The topic of living in Eretz Yisrael has taken center stage in the Jewish world over the past century. I would venture to say that there is hardly a more debated halachic topic in contemporary times. Due to this popularity, the topic of living in Eretz Yisrael has become emotionally charged. My goal in this essay is to “take a step back” and examine the role of Eretz Yisrael and the obligation to live there in halacha from a strictly rational standpoint.
The mitzvah to live in Israel is mentioned in a posuk in the Torah, but it doesn’t fit clearly into any of the four categories of halachic obligations normally found in analysis of Jewish law. In this essay I will focus on the opinions of the Ramban and the Rambam on the mitzvah of living in Israel. Our goal is not to reach a practical conclusion – although it will be obvious as to what the Torah demands – but to understand how these two scholars understood living in the land of Israel.
Part I. The Four Categories of Jewish Law
All mitzvot can be divided into four categories: One of the 613 mitzvot, a law from the Torah (din de’oraita), a Rabbinic law (din d’rabanan), or a philosophical kiyum – a fulfillment of a goal of the Torah that was never legally legislated. These categories have subcategories as well.
Categorization has practical ramifications in Halacha. For example, one of the 613 mitzvot is to recite the shema twice a day, while a din de’oraita is to read the three parshiot of the shema. A Rabbinic law is to recite the blessings of shema when reciting shema. King David instructed us to “serve Hashem in happiness.” While observing the mitzvot in happiness is an extremely important idea, it is not an obligation within Jewish law. Rather, it is a fulfillment of a philosophical idea. Thus one who read all three paragraphs of the shema and recited the blessings surrounding the shema, while feeling depressed would have fulfilled his Biblical and Rabbinic obligation, but would be lacking philosophically. The mitzvah of living in Israel doesn’t naturally fit in this framework.
Part II. The Position of the Ramban
Hashem wrote, “You shall possess the land and you shall settle in it, for to you have I given the land to possess it.” Commenting on this pasuk, the Ramban wrote, “In my opinion, this verse commands one of the 613 mitzvot. We are commanded to settle and dwell in the land for it was given to the Jewish people, and we cannot reject the portion of Hashem. If it would ever occur to the Jewish people to capture the land of Shinar or the land of Ashur, or any land like it, and to settle there, one would be negating this mitzvah.”
In this comment the Ramban stated his well-known opinion that one of the 613 mitzvot is to live in Eretz Yisrael. In truth there are two obligations stated by the Ramban, the national obligation to settle the land and the obligation for the individual to reside in the land. In this essay we will examine only the latter obligation. The obligation to reside in the land is called dirat Eretz Yisrael.
The Ramban wrote that as fulfillment of this mitzvah, we cannot reject the land -for it was given to us by Hashem and is God’s portion. In order to understand the position of the Ramban, we must explain the philosophical idea of the land being called “God’s portion.”
There is a teaching in the Talmud, “Hashem irrigates Eretz Yisrael Himself, and the rest of the world by a representative.” In his commentary on the homiletic portions of the Talmud, the Rashba says, “Eretz [Yisrael] is called God’s treasure, and God’s “will” is within it. Eretz Yisrael, the chosen land, was given to Bnei Yisrael, the chosen people. Hashem did not give the land over to mazal or a sar of the nations, for Hashem has put His portion in us. The events in Eretz Yisrael are not directed by an angel or representative; all of the events occurring in Eretz Yisrael are always under the providence of Hashem Himself.”
Thus, according to the Rashba the uniqueness of the land is that it is Hashem’s chosen land. We cannot, in our limited knowledge, possibly understand why Hashem chose this land over all other lands, but we can explain the quality that separates the land of Israel from other lands. God relates to the land through specific providence, rather than general providence as He does in other lands. General providence is what we call nature, i.e. the regular set patterns under which the world operates. While created by Hashem, he does not dictate every individual act of nature. When specific Divine Providence operates, the subject of this providence is related to directly by Hashem.
All mitzvot help perfect a person either through improving one’s character or adding to one’s understanding of God. What benefit does living in Eretz Yisrael provide? According to the Rashba’s explanation of the uniqueness of the land, how are we perfected by living in a place which is subject to Hashem’s specific providence?
