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The Biggest Mitzvah There Is

By Tzvi Fishman
10/18/2010, 12:00 AM

Among the reasons some people cite for not coming on aliyah is the halachic response of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, one of the most foremost Torah authorities of the last generation. Rabbi Feinstein, who lived in New York, was asked if aliyah to Eretz Yisrael was an obligatory mitzvah of the Torah, as stated by the Ramban, or a mitzvah that isn’t obligatory in our times, as a Tosefot in the name of R. Haim HaCohen implies (Ketubot 110, considered to have been recorded by a mistaken student).

Rabbi Feinstein answered that it indeed it is a mitzvah from the Torah, as the Ramban wrote, and about which most Torah authorities, both Rishonim and Achronim, agreed (See the Pitchei Tshuva to the Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer, Section 75:6), but that it was, in his opinion, a voluntary mitzvah which wasn’t obligatory (Igrot Moshe, Even HaEzer, 102). He compared it to the Torah commandment of tzitzit, which requires putting tzitzit on a garment that you wear if it has four corners. But if you don’t choose to wear such a garment, you don’t have to perform the commandment of tzitzit.

What serious Jew doesn't wear tzitzit?


A wonderful translation by Rabbi Moshe Lichtman of Rabbi Tzvi Glatt’s book “Rise From the Dust” (“M’Afar Kumi,”) has just been published.

The book is an in-depth study of the mitzvah of aliyah and living in the Land of Israel. The main topic analyzed is this very question, whether the mitzvah of aliyah is obligatory in our times. Rabbi Glatt, may Hashem revenge his blood, who was murdered by an Arab terrorist in Hevron, clearly demonstrates that aliyah is a Torah mitzvah obligatory in our times, as the Ramban and a long list of eminent Halachic authorities confirm. The translator, Rabbi Moshe Lichtman, has also given us the stunning translation of the classic halachic treatise on the settlement of Eretz Yisrael, “Eim HaBanim Semeichah,” written by Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal, may Hashem revenge his blood, an Ultra-Orthodox Torah authority who was murdered by the Nazis. Rabbi Teichtal was vehemently anti-Zionist at the beginning of the war, but changed his thinking completely as the Nazi horror gained momentum throughout Europe. The book, as I noted in the past, is surely one of the most important Torah treasures of our times, and must reading for all serious Jews.

Included in the book, “Rise From the Dust” is a response written by Israel’s former Chief Rabbi, the revered Rabbi Avraham Shapira, of blessed memory, Head of the High Rabbinical Court, and Rosh Yeshiva of the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. While holding Rabbi Feinstein in upmost respect, regarding the mitzvah of aliyah, he strongly disagrees with Rabbi Feinstein, questioning the whole notion of a “voluntary” mitzvah.  

Rabbi Avraham Shapira, of blessed memory

Here are some excerpts of his halachic essay which appears in translation in “Rise From the Dust” available in bookstores in Israel, or orderable via the translator by writing to Rabbi Lichtman at An INN review of the book appears at

Rabbi Shapira writes:  

“The implication of this new concept – a ‘voluntary mitzvah’ – is that one is not obligated to fulfill it, but if one does, he has performed a mitzvah.  This seems self-contradictory.  On a simple level, a Torah commandment, counted as one of the 613, is not dependent on man’s desire – if he wants to fulfill it, he will, and if not, he won’t.  After all, this contradicts the whole idea of a mitzvah, which is a command from HaShem Yitbarach.  How can one say that God leaves the fulfillment of His decree to man’s discretion?  We assume that God did not give us the mitzvot in order to derive pleasure from them.  Rashi explains in Rosh HaShanah (28a), ‘Rather, they are a yoke upon man’s neck, to fulfill HaShem’s desire.’  What kind of a yoke is it if one can decide whether to fulfill them or ignore them?

“This (the mitzvah of aliyah) is different from [Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s example of] tzitzit, which is not an obligatory mitzvah, but one that depends on man’s will.  Tzitzit depends on a person’s desire to wear a four-cornered garment, and the Torah does not obligate one to wear such a garment.  However, once a person wears a four-cornered garment, he is obligated to place tzitzit on its corners, and that is not dependent on his desire at all.  Once he wears a garment that the Torah speaks of, he cannot evade the mitzvah.  Why, then, would we say that there is a mitzvah to make aliyah, but that it is up to man whether he wants to fulfill it or not?  It appears that we do not find another mitzvah like this in the count of the 613….       

