The Three Oaths dilemma dividing Jewish Zionists from anti-Zionists

Are the three oaths halakhah (mandated Jewish law) in practice today?

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Why I am a Zionist
Why I am a Zionist

The Talmud cites three oaths which G-d administered: “One oath was that Israel would not make Aliyah 'as a wall'; and one oath was that G-d adjured Israel not to rebel against the nations; and one oath was that G-d adjured the nations not to persecute Israel too much” (Ketuvot 111a).

Of these three oaths, therefore, two apply to Israel and one to the other nations.

These Three Oaths are the basis for the ostensibly religious Jewish opposition to Zionism: the very essence of Zionism was that Jews from the world over return to Israel, ascending to the Land of Israel “as a wall”, together, united, using military force when necessary.

This compels the question: Does Zionism indeed violate G-d’s will? Do these Three Oaths constitute halakhah (Jewish religious law) in practice?

We begin by noting that it was Rabbi Zeira who cited the Three Oaths, quoting Rabbi Yossi BeRebbi Chanina. And both Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Yossi BeRebbi Chanina eventually made Aliyah! 

1. This passage is clearly aggadah (homiletic), and as a general rule we do not derive practical halakhah from homiletic passages in the Talmud. The Talmud is, after all, full of homilies, aphorisms, and adages, expositions and commentaries on the Bible, historical anecdotes, parables, advice, and so forth – which do not constitute practical halakhah.

2. And even in halakhic discourses in the Talmud, the majority of statements do not constitute practical halakhah; after all, the Talmud almost invariably cites several opinions on every halakhic subject, only one of which can be accepted as practical halakhah.

So how can we know halakhah in practice? How can we decide which Talmudic statements constitute practical halakhah and which don’t?

For this, we have centuries of halakhic literature.

The earliest halakhic codifier was Rabbi Yitzchak Alfassi (1013-1103), known by his acronym the Rif. (The name Alfassi means Fezite, from Fez in Morocco.) The Rif compiled the Sefer ha-Halakhot (The Book of Halakhot), the first-ever compendium of Jewish law. The Rif completely ignores the Three Oaths: so far as he is concerned, they do not constitute practical halakhah.

A century later came Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), known by his acronym Rambam (in the secular world usually called Maimonides). The Rambam wrote the Mishneh Torah, a comprehensive compendium of halakhah in 14 volumes, more scientifically-organised than the Sefer ha-halakhot. (The Sefer ha-halakhot  generally follows the order in the Talmud, the Mishneh Torah is organised subject-by subject).

The Mishneh Torah contains every halakhah, including those which were did not apply in the Rambam’s times and are still do not apply, such as laws of how to construct the Holy Temple and laws of sacrifices.

The Mishneh Torah begins with the halakhic obligation to know that G-d exists (interesting point, incidentally – according to the Rambam we must know that G-d exists, not just believe that He exists), and concludes with Laws of Kings. In this final section, Laws of Kings and their Wars (to give its full title), the Rambam lays forth all the laws of how a Jewish state is to be run, who can be king of a Jewish state, what the limits of the king’s authority are, how the Jewish State is to be established, and so forth.

Nowhere at all does the Rambam limit a Jewish State to the times of the messiah, or cite the Three Oaths as practical halakhah.

Just about contemporaneous with the Ramban was Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1194-1270), known by his acronym Ramban (in the secular world usually called Nachmanides).

The Ramban wrote glosses on the Mishneh Torah, including an entire section of halakhot which, he claimed, the Rambam had forgotten or omitted. Not only does the Ramban not feature the Three Oaths as practical halakhah – he regards conquering the Land of Israel as a positive Commandment for all generations:

“You will inherit the Land [of Israel] and will dwell in it, because to you I have given the Land to inherit” says the Torah (Numbers 33:53), on which the Ramban comments:

“In my opinion this is a positive Commandment: He hereby commanded them to dwell in the Land and to inherit it, because He gave it to them and they are not to spurn Hashem’s Heritage...and our Rabbis have expounded greatly upon the Mitzvah of dwelling in the Land of Israel [Ketuvot 110b], that it is forbidden to leave it...”.

Not only does the Ramban not bring the Three Oaths as practical halakhah; not only does he regard conquering the Land of Israel to be a positive Commandment – he even references the self-same Talmudic passage in which the Three Oaths appear, solely in order to mention the halakhic obligation to live in Israel and to inherit the Land.

And to clarify this, the Ramban identifies two separate mitzvot: dwelling in the Land (which Mitzvah devolves upon the individual), and inheriting the Land, which means conquering it and ruling it (which Mitzvah devolves upon the collective). The individual Jew who lives in Israel has fulfilled the first mitzvah but not the second. And according to the Ramban, the mitzvah of inheriting the Land, conquering it and ruling it, applies throughout the generations, in direct contravention of the Three Oaths.

So clearly, the Ramban, like his predecessors, does not hold that the Three Oaths constitute practical halakhah.