There’s an analogy that can explain it well. There are two ways to gain understanding and insight into an idea or a topic. A topic can be studied or it can be experienced. A blind and a seeing person can both examine the nature and components of color. But the seeing person will have an advantage over the blind person in that they have experienced color.
Many wise philosophers, indeed some of Judaism’s greatest scholars, have examined the area of Divine Providence. Many books and articles have been written explaining this idea. Yet one who has experienced specific Divine Providence has a much deeper, more profound, understanding than even the scholar who has devoted much time to its study. This is the benefit that Eretz Yisrael provides. Eretz Yisrael allows a person to experience Divine Providence.
The Ramban supported his argument that living in Eretz Yisrael is one of the 613 mitzvot. First, the Talmud includes numerous glowing praises of the land that imply that there is an obligation to live in Israel. The Ramban’s other three proofs are inferences from various halachot. The first halacha Ramban quoted is the prohibition of leaving Eretz Yisrael. The remaining two are halachot that apply in the event where one spouse would like to move to Eretz Yisrael and the other does not. If the dispute results in divorce, the financial advantage is given to the spouse wishing to go to Eretz Yisrael. Specifically, where a husband wants to move to Eretz Yisrael, but the wife does not, they can divorce, but the wife loses her ketubah. In contrast if the wife would like to move to Eretz Yisrael and the husband would like to stay in chutz la’aretz, the wife receives her ketubah if they divorce.
The rationale of the Ramban requires explaining. The Ramban argues that if there were no mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael, then these halachot would not be obligatory. There is a difference between one of the 613 mitzvot and a din de’oraita. How can the two be differentiated? The Ramban provided us with an explanation. All halachot must be generated by one of the 613 mitzvot. It is impossible for a halacha to stand on its own. When these three halachot are stated, there must be a mitzvah that generates these halachot. To the Ramban, that mitzvah is living in Eretz Yisrael.
Part III. The Position of the Rambam.
Many scholars have attempted to define the Rambam’s position on the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael. The Rambam’s position on this mitzvah is a source of much debate. In this section of the essay I will offer my humble opinion on the Rambam’s position.
It is crucial to note the Ramban’s position was the Rambam did not maintain living in Israel was a mitzvah. Ramban criticized the Rambam for omitting the mitzvah of living in Israel from the Rambam’s list of the 613 mitzvos. Based on the Ramban’s critique of the Rambam and the Rambam’s own words, the Rambam does not hold that living in Eretz Yisrael is one of the 613 mitzvot. A simple reading of the Sefer Hamitzvot will show that Rambam did not include it in his list of the 613 mitzvot.
The Rambam stated that it is permitted to live anywhere in the world except for Egypt. The language the Rambam uses for the allowance to live anywhere is “mutar” (permissible). In the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah the word mutar is used to connote an ab initio framework, something which is more than just not prohibited, but indeed is permitted, as acceptable as any other alternative. The Rambam’s codification of the halacha that a person can live anywhere is not coming to state that if one does not live in Eretz Yisrael he can live anywhere, rather a person can choose where he wants to live with Eretz Yisrael as one option among many. It would be contradictory for the Rambam to write that a person can live anywhere they want, but is obligated to live in Eretz Yisrael.
The Rambam quoted the Talmud’s teaching, “A person should always live in Eretz Yisrael.” It is this quote that has caused much confusion about the Rambam’s position. It is clear from the Rambam’s use of the quote that the Rambam understood that one should live in Eretz Yisrael, but what does the word “should” connote? In which of the four categories does the Rambam place living in Eretz Yisrael?
When quoting the directive to live in Eretz Yisrael, the Rambam uses the word “l’olam.” Throughout the Mishneh Torah the Rambam used the word “l’olam” as a directive in only two ways. It is used to indicate either an everlasting prohibition or a philosophical kiyum (benefit). It is never used to imply an obligatory mitzvah. As an example of the former, the Rambam wrote, “One can never (l’olam) sell a Torah scroll, except under two circumstances.” The word l’olam is used to connote the prohibition’s everlasting nature. An example of its use to indicate a philosophical kiyum is in Hilchot Deiot where the Rambam wrote “One should always (l’olam) teach his students in a concise manner.” A teacher who delivers a long-winded lecture hasn’t violated a mitzvah or a law; the teacher has merely disregarded the advice of the Sages. Based on the fact that the Rambam never uses the word l’olam to refer to an obligatory command, neither from the Torah or the Rabbis, it is conclusive the Rambam maintained that living in Eretz Yisrael is beneficial for a person, but is not an obligation. The Rambam maintained that living in Eretz Yisrael isn’t a mitzvah but rather a philosophical kiyum.
