You are on page 1of 5

Why Israel Matters: Ramban and

the Uniqueness of the Land of Israel
O ur generation merits the
great gift of the state of
Israel. We are afforded the
opportunity to visit the land, dwell
there temporarily, and even make it
Ilana Turetsky, Ed.D.
Faculty, Azrieli Graduate School
into our permanent home if we so
choose. As an olah, I feel privileged to
live and raise my family in this holy The passionate words of the Ramban inherit it because He gave it to them …
land. Yom Ha’Atzmaut provides a paint a striking picture of the power this verse is a positive commandment. It
special opportunity for reflection on and potential of Eretz Yisrael. is a commandment that recurs in many
this unique gift. places [in the Torah].
Many great Jewish thinkers and Inhabiting the Land of Israel What makes the Ramban’s position
commentators have explored the particularly noteworthy is that not
significance of the Land of Israel. Many Rishonim discuss the nature of only does he maintain that such an
Its relative status is assessed from the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael. obligation exists; the Ramban is
numerous perspectives; Biblical Is there, in fact, such a mitzvah? If yes, of the opinion that this obligation
commentators, Jewish philosophers, does that mitzvah apply today or is it continues to apply throughout our
and great halachists all question and limited to a particular time period? time in exile. Further, as is well-
analyze the role of Eretz Yisrael. From The Rambam, who is usually fairly known, the Ramban personally made
different vantage points, they offer equivocal in his halachic positions, is the incredibly challenging journey to
insights into the unique religious, somewhat ambiguous on this issue. move to Israel. While some scholars
national, and spiritual opportunities By contrast, the stance of the Ramban have discussed the impact of his move
that are an organic part of the Land of is exceptionally clear. Included in the on his commentary on Chumash,
Israel. Ramban’s tally of the 613 mitzvot is the Ramban’s journey can also serve
the requirement to dwell in Israel. In as a powerful model of religious
The purpose of this article is to explore addition to writing this in his halachic
the view of the Ramban on the holiness work,1 the Ramban also states this commitment.
and status of Eretz Yisrael. The Ramban position in his commentary on Thus far, the Ramban’s position on
is among a small group of Rishonim Chumash (Bamidbar 33:53): the halachic status of moving to
whose writings impact and relate to a Israel has been established: moving
broad array of Torah realms. Ramban ‫והורשתם את הארץ וישבתם בה כי לכם נתתי‬ to Israel is a fulfillment of a positive
often weaves together insights relating ‫את הארץ לרשת אתה — על דעתי זו מצות‬ commandment. A further question
to Biblical exegesis, Jewish thought, ‫ יצוה אותם שישבו בארץ ויירשו‬,‫עשה היא‬ relates to the status of this mitzvah
and halacha, and his writings on Eretz ‫ כי הכתוב הזה היא‬... ‫אותה כי הוא נתנה להם‬ as compared to other positive
Yisrael are no exception. Indeed, few .‫רבים‬ ‫ ויחזיר המצוה הזו במקומות‬.‫מצות עשה‬ commandments. The Ramban
thinkers offer such a wide-ranging And you shall take possession of the land seems to challenge the notion that
perspective on Eretz Yisrael. Further, and settle in it, for I have assigned the all mitzvot are created equal, and
many contemporary discussions land for you to possess — In my opinion, seems to suggest that the mitzvah of
relating to Eretz Yisrael, focus, at least this is a positive commandment. He inhabiting the Land of Israel has an
partially, on the Ramban’s positions. commands them to settle in the land and elevated status. While in general, one