A generation after the Ramban came Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (1240-1327), known by his acronym the Rosh (short for Rabbeinu Asher, “our Rabbi, Asher”). The Rosh’s commentary appears at the back of most editions of the Talmud; it takes the form of a précis of halakhic discourses: typically, the Rosh condenses a discussion which might extend over a few pages down to one paragraph, concluding with a halakhic decision – “and the halakhah in practice is such-and-such”.

The Rosh, like all his predecessors, ignores the Three Oaths. For him, too, they appear not to constitute practical halakhah.

The next great Talmudic commentator and halakhic authority was Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (1320-1376), known by his acronym the Ran (short for Rabbeinu Nissim, “our Rabbi, Nissim”), one of the last of the great Spanish Talmudic scholars.

The Ran wrote a commentary on the Rif’s Sefer ha-halakhot, and another commentary on the Talmud, both of which are accepted as authoritative halakhic works. His commentary on the Talmud appears in almost all printed editions of the Talmud, at the bottom of the page beneath the text; its purpose is to teach practical halakhah, generally ignoring purely theoretical or homiletic concepts.

The Ran, like all his predecessors, ignores the Three Oaths. For him, too, they do not appear to constitute practical halakhah.

And now we come to one of the most important and influential halakhic works of all, the Shulchan Aruch, written by Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575). Rabbi Yosef Karo, often known simply as “ha-Mechabber” (“the Author”), compiled the Shulchan Aruch in Tzfat (Safed), Israel.

The Shulchan Aruch, meaning the “Prepared Table”, because it is like a table on which has been prepared and is ready for all who want, is the last of the great halakhic works, and today, half a millennium on, it is still the most frequently-cited halakhic work.

The Shulchan Aruch is an abridgement of Rabbi Yosef Karo’s earlier work, the Beit Yosef (“House of Joseph”). Rabbi Karo had achieved universal renown for his unrivalled learning, hence his work achieved instant acceptance throughout the Torah world.

Unlike the Mishneh Torah, the Shulchan Aruch deals only with those halakhot which are applicable in our days. Rabbi Karo was writing in Israel (at the time under Turkish Ottoman occupation) – and he, too, like all his predecessors, ignores the Three Oaths. For him, too, they do not appear to constitute practical halakhah.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, a product of Spain, was of course Sefaradi, and his halakhic rulings reflected the Sefaradi tradition. And so Rabbi Karo’s Polish contemporary, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1525-1572) wrote glosses on the Shulchan Aruch, called the Mappa (the “Tablecloth”, because it “covers” the “Prepared Table”) whenever the Ashkenazi tradition diverged from the Sefaradi tradition.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known by his acronym the Rama, had apparently originally intended to write an independent halakhic work; however, he quickly realised that would be irrelevant, since the differences would be minuscule. The Rama’s glosses are, therefore, inserted into the text of the Shulchan Aruch; in almost all editions, they are set off by being printed in Rashi script, as opposed to the square letters of the Shulchan Aruch itself.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles, too, ignores the Three Oaths.

Then in 1864, Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried published his halakhic work the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (the Abbreviated Shulchan Aruch) in Hungary. Intended for the layman, the Kitzur (as it is popularly known) contains only such halakhot as a Jew needs in his day-to-day life, leaving out such halakhot as need specialist knowledge. (It explains, for example, how to affix a Mezuzah to the door-post, but not how to write the Mezuzah: writing is the province of a trained Scribe.)

Now it is significant that Rabbi Ganzfried did not mention the Three Oaths in his halakhic work, because Zionism was already a significant force among the Jews of Hungary (and indeed throughout Europe) by the 1860’s, so had he believed that the Three Oaths constitute practical halakhah, he would surely have included them.

And a generation later, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, popularly known as the Chafetz Chaim, published the Mishnah Berurah, a commentary and expansion to the first section of the Shulchan Aruch, in 1904; the Chafetz Chaim addended a detailed series of glosses to the Mishnah Berurah, the Be’ur halakhah, to clarify and expand upon his original work.

Now it is even more significant that the Chafetz Chaim nowhere mentions the Three oaths. Not just because by 1904 Zionism was a major force among Jewry, not just because Jews were already streaming into the Land of Israel, not just because the Zionist movement was already lobbying governments the world over from Turkey to Britain to Germany to Austria-Hungary to the USA to France, but because the Chafetz Chaim was decidedly anti-Zionist.

In the great debates which threatened to split Jewry, the two greatest protagonists were Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak ha-Cohen Kook (in favour of Zionism), and the Chafetz Chaim (against Zionism).

When even the great halakhic codifier the Chafetz Chaim, with his uncompromisingly anti-Zionist ideology, does not see fit to include the Three Oaths in a halakhic work, it becomes clear that they are not intended as practical halakhah: even the great proponent of anti-Zionism did not claim that the Three Oaths are halakhically binding!

Let us now put the Three Oaths into context.

In a long discussion, stretching over two pages, the Talmud cites any number of praises of the Land of Israel. A few at random:

“A man may compel all the members of his household to go up to the Land of Israel with him, but he may not compel anyone to leave the Land of Israel with him” (Ketuvot 110b).