The Ramban stated four proofs that living in Eretz Yisrael is one of the 613 mitzvot. How would the Rambam counter these points?
The Ramban posited that by the Talmud’s praise of one who lives in Eretz Yisrael and its criticism of those who live outside the land imply that living in Eretz Yisrael is one of the 613 mitzvos. The rationale of the Ramban is that only an actual mitzvah would be given this much attention. The Rambam would argue that philosophical benefits also warrant praise from our Sages, and the Talmud’s language is not a proof of its status as one of the 613 mitzvos.
The other three proofs of the Ramban were derived from halachot that the Ramban held are generated by the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael. The proof, again, was by inference. What other category of mitzvah could have generated these halachot if not one of the 613 mitzvos?
The first two laws mentioned by the Ramban are cases of spouses arguing whether to live in Eretz Yisrael or not. The spouse that desires to live in Eretz Yisrael gains financial advantage over their spouse in any divorce settlement. While the Ramban held these halachot are generated by the obligation to live in Eretz Yisrael, one could posit that anytime a husband or wife desires to improve their relationship with their Creator, and their spouse attempts to prevent that growth, financial advantage is given to the spouse looking to grow, for no spouse has the right to hold back the growth of their spouse. This position is supported by a parallel halacha. When one spouse demands to move to Yerushalayim – even from another area within Eretz Yisrael – the dissenting spouse loses financial advantage. If the Ramban was correct that halachot must be generated by a mitzvah, there must be a mitzvah to live in Yerushalayim which generates this halachah as well. But neither the Rambam nor the Ramban includes a mitzvah to live in Yerushalayim in their list of the 613 mitzvot.
The last proof of the Ramban is derived from the prohibition against leaving Eretz Yisrael, if there is no mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael, how could there be a prohibition to leave Eretz Yisrael? In order to suggest how the Rambam might refute this proof, we must first explain a conceptual disagreement between the Ramban and Rambam.
Part IV. Explaining the Conceptual Argument between the Ramban and Rambam
The Ramban supported his argument that living in Israel is one of the 613 mitzvos by citing existing halachot that imply living in Eretz Yisrael is one of the 613 mitzvos. What makes an injunction one of the 613 mitzvot and what makes something a philosophical kiyum? The Rambam started his Sefer Hamitzvot with 14 rules of qualifications for the 613 mitzvot, but let us investigate the matter conceptually.
The benefit of living in Eretz Yisrael is unique in that it is indirect. Most mitzvot help one develop character or improve one’s intellect. As the Rashba explained, the benefit that Eretz Yisrael provides is that of experiencing specific Divine providence.
e of direct benefits. The Torah identifies and recommends actions which confer indirect benefits, but the Torah never obligates Jews to fulfill them. This is consistent with the view of the Rambam that we do not recite a bracha on a hechsher mitzvah, for how can we say “asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav” (that God commanded the Jewish people) regarding an action God did not command the Jews to perform?
The Ramban, in contrast, entertains the notion that God did command the Jewish people in an action that provides an indirect benefit. Hashem said, “kedoshim tihi-yu”, you shall be sanctified. Although the Ramban agrees that this is not one of the 613 mitzvot, he does use the language of command when explaining the idea of kedoshim tihi-yu .
The disagreement between the Rambam and the Ramban over whether or not God commanded the Jewish people in an action conferring only an indirect benefit is the same disagreement they have in the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael. The Ramban maintained that the Torah can command us in an indirect benefit and thus commands us to live in Eretz Yisrael in order to gain the indirect benefit that experiencing specific Divine Providence provides. The Rambam maintained that God doesn’t command us in indirect benefit, and so the Torah advises the Jewish people to benefit from the experience of living in Eretz Yisrael, but doesn’t obligate us in such an experience.
