The Talmudic case is a strange one; it takes place in a divorce court with a couple who have reached the breaking point in their marriage. One of the partners has made a decision to move to Israel and the other one doesn’t want to move. Facing an irreconcilable difference of where to live, the couple decides to divorce. The court must decide which partner was responsible for the end of the marriage and will receive less favorable terms in the divorce. The Talmud rules that the partner that doesn’t want to move to Israel is to receive less favorable terms in the marriage.
When reading this section of the Talmud, the student is drawn to a linguist oddity. Instead of writing that one of the spouses is interested in moving to Israel, it uses the words “To go up to Israel.” Throughout Jewish history, moving to Israel has been called an “Aliyah,” an ascent. The corresponding moving out of Israel is called a “Yeridah,” a descent. These terms were chosen to demonstrate the uniqueness of the land of Israel. “Aliyah” has been reserved for moving to Israel. On that same page of Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah is quoted as maintaining it was forbidden to leave Babylonia, the center of Torah scholarship at the time, to move to Israel. Even though he maintained it was forbidden to move to Israel, he still called moving to Israel an “Aliyah.”
For a time in Jewish history all Jews lived in the land of Israel. Starting at the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE and the subsequent forced Jewish exile, Jews began moving around the world. The dream of returning to Israel began immediately and Jews, no matter where they lived, prayed everyday to return to Israel. Throughout the subsequent exiles Jews always looked back to Israel. There was always a small Jewish community in the land of Israel, but few Jews moved to join them. The dream of “Making Aliyah” was always alive and well for over two thousand years.
Jews dreamed of and made Aliyah for different reasons over the past two thousand years. Many Jews didn’t make an Aliyah of choice. These Jews lived in countries that began persecuting their Jewish citizens and had nowhere to go but back to the land of Israel. Historically, many Jews made Aliyah for religious reasons. While the Chassidim and Misnagdim, two groups of religious Jews in the 1700’s, didn’t agree on much, the leaders of these two groups, the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon, both sent their students to move to the land of Israel and create communities.
In the late 1800’s as antisemitism in Eastern Europe rose to frightening levels. Jews began thinking of escape routes out of the pogroms plaguing Russia and Poland. Many European Jews moved to America, but a new movement, Zionism, rekindled the dream of Aliyah in the eyes of Jews from America to Russia. Theodore Herzl began preaching to Jews around Europe that it was time to make Aliyah to the land of Israel. In 1880 there were between 20,000 and 25,000 Jews living in what was then called Palestine. In the first of five waves of Aliyah between 1180 and 1900, approximately 35,000 Jews moved to Israel. Over the next fifty years hundreds of thousands of Jews moved to Israel.
The British, at the behest of political pressure from the Arabs living in Palestine at the time, restricted Jewish immigration into British Mandate Palestine. Just at the time when Aliyah no longer became a choice but a necessity for Jews fleeing the German, the Arabs of Palestine pressured the British, who made the decision to limit Jewish immigration. Had the Arabs and British not opposed Jewish Aliyah at the time, millions of Jews who ended up in German gas chambers could have made Aliyah and started new lives in Palestine. When placed in the context of saving millions of lives it becomes understood how Aliyah became such a significant movement in modern Jewish life.
Today, Zionism has kept Aliyah a strong and vibrant movement. Every year Jews from around the world make Aliyah and make Israel their home. Over the past 75 years the State of Israel has made Aliyah a priority, taking Jews from the four corners of the world into its warm embrace. Israel has welcomed Jews feeling persecution from Arab lands, European countries, Russia and Ethiopia. Israel has also welcomed Jews who made Aliyah to realize the 2,000-year-old Zionist dream of gathering the exiles back to Israel from North and South America and many peaceful countries scattered around the world.
Jews hope that future Aliyah will be made by choice and in mass numbers. The Zionist dream wasn’t to just create a vibrant state, but to have the Jews from around the world settle and live in that State. Immigrants who made Aliyah like David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, and Menachem Begin all became Israel’s Prime Ministers. Today’s Knesset, regional councils and city municipalities, are full of elected leaders who proudly boast of their Aliyah to Israel. There are millions of people around the world eligible to make Aliyah. The State of Israel and her people are eager to welcome them.