The Law of the Land
Insights into relating to our gentile hosts and obeying the law of the land


Compiled and adapted by Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver

The Law of the Land


CONTENTS How to Relate to Our Gentile Hosts ...................................................1 How to Relate to the Law of the Land ................................................6 Going Beyond the Law of the Land ....................................................9 On Defying Anti-Torah Government Edicts .................................. 12

HOW TO RELATE TO OUR GENTILE HOSTS At times, when I express criticism of the institution of secular western democracy, I hear the response, ―If you don‘t like it, then leave!‖ With all due respect, such words can only come from a person who is stuck so deep in the mindset of golus (exile) that although he recognizes that he is a Jew, and even considers himself an Orthodox Jew, his words indicate that he identifies himself primarily as a citizen of his country. So to him, I‘m being rude by questioning the perfection of the political institution upon which his country is founded. Since I‘m disrespecting his country, he feels entitled to speak on behalf of that nation, and tell me that I should only stay if I agree to respect the rules.

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But the Torah teaches that the Jewish people fundamentally don‘t belong in golus. Despite our citizenship, we have been merely guests in various host countries. Just as in the past we didn‘t belong in Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Germany, Iraq, Iran, and Morocco, so do we not belong today in USA, South Africa, Australia, and Canada. And we don‘t even belong in the secular state of Israel (note that Eilat, which is not part of Eretz Yisrael, is part of the state, but much of South Lebanon, which is not part of the state, is part of Eretz Yisrael according to its true Torah borders). The Jewish people belongs in only one place, and in only one state of being: In Eretz Yisroel in its true borders, with Moshiach Tzidkeinu. Now, is it technically true that in western countries today, we enjoy much more freedom than that experienced in many other exiles? Yes, but that is not necessarily a good thing. The Alter Rebbe famously preferred persecution under the Czar to religious freedom under Napoleon, to the extent that he instructed his very own chassidim to put their lives on the line by joining the Czar‘s army in the Franco-Russian war. Yes, in western society we are free to practice Torah and Mitzvos without persecution. But this freedom also makes us free to
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assimilate, may Hashem save us, and spiritual death is worse than physical death (see here). Do we wish suffering upon ourselves— no (see here). But we dare not allow our awareness of the advantages of our current exile to blind us to its drawbacks, and to the difficult tests that we face (if anything, the challenges of our current exile are even more difficult than those of all previous times—see here), for then we will surely succumb to these tests, G–d forbid. In other words, our hosts are not fine people who are kind to us and therefore deserve praise, nor are they nasty people who torment us and therefore deserve condemnation. They are simply the agents of Hashem to carry out the decree of exile in accordance with His detailed plan of where the Jewish people need to be in order to accomplish what they need to accomplish. Of course, viewing our hosts as merely channels for divine blessings does not mean we should take them for granted. The Jew should respect his gentile hosts just as any guest should respect his host. When they help us, whether materially or spiritually, we should thank them appropriately, in accordance with the basic Torah principle that teaches us to acknowledge favours and not be ungrateful.
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We should be particular to follow the civil law of the land, for ―The law of the land is the [Torah] law‖).1 Moreover, we should avoid inappropriate behavior that would make a chillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem‘s Name) and arouse our hosts‘ eivah (hostility). On the contrary, we should pursue darkei sholom, ways of peace, and even pray for our hosts, as the Torah exhorts us, ―Seek the peace of the [gentile inhabitants of the] city ... and pray for it, for through its peace, you will have peace.‖2 We should also do our part to influence them to follow the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach, the Noahide laws. But living peacefully, and respecting and expressing genuine gratitude to our hosts, does not mean identifying with them. Thanking them as appropriate for their assistance does not mean forgetting that they are merely conduits for Hashem‘s blessings, as the Talmudic adage says, ―Although the wine belongs to its owner, one gives gratitude to the butler‖3: The main gratitude must be felt to the true Source of the blessing. One should turn to Hashem in