“The Rabbis taught: A Jew must always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city whose majority are idolaters, and lot live outside of the Land of Israel, even in a city whose majority are Jews; because everyone who lives in the Land of Israel is like one who has a G-d, and everyone who lives outside of the Land of Israel is like one who has no G-d” (ibid.).

“Everyone who lives outside the Land of Israel is as though he worships idols” (ibid.).

“Said Rabbi Elazar: Everyone who dwells in the Land of Israel lives without sin... The dead outside of the Land of Israel will not be resurrected, as it says ‘I will give glory in the Land of Life’ (Ezekiel 26:20) – in the Land wherein My desire is the dead will live again, in lands where My desire is absent, the dead will not live again” (Ketuvot 111a).

In the midst of all these appear the Three Oaths. Now the question arises: How can we decide which Talmudic statements constitute practical halakhah and which are purely homiletic?

The simple answer lies in the page-layout of the Talmud. The Talmud has been called the first-ever hypertext due to its comprehensive cross-referencing. At the top outer margin of every page of the Talmud appears Ein Mishpat – Ner Mitzvah, which cross-references every Talmudic source which appears in the major halakhic works.

And the sole halakhic cross-references in the entire passage in which the Three Oaths are to the Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 5:9, 11, and 12:

“It is always forbidden to leave the Land of Israel, except to study Torah, to marry a woman, or to save [himself or a fellow-Jew] from heathens, and then to return to Israel; or else for business. But it is forbidden [for a Jew] to live permanently outside of Israel, unless there is severe famine there... Everyone who dwells in the Land of Israel – his sins are forgiven...even if he walked just four cubits there he merits the World to Come... A Jew must always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city whose majority are idolaters, and not live outside of Israel, even in a city whose majority are Jews, because anyone who leaves Israel is akin to one who worships idols...”.

So the sole halakhic cross-references, far from accepting the Three Oaths as practical halakhah, enjoin every Jew to live in Israel.

And now, having analysed the halakhah, we now turn to the practical application in history.

The fact is that when the Seleucid Empire occupied Israel, the Maccabees mounted a military insurrection, using military force to liberate the Land of Israel, rebelling against the nations of the world in the most violent way possible.

And they won, and the Sages of the generation instituted an annual Festival called Channukah to celebrate their military victory.

Three hundred years later, when the Roman Empire occupied Israel, Shimon Bar-Kochba  mounted a military insurrection, using military force to liberate the Land of Israel, rebelling against the nations of the world in the most violent way possible.

And the spiritual leader of the Bar-Kochba Revolt was Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Rabbis of all time. As an indication of how great a master he was, there is a principle in the Talmud that in any halakhic debate between Rabbi Akiva and any other rabbi, the halakhah in practice invariably follows Rabbi Akiva’s opinion. No other single master in the entire Talmud can over-rule Rabbi Akiva.

Clearly, Rabbi Akiva, the greatest master of them all, did not believe that the Three Oaths constituted halakhah in practice.

I conclude with one of our greatest philosophers ever, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi, a product of the Golden Age of Muslim Spain. For 20 years, from 1120 to 1140, he worked on his magnum opus, the Kuzari.

The Kuzari is a magnificent and eminently readable work of Jewish philosophy, presented in the form of a dialogue between the King of the Khazars and an unnamed rabbi. The King of the Khazars was a genuine historical figure of whom little is known, beyond his name, Bulan, and the legend that he and many of the Khazar aristocracy converted to Judaism around the year 700.

In the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi presents his entire philosophy of Judaism, using the King of the Khazars as a foil. This purported debate is a far more dramatic and vivid and dynamic work than any academic work of philosophy (even more than the Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed).

In the second essay, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi has the rabbi recount the praises of the Land of Israel and tell of our obligation to live therein. And then the words he puts in the Kings mouth are quite harsh:

“In this case, you fail in your duty to the Torah! You have not attempted to make your lives in the Land of Israel, yet you pray, ‘Have mercy on Zion, because it is the House of our Life’... I see that all your bowing and prostrating towards the Land of Israel is mere sycophancy and habit which you do without thinking...” (Kuzari 2:23).

Of all the King’s arguments throughout the Kuzari, this is the sole one to which the rabbi has no response:

“You have shamed me, King of Khazaria. And this is the sin which prevented us from the perfection which G-d had ordained for us in the Second Holy Temple… G-d was ready to dwell therein as he had in the First Temple, if only all [the Jews] would have agreed to return will willing soul – but only a few returned... Indeed our prayers ‘Bow to His Holy Mountain’ (Psalms 99:9)...and ‘Blessed are You, Who returns His Divine Presence to Zion’ as merely like the twittering of starlings... It is indeed as you said, O King of Khazaria” (Kuzari 2:25).

If Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi had believed that the Three Oaths constitute halakhah in practice, then he would have put entirely different words into the rabbi’s mouth. He could so easily have justified abandoning the Land of Israel by invoking the Three Oaths – “We would love to return to Israel, but G-d has forbidden us to”.

But Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi did not offer this answer. Instead, he confessed that our failure to return to our Land is precisely that – a failure.

Because the Three Oaths are not, and never were, halakhah in practice.