“All this proves that none of the mitzvot, especially those included in the 613, depend on man’s desire.  Rather, we force him to do them.  Only those that Scriptures designate as being voluntary depend on a person’s willingness [to perform them], for the verses teach us that these mitzvot are essentially not part of the 613.  Rather, they are good practices, fitting to do, and good advice.  All this is obvious, for it is illogical to say that the Torah establishes a mitzvah and man is permitted to say, ‘I am not interested….’

“Nevertheless, it is clear that when there is an explicit mitzvah in the Torah – one of the positive commandments included in the 613 – one cannot say that it depends on whether or not a person wants to [fulfill it].  Therefore, according to the Ramban, who holds that dwelling in Eretz Yisrael is a positive commandment counted as one of the 613 (whether the Rambam agrees or not), one cannot say that fulfilling it depends on man’s desire.  Rather, it is absolutely obligatory. 

“The Meiri writes in Bava Kama (80), ‘Every Jew is commanded to establish his dwelling in Eretz Yisrael.’  In addition, the Ramban writes in Bava Batra (24) that the law of [designating open areas for the purpose of] beautifying a city applies only in Eretz Yisrael.  Regarding Chutz LaAretz, however, he says, ‘If only [those lands] would be despicable in the eyes of [the Jews] who dwell there!’ 

“Why, then, did the gedolim of previous generations neglect this mitzvah?  'Teshuvot Maharam' and 'Terumat HaDeshen' explain that [those generations] were under duress and unable to dwell in Eretz Yisrael because of difficult conditions, etc…  I would add that this is not a regular case of ōnes (compulsion), in the sense of ‘The All-merciful exempts one who is forced [to sin].’  Rather, the mitzvah itself is suspended when dwelling in the Land entails hardship.  Similarly, we find that one who experiences discomfort sitting in a sukkah is exempt from the mitzvah, because of [the rule] “You shall sit [in the sukkah] as you dwell [in your home].”  Chazal determined that the definition of “dwelling” is when one is comfortable and has space, not when one is in pain.  Dwelling somewhere in pain is not considered dwelling.  The same applies to going up to live in Eretz Yisrael.  One who finds his [new] accommodations distressful, relative to what he had in Chutz LaAretz, does not [fulfill] the mitzvah of You shall dwell therein (BeMidbar 33:53).  Thus, any situation in which one would be exempt from sitting in a sukkah, one would also be exempt from dwelling in Eretz Yisrael….            

“Now, if the definition of ‘discomfort’ [with respect to aliyah] is identical to its definition with respect to sukkah, [we can deduce the following].  Obviously, dwelling in a sukkah, a temporary structure, is less comfortable than dwelling in a permanent home.  Nonetheless, that certainly does not constitute ‘pain.’  [One is exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah only] when dwelling there is painful, relative to the type of dwelling it is, and this requires serious evaluation.  [So too, one is not exempt from dwelling in Eretz Yisrael just because it is easier to live in Chutz LaAretz.]  The great Torah scholars of [previous] generations determined that it would be [genuinely] painful for them to dwell in the Land, and they were [therefore] exempt from doing so.  Today, however, when the Land of Israel is [governed by] the State of Israel, and, based on [progressive] economic conditions, the level of ‘discomfort’ is very mild – especially for singles who are free from the yoke of family – everyone is undoubtedly assumed to be obligated in the mitzvah.  One would require the judgment of great Torah scholars to determine that he is exempt from performing the mitzvah.  In any event, it is clear that the concept of a mitzvah being dependent on each person’s discretion – if he wants to do it, he will accept it; but if not, he will reject it – is incomprehensible.”

In other words, the obligation of coming to live in Israel is in full force today, especially with the booming economy and luxury apartments and villas that can be found everywhere around the country. Yes, sometimes you have to wait behind a long line of shopping carts piled high with food at the supermarket, and you may get shoved by a Haredi Jew on a bus on the way to the Kotel, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream can melt pretty fast in the Mediterranean sun, but the hardship and pain of the early pioneer days are over. If you ask me, living in Israel is far less distressing and painful than living as a hated minority in someone else’s land. So come! Don’t waste any more time! It’s the biggest mitzvah there is!