The obligation to immigrate to Israel

Once, living in Israel involved existential and economic danger, so it was not obligatory, but nowadays the mitzvah obligates every Jew.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed ,

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
PR photo

Q: Is every Jew in the world obligated to immigrate to Israel?

A: The mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz (settling the Land of Israel) is a general mitzvah that obligates the entire nation of Israel to inherit the Land, namely, to apply sovereignty over it, and settle it best in all respects. As it is written (Numbers 33: 53-54): ” You shall dispossess the inhabitants of the Land and dwell in it, for I have given the Land to you to possess it…to inherit the Land…” or as Ramban defined the mitzvah: “We were commanded to take possession of the Land which the Almighty, Blessed Be He, gave to our forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaacov; and to not abandon it to other nations, or to leave it desolate” (Addendum to Sefer Hamitzvot of the Rambam, Positive Commandment 4).

The Mitzvah of the Clal Depends on the Individual

From the mitzvah of Clal Yisrael (the Jewish people as a whole) to settle the Land, stems the mitzvah obligating every individual Jew to live in the country, since it is impossible for Clal Yisrael to fulfill the mitzvah of settling the Land, Yishuv Ha’Aretz, without each individual being fully compliant with the obligation of the mitzvah - that is, unless practically all Jews actually reside in the country.

Also, we learned that from the Torah, the obligation to fulfill the category of mitzvot -dependent-on-the-Land which concern the public, such as challah, tithes - terumot and ma’asrot - depends on the majority of Jews residing in the Land, as it is written (Numbers 15:18): “When you come to the land to which I am bringing you.” Our Sages taught (Ketubot 25a): “‘When you come’ – I have spoken of the coming of all, and not of the coming of a portion of you,” and thus when Israel went up to Eretz Yisrael in the days of Ezra – their obligation in mitzvot was not from the Torah, but only rabbinic, Divrei Chachamim, since only a few came to Eretz Yisrael (Rambam, Hilchot Terumot 1:1-3; 26; Bikurim 5:5; Peninei Halakha: Kashrut 12: 10-11).

In the mitzvot of Shevi’it and Yovel (letting land lie fallow n the seventh year and the jubilee year), it is not enough for the majority of Jews to reside in the Land, but they also need to reside in their inheritances according to their tribes, as it is written (Leviticus 25:10): “Declare emancipation of slaves for the land and all who live on it” – ‘and all who live on it’ – only at the time when its inhabitants are there as where they should be, but not when they are intermingled” (Arachin 32b). The same is said of yovel, and the law of Shevi’it (also called shmitta) depends on the Yovel (Gittin 36a; Peninei Halakha: Shevi’it 5:3; 11:5).

The Obligation of the Individual to Live in Israel

In addition to the general mitzvah that the Land be under Israeli sovereignty and that practically all Jews live here, there is a mitzvah for every individual Jew to live in Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, even when the entire Land is completely ruled and populated by millions of Jews, from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates, the mitzvah for every Jew to live in Israel still remains intact.

Even in times when the non-Jews ruled the Land, and, seemingly, the addition of one extra Jew living there would not help the general cause, nevertheless, the individual mitzvah for every Jew to live in Israel remained in force. As our Sages of the Talmud said (Ketubot 110b): “At all times, a Jew should live in the Land of Israel, even in a city where the majority of its residents are idol worshipers, and not live outside of the Land, even in a city populated mainly by Jews, for anyone who lives in the Land of Israel is similar to one who possesses a God, while one who lives outside of the Land is similar to one who has no God.” And this was codified as halakha (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 5:12; Ishut 13:20).

Greater than Regular Mitzvot

Some claim that indeed, according to Ramban the mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz is obligatory at all times, but according to Rambam, the mitzvah was obligatory only in the past, and for that reason, he did not count it as one of the 613 mitzvot. However, the truth is that Rambam did not count the mitvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz because it is more important than a regular mitvah, as he explained in the principles guiding his selection of the mitzvot in the Sefer HaMitzvot, namely, that it is not appropriate to enumerate mitzvot that encompass the entire Torah (as explained in “Eim Habanim Semeicha” Chap.3, Sect.7-10).

Indeed, the all-encompassing mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz underlies and is reflected in numerous mitzvot:

The first is the mitzvah to appoint a king, which is fulfilled in the Land of Israel, and aims to establish a rule expressing the sovereignty of the people of Israel over their country, and to organize their lives in the best possible way (Deuteronomy 17: 14-20; the Natziv’s ‘Ha’emek Davar’ ibid.; Mishpat Kohen 144).

As previously mentioned, the mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz and the appointment of a king are contingent on the applicability of the public mitzvot dependent on the Land, such as shevi’it and yovel, terumot and ma’asrot, challah, and others.

The mitzvot of Yishuv Ha’Aretz and the appointment of a king, of course, depend on all the mitzvot associated with the building of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), and as our Sages said (Sanhedrin 20b):”Three commandments were given to Israel when they entered the land: 1) to appoint a king, 2) to cut off the seed of Amalek, and 3) to build themselves the Beit HaBechira (lit., the ‘Chosen House’, or the Holy Temple).”

The entire system of mitzvot related to the role of the Kohanim and Levi’im, as well as the allocation of cities for them throughout the Land, is also dependent on the mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz (Numbers 35).

The entire system of mitzvot related to the arrangement of the judicial system – including the establishment of the Beit HaDin HaGadol located next to the Mikdash (Deuteronomy 17:10; Rambam, Hilchot Mamrim 1:1), as well as appointing judges and police officers in all the cities of Israel (Deuteronomy 16:18; Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin 1: 1- 4), and the ordination, semicha, of the Sages, that took place only in Israel, and which is the basis of authority of the judiciary system (Rambam, ibid. 4: 4).