1 2 3

Gittin 10b. Yirmiyahu 29:7. Bava Kama 92b.
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thanks for sending these nations to facilitate this freedom and prosperity. Likewise, when suffering befalls us from the nations, G–d forbid, we must know that the reason it occurred was not because some craven anti-Semite decided to hurt Jews (may Hashem save us), but because there was a divine decree, as part of the broader decree of the exile, for this suffering to occur. No one can inflict harm upon another unless Hashem so decrees it,4 and its purpose is that we accept it as a divine punishment and turn to Hashem in sincere Teshuvah (see here), while at the same time doing our part in the natural order to protect Jews from harm as much as possible, whether through guards, the police, the army, and the like. So our response to persecution should not be ―Islam is bad because of suicide bombers, etc.‖ or even ―democracy is good because our rights are protected, we have freedom of religion, etc.‖ Our response should be: Everything that occurs during the exile comes from Hashem alone, and is a necessary part of the cleansing process of the exile. Now, how does Hashem want me to view this particular event in terms of its implications for how I should grow and change as a Jew, and bring Moshiach now?

Cf. Tanya 138b.
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Fighting to recognize this is itself one of the tests we face in our current exile, and if you‘re finding it difficult, don‘t be surprised: Every test is difficult, because by definition, tests are supposed to be difficult. And the tests at the end of exile, right before Moshiach, are the most difficult of all. And in every exile, we are called to stay true to Torah and Mitzvos despite the myriad tests that we face. The purpose of all the difficulties, suffering, and tests of exile is to cleanse us and bring us to do Teshuvah (see here). When we do Teshuvah sincerely, the exile in all its various locations and manifestations will come to an end. May Hashem be satisfied with our efforts, and send Moshiach now! HOW TO RELATE TO THE LAW OF THE LAND When Hashem sent the Romans to banish the Jewish people into exile outside the Holy Land, they became the guests of foreign nations. These nations have legal systems that are different from halacha, Torah law, and so residing in these countries means submitting to their laws, just as a guest must follow the house rules. Torah itself recognizes civil law and even requires that a Jew abide by it when living in that country, as the Talmud rules: ―The law of

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the land is [Torah] law.‖ 5 This 6 elevates secular law to a higher standard than it accords for itself, for according to this principle, secular law has divine authority, for by adhering to it, one adheres to a law in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. (This is comparable to the Torah‘s words concerning a doctor‘s instructions: Since the Torah prescribes that in circumstances of poor health one should consult with a doctor and obey his advice, it follows that by fulfilling the doctor‘s instructions, one fulfills Torah law.7) However, this does not mean that the Jew submits absolutely to the civil law. On the contrary, the Jew‘s Master and King is Hashem alone, and at Mount Sinai the Jew took a solemn oath to follow Hashem‘s law—halacha.8 Halacha is the only law that the Jew follows, it permeates every moment and aspect of his life, and he does not submit to any mortal king or ruler. Yes, a Jew must follow the law of the land, but not in a way that is somehow detached from his absolute subservience to Hashem.
5 6 7 8

Gittin 10b. Hisva’aduyos 5744, Vol. 2, pp. 612-613. Berachos 60a. See Taz, Yoreh Deah, beg. ch. 237. In the Hebrew, the Jew is “mushba ve'omed mei’Har Sinai” (Shavuos 22b).
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His gentile hosts have no inherent power to dictate his behavior. Rather, he follows the law of the land because Torah itself requires that he follow it, as long as it does not contradict Torah, as part of Hashem‘s decree that the Jew be in exile. On a basic and external level, the reason that Torah requires adherence to the law of the land is that this brings tranquility and peace in society. This is particularly relevant to Jews during their stay in gentile lands, because when gentiles are at peace, their Jewish guests can also live in peace, as the verse puts it, ―Through its [the gentile city‘s] peace, you [the Jewish people] will have peace.‖9 Similarly, Torah requires gentiles themselves to follow the law of the land, in the context of their duty to observe the Noahide commandment of dinim, establishing a justice system.10 On11 a deeper level, this is also related to the way that Torah views nature. The reason that the Jewish people need the assistance and hosting of gentiles during the exile, which is accompanied by the

Yirmiyahu 29:7. Gentiles are ―obligated to appoint judges ... to dispense judgment Hisva’aduyos 5743, Vol. 1, p. 170-171.
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concerning these [other] six laws‖ (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 9:19).