Part V. The Prohibition Against Leaving Eretz Yisrael
The Ramban inferred an obligation from the Torah to live in Eretz Yisrael from the Biblical prohibition against leaving the land once there. How would the Rambam counter the Ramban’s argument?
While the Rambam maintained that God does not institute a mitzvah in order to merely derive an indirect benefit, it does prohibit abandoning an indirect benefit which one is already experiencing. It is for this reason that the Rambam connects the prohibition of leaving Eretz Yisrael to the prohibition of leaving Bavel. Bavel was the center of Torah learning, and thus the living there provided an indirect benefit to the individual. The same prohibition of voiding an already acquired benefit applies equally to Eretz Yisrael and to Bavel.
Stated differently, the Rambam could simply counter the Ramban’s position with the argument that since there is a prohibition to leave Bavel, the Ramban should maintain there is a mitzvah to live in Bavel! Yet all agree that no such mitzvah exists.
The Rambam listed four circumstances allowing one to leave Eretz Yisrael. One can leave in order to study Torah, find a spouse, save one’s self from non-Jews, or to save one’s self from identifiable, dire financial strain. Do these cases create a situation where residing in Israel isn’t considered residing in Eretz Yisrael, a rejection of the land itself or an actual fulfillment of living in Eretz Yisrael by living outside of the land?
When the optimal solutions to the four circumstances lie outside the land, the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael can not be fulfilled even while living in the land. The cases of dire financial strain and threat of death from non-Jews fit this category, for living without the means to continue living is not living at all.
Alternatively, perhaps that living under these conditions is itself a rejection of the land, and living under these conditions would violate a prohibition of rejecting the land! The allowance to leave the land in order to find a wife fits in this category. Without marriage, the continuation of the nation is put in jeopardy. Living in the land while not being able to fulfill the purpose of the land –advancement of the nation – is thus a rejection of the land itself. Accordingly, one is permitted to leave the land to marry.
Finally, perhaps under these circumstances living outside of the land is the equivalent of living in the land. If the purpose of the mitzvah of living in the land of Israel is to experience the portion of God, then another activity that is considered being in the portion of God might also fulfill the obligation. The Rambam wrote that when one dedicates his life not to trying to make a living, but to learning and teaching Torah alone, Hashem Himself is his portion. There is an allowance to leave the land of Israel in order to study Torah because although fulfilling the pursuit of living in the portion of Hashem in the classical sense of living in Eretz Yisrael isn’t achieved, through the study of Torah the Jew finds themselves in the portion of God.
Is living in the land of Israel one of the 613 mitzvos? According to the Ramban and many other early scholars, yes. According to the Rambam it isn’t one of the 613 mitzvos nor is it one of the Torah or Rabbinic laws. The land of Israel provides the Jewish people with the opportunity to experience specific Divine providence. This is an opportunity all scholars agree a Jew should strive to achieve.
 Bamidbar 33:53
 Evidence of there being two dinim here is clear from many different sources. The posuk itself “V’Horashtem” and “V’Yishavtem” reflecting both dinim. In addition in his proofs that Dirat Ha’aretz is a mitzvah, the Ramban leaves out what would seem to be the perfect proof, the halacha (Bava Kama 80b) that a Jew can instruct a non-Jew to sign his name on a contract on Shabbos – normally a Rabbinic prohibition – in order to purchase a home in Eretz Yisrael. The reason given is for “The settling of Eretz Yisrael.” The gemara and the poskim do not write that the Rabbis allowed the instruction to the non-Jew in order to for the individual’s settling himself in the land. It would thus seem that there are in fact two dinim to this mitzvah.
 Taanis 10a
 Peirushi Haggados, ibid.
 I am unsure if this knowledge is possible for a human to attain, but if it is, only a tremendous chacham could hope to understand why it is that this land was chosen.
 K’subos 110a
 Hil. Melachim 5:7
 Hil. Shabbos 1:4
 Hil. Melachim 5:12
 Hil. Sefer Torah 10:2
 Deios 2:4
 K’subos 110a
 Hil. Berochos 11:8
 Vayikra 19:2
 Ramban Al-HaTorah ibid.
 Hil. Melachim 5:12
 K’Subos 110b
 Hil. Shemittah V’Yovel 13:12,13