The observance of the order of months and holidays also depends on the mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz – the Beit HaDin HaGadol sanctifies the months, and when the Beit HaDin is cancelled, the months are established by the Jews who live in Eretz Yisrael and maintain the Hebrew calendar previously sanctified by dayan’im (judges) who received semicha in Eretz Yisrael (Rambam, Hilchot Kiddush HaChodesh 5:13; Sefer HaMitzvot 153).

Moreover, all of the Torah and mitzvot are meant to be fulfilled in the Land of Israel, because only through their fulfillment in the Land is the name of God revealed in the world. We learned this in the Torah and in our Sages’ statements in numerous places, to the point where they said that the observance of the mitzvot abroad was merely intended to remind us how to fulfill them when we return to the Land (Deuteronomy 11: 32; ibid., 12:1-2; Yerushalmi Shevi’it 6:1; Kiddushin 1: 8; Bavli Kiddushin 37a; Sifrei, Ekev 43-44).

The Claim of Igrot Moshe

However, in the Responsa Igrot Moshe (E. H. I:102), he wrote: “Concerning your question if there is a mitzvah nowadays to live in Eretz Yisrael … most poskim are of the opinion that it is a mitzvah. But plainly, at this time it is not a positive commandment on the body (that is, one who immigrates fulfills a mitzvah, but there is no personal obligation to immigrate). For if so (if it was compulsory to immigrate to Israel), consequently, we would find that it is forbidden to live abroad … and no mention was made of the prohibition; rather, that it is forbidden for someone who lives in Eretz Yisrael to leave in order to reside abroad (Rambam Hilchot Melachim 5:9). And even if so, it certainly is not a Torah prohibition (rather, from Divrei Chachamim). And if it was also forbidden for people to live abroad, Rambam would simply have said – it is forbidden to live abroad, unless there is a severe famine in Eretz Yisrael; this means that only the residents of Eretz Yisrael have a prohibition, prohibited by the Sages, but as far as a positive commandment, it is not a mitzvah chiyuvit (obligatory), rather, one who lives there fulfills a mitzvah … and since it is not a mitzvah chiyuvit, one must take into consideration the concern of Rabbi Chaim in Tosafot (who believes that one should not immigrate to Israel without knowing) if he can be careful about the mitzvot that depend on the land.”

Why Poskim in the Past Did Not Obligate Immigrating to Israel

However, despite my great respect for the great posek, possessor of compelling judgment, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zts"l, his remarks are unsubstantiated from everything I have conveyed about the basic importance of the mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz for the observance of all the Torah and mitzvot. We can see this from what our Sages, Rishonim and Achronim, instructed about when one spouse wishes to immigrate to Israel – the other must comply, and if not, immigration to Israel justifies a divorce (Rambam, Hilchot Ishut 13:20; S. A., E.H. 75:4).

However, during the years of exile, Jews living in Eretz Yisrael were usually in greater danger than in the Diaspora, for the Gentiles who ruled Eretz Yisrael tended to persecute the Jews in Israel more than in the Diaspora. Initially, in the times of Roman rule, the reason was because they saw the Jews as a threat to their rule, and later in the days of Byzantium and Islam, to prove that the Jews had no right to the Land of Israel. In addition, over time, the Land had become desolate, and the difficulties of economic existence greatly increased. And this, not to mention the difficulty for anyone to immigrate to a different environment where the laws, language, and ways of making a living are different, and in the past, it was very difficult to learn them from afar.

In other words, to the perception of a Jew living in the Diaspora, there was fear that if he immigrated to Israel, one or several members of his family would die in an obscure plague, or die of poor nutrition as a result of difficulties in earning a livelihood. This was the picture presented to the Jews of the Diaspora, and in such a situation, it was impossible to determine immigrating to Israel as an obligatory halakha, because when there is a real danger to the life of one’s family due to severe famine and a deep and ongoing economic crisis that prevents people from securing their livelihoods even at a minimal level, even the residents of Eretz Yisrael are permitted to leave the country (and even then, it is midat chassidut to remain – Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 5:9).

It seems clear to me that our Sages could not imagine a day would come whenJews would be able to exist in the Land of Israel, and simultaneously, some would still claim that this was not an obligatory mitzvah. Consequently, all their discussions centered on a situation in which it is extremely difficult to exist in Eretz Yisrael. But even in such a situation, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (Kuzari 2: 24) wrote that Jews should have made much more of an effort to immigrate to Israel, and not doing so, our prayers are as “the chattering of the starling and the nightingale.”

But today, when it is possible to live in the Land, it is an absolute obligation for every Jew to immigrate to Israel. The immigration should be well planned, and for that, it can be postponed for a few years, but beyond that, it is forbidden to tarry.

Would I Stand the Trial

I must add: this is the halakha, but regrettably, I cannot guarantee that if I faced the trial the Jews in the Diaspora face, I would be capable of fulfilling the halakha. This is because even when it is possible to live in Israel, it is extremely difficult to leave a familiar place of residence, where one knows how to speak and express himself fluently, how to educate his children, and how to make a living, and move to a place where he needs to learn the language, and all the different ways of life. The obligation to immigration to Israel demands from people who are considered very successful, to abandon their achievements, and start rebuilding themselves anew. That is why I so admire immigrants from the U.S. and other prosperous countries.

Rabbi Rabinovich ztz”l

After I finished writing this column, I heard the tragic news of the passing of one of the true Gedolei Ha’Dor, Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovich ztz”l, who chose to emigrate from a prosperous country, Canada, and become a partner in the building of Torah and the Nation, in Eretz Yisrael. May this column be dedicated to an aliyah for his neshama.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

The writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper.



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