The Law of the Land


Torah obligation to adhere to the law of the land, is that Hashem requires that the Jew follow the natural order. However, this does not mean that the Jewish people are inherently subject to the rule of nature, G–d forbid. On the contrary, since the Jew‘s Neshamah stems from supernatural G–dliness, a Jew has the power to control the nature of the world. Rather, the Jews‘ dependence on non-Jews stems from Hashem‘s desire that the Jewish people follow the natural order during the age of exile. Thus, by doing so, the Jewish people comply with the command and will of Hashem. GOING BEYOND THE LAW OF THE LAND Our12 holy Torah instructs a Jew to be scrupulously honest in his or her business dealings, carefully avoiding the Torah prohibitions of stealing and of violating the law of the land. Moreover, since the Torah‘s ways are ―ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace,‖13 it follows that such conduct will affect one‘s environment pleasantly and peacefully.


This section is based on the Rebbe‘s Hisva’aduyos 5744, Vol. 2, pp. 612-


Mishlei 3:17.
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Moreover, a Jew must set a living example for Jews and non-Jews of proper moral conduct. The Talmud14 explains: ―You shall love the L–rd your G–d‖15: The name of Heaven should become beloved through you. One should read Scripture, learn Mishnah, and serve Torah scholars, and his dealings with people should be conducted pleasantly. What do people then say of him? ―Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah. Fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah. Woe unto people who do not learn Torah. This person who learned Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how refined are his deeds.‖ Of him Scripture says:16 ―He [G– d] said to me, ‗You are My servant, Israel, through whom I am glorified.‘‖ Thus, when one deals honestly in business, he sanctifies Hashem‘s name in the eyes of all. Moreover, the Talmud tells of Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach,17 who, upon finding a jewel hanging from a donkey he had bought from a
14 15 16 17

Yoma 86a. Devarim 6:5. Yeshayah 49:3. Talmud Yerushalmi, Bava Metzia 2:5.
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gentile, returned the jewel to the gentile. His exceptional behavior created an unparalleled sanctification of Hashem‘s name. This teaches us that a Jew should not suffice with adhering scrupulously to the law of the land. Rather, as a Jew, it is proper for him to follow a higher standard than the minimum. He should treat others according to a standard beyond the letter of the civil law, and thereby sanctify Hashem‘s name. This incident occurred during the era of the Sanhedrin, when the Holy Temple stood. Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach had already returned from his exile in Egypt, and was himself a member of the Sanhedrin. Nevertheless, he saw fit to emphasize that one should even sanctify Hashem‘s name in the eyes of a member of the nation of Yishma‘el. This story also holds a lesson for us, for it is a part of the Torah, which is etymologically related to the word hora’ah, ―lesson.‖18 Moreover, stories have an advantage over other parts of Torah, for it is known that practical Halacha is not derived from the Mishneh and later halachic authorities, but only from an actual halachic


Gur Aryeh, Bereshis 1:1, in the name of Radak.
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ruling.19 Thus, the very fact that this event occurred means that it serves as a very clear lesson. In fact, one of the questions that the soul is asked after one‘s passing is, ―Did you deal faithfully in business?‖20 This implies that even conduct that appears appropriate and just is insufficient; the Torah urges the Jew to act “faithfully” by going above and beyond the law of the land. The importance of such conduct is highlighted by the fact that even after one is no longer able to make amends— after one passes away—one is still asked this question. ON DEFYING ANTI-TORAH GOVERNMENT EDICTS Since the Jew‘s observance of the civil law stems from Torah alone, if there is ever a conflict between Torah law and civil law, the Jew follows Torah faithfully in all its minutiae and refuses to even consider doing otherwise. Although, as discussed above, ―The law of the land is [Torah] law,‖21 this only applies to matters


