Tanna of the Tosefta to Nachamanides to R. Avraham Yitzhak haCohen Kook who writes in the early twentieth century:

The Land of Israel is not an external thing, an acquisition external to the people, only as a means to the goal of the general gathering and strengthening the material or even the spiritual existence [of the people]. The Land of Israel is an essential part, tied with a life connection with the people, embraced with unique internal characteristics by its existence. … Awaiting salvation is the staying power of exilic Judaism, while the Judaism of the Land of Israel is the redemption itself.

The genius of Rabbinic Judaism was, in part, to elevate the bet midrash, the study hall to the importance of the bet hamikdash, the Temple without ever doing away with the latter. In this way the Rabbis sidestepped the devastation of the oracular and geographical center of the Jewish people. Jewish textuality was then divided into those who saw the present as also the end—the bet midrash was not only the present state but a window onto what the future would look like—and those who see the future as a return to the past—where the Torah that was taken on the path through the Exile would be replanted in the soil of the Land. One path either transvalued or transcended the geographical center, while the other path was one of longing and waiting. The end was clouded in the mists of the future messianic age. It is only now with the accessibility of the Land for the price of a plane ticket that Jews refuse to wait for the messiah for a decision—or claim the hallowed ground of the places that the Divine Presence has slipped to and settled in.


1Cf. Benjamin D. Sommer, "Expulsion as Initiation: Displacement, Divine Presence and Divine Exile in the Torah," in Aryeh Cohen and Shaul Magid, eds. Beginning Again: Toward a Hermeneutic of Jewish Texts (NewYork: Seven Bridges Press, 2002) 23-48.

2It should be said that this is said of a number of commandments.

3Rashi also has this in his comment on b Megillah 29a

4My translation is from the "Spanish" recension, though the differences with the "French" recension are mainly in choice of language-there is more Aramaic in the "French" recension.

5(Jerusalem: Makor, 1972)