In Jewish law, the involvement of a great sage in an actual incident has

greater force than the issuance of a theoretical ruling (see e.g. Shabbos 21a, also Rashi loc. cit.).
20 21

Shabbos 105a. Gittin 10b.
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such as ―merchants‘ customs,‖ 22 international relations, and the like,23 which stem from the mazal, the constellation, and higher, the guardian angel, of each country. However, 24 only the Jewish people were sent into exile, but the holy Torah itself was never subjected to exile, for ―The Torah will never change.‖25 Hence, non-Jews have no right to issue laws that interfere with the Jews‘ observance of the Torah, and Jews need not and should not honor and obey such laws.26 Not only are non-Jews and their legal system unauthorized to override matters of Jewish observance that are a strict obligation or prohibition, they may not even dictate to a Jew how to keep a minhag Yisrael (Jewish custom), or in any way detract from the observance of a minhag Yisrael. The Previous Rebbe made a daring public statement to this effect after he was released from prison

22 23 24 25

Cf. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Selling, 26:8. Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 369:18. Hisva’aduyos 5744, Vol. 2, pp. 612-613. Ninth of Maimonides‘ 13 Principles of Faith. Mishneh Torah, Laws of the See section above entitled ―How to Relate to Our Gentile Hosts.‖
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Foundations of the Torah, 9:1.

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and about to be sent into exile. He famously repeated the following timeless words of one of his predecessors:27 All the nations on the face of the earth must know that only our bodies have been sent into exile and the servitude of [foreign] rulers, but our souls have not been exiled or enslaved. We must declare openly before all that in all matters relating to our religion, the Torah, the Mitzvos, and Jewish customs, we Jews have no one who can dictate to us, nor may any pressure be brought to bear against us. In the same vein, the Previous Rebbe once related 28 a powerful story of how the Tzemach Tzedek courageously stood up to the government when it attempted to interfere in Jewish observance: ...In the first session, the Minister of Haskalah instructed the secretary of the conference to present a plan for the curriculum of Jewish children that the minister and his assistants had devised, and he commanded the four who had been summoned—the Rebbe [the Tzemach Tzedek], Reb Itcheleh of Volozhin, Reb Yisrael Halperin, and the scholar, Betzalel Stern, to sign on the plan.
27 28

3 Tammuz, 5627. Printed in Likkutei Dibburim, Vol. 4, 692a-692b. Likkutei Dibburim (Hebrew), Vol. 3, p. 610.
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...When the Rebbe [i.e., the Tzemach Tzedek] saw that the situation was dangerous, he stood up and said: ―The government summoned us to hear our opinion, and not to sign on what others have prescribed. I refuse to sign, and resign from my participation in the meeting.‖ Lilienthal, who stood next to the Minister, whispered something into his ear, and immediately the minister stood up in anger and said with great fury, ―Doesn‘t it say that ‗The law of the land is the [Torah] law‘?‖ The Tzemach Tzedek responded: ―‗The law of the land is the [Torah] law‘ applies only to monetary matters, such as taxes and property rates. While ‗A Jewish custom is Torah,‘29 and no one has the permission to nullify it.‖ ―The custom of women to cover their faces with their hands when they light the Shabbos candles—is that also Torah?‖ asked the minister.


Menachos 20b, Tosafos, s.v. nifsal. Maharil, cited in Rema on Yoreh Dei’ah,

376:4. See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 22, p. 56.
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―Yes,‖ answered the Tzemach Tzedek, ―that too is Torah, as the Talmud Yerushalmi states: ‗The custom of [Jewish] women is Torah.‘‖30 Of course, we have suffered such persecution time and again from various oppressors through the course of history, and in the Jewish calendar, most notably in the time of Chanukah.31

30 31

Pesachim 4:1. This is of timely relevance in recent months and years, in which the

age-old Jewish custom of metzitzah be’peh has come under attack.
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