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Yom Haatzmaut 5777
is forbidden to ask a non-Jew to do a shape the way the Ramban interprets And He placed over each and every
melacha on Shabbat, even for the sake Avraham’s behavior and the subsequent people in their lands according to
of enabling one to fulfill a mitzvah outcomes of Avraham’s decision. their nations a star and a specific
mid’oraita (Torah level obligation), constellation, as is known in astrology.
the Ramban points out an exception A Unique Characteristic of While God is undoubtedly in control
to this rule.2 Based on the Gemara Eretz Yisrael of what happens everywhere in the
in Gittin (8b), the Ramban explains
world, He does not deal with the
that it is permissible to ask a non-Jew Until this point, the Ramban’s other nations and their lands directly,
to perform melacha on one’s behalf position that inhabiting the Land of rather through intermediaries.
if it is in order to buy land from a Israel is a bona fide mitzvah, as well Hashem appoints angelic emissaries
non-Jew in Eretz Yisrael. As Rabbi as his view that this mitzvah holds a to manage and deal with the other
Howard Jachter explains,3 the position uniquely prominent status, have been nations. By contrast, the Ramban
of the Ramban is based on the axiom established. The pressing question poetically describes Hashem’s unique
that securing Jewish presence in and that emerges is, Why? What is it relationship with the Land of Israel
proprietorship of our holy land is a about Eretz Yisrael that impels the and the people of Israel:
fulfillment of an important national Ramban to regard the land with such
and religious tenet. veneration and appreciation? ‫לקים‬-‫לקי הא‬-‫והנה השם הנכבד הוא א‬
‫ אבל ארץ ישראל‬,‫ואדוני האדונים לכל העולם‬
This orientation may explain a The Torah’s prohibition of arayot, ,‫אמצעות הישוב היא נחלת ה’ מיוחדת לשמו‬
unique position of the Ramban in his illicit relations, is operative regardless ‫לא נתן עליה מן המלאכים קצין שוטר ומושל‬
commentary on Chumash. When a of one’s geographical location. Yet at .‫בהנחילו אותה לעמו המיחד שמו זרע אוהביו‬
famine plagued the Land of Israel and the end of the Torah’s description of And behold the honored God is the God
Avraham opted to descend to Egypt, this prohibition, the verse in Vayikra (Power) of powers and the Master of
the majority of commentators endorse (18:25) states: masters of the whole universe, but upon
Avraham’s decision as an appropriate
‫וַ ִת ְט ָמא ָה ָא ֶרץ וָ ֶא ְפקֹד עֲ ו‍ֹנָ ּה עָ לֶ ָיה וַ ָת ִקא ָה ָא ֶרץ‬ the land of Israel—the center of the
and pragmatic step. Remaining in
.‫ֶאת י ְֹש ֶב ָיה‬ [world’s] habitation, the inheritance of
Israel was dangerous, and we are
Thus the land became defiled; and I God [that is] unique to His name—He
advised to act with prudence rather
called it to account for its iniquity, and did not place a captain, officer or ruler
than relying on miracles. Migrating to
the land spewed out its inhabitants. from the angels, in His giving it as an
Egypt to procure food for his family
inheritance to his nation that unifies His
was the responsible thing to do. The Ramban points out that this verse
name—the seed of His beloved one.
highlights a connection between the
Yet the Ramban (Breishit 12:10)
prohibition of arayot and the Land Ramban writes that in contrast to all
critiques Avraham for moving to
of Israel. The Ramban finds this other nations and lands, G-d Himself
Egypt. In fact, as part of his broader
connection somewhat perplexing, deals directly with Eretz Yisrael.
understanding of “ma’aseh avot siman
given that the arayot are a “chovat This special Land is the crucible for
l’banim,” the acts of the forefathers are
haguf,” a law that is binding on the the development of the relationship
a sign for their children, the Ramban
individual, applying equally within between G-d and his beloved nation.
argues that the Jewish people were
and outside of Eretz Yisrael. Rather than employ an intermediary,
forced to go into exile in Egypt as a
G-d opts to involve Himself in the
result of Avraham’s decision to leave In order to clarify the connection
direct management and oversight of
Israel and go to Egypt! While there between the arayot and the Land
Eretz Yisrael, pointing to the special
are various factors influencing the of Israel, the Ramban shares an
and close relationship that G-d desires,
Ramban’s approach, one may suggest important distinction regarding how
so to speak, with the nation of Israel.
that underlying the Ramban’s fairly God controls Eretz Yisrael, as opposed
severe critique of Avraham is the to all other lands. The Ramban notes Through this lens, it is possible to
enormous value he places on inhabiting that when God created the world: explain the connection between the
the Land of Israel. His love for Israel arayot and the Land of Israel. Because
‫ונתן על כל עם ועם בארצותם לגוייהם כוכב‬
and the great import with which he of God’s more direct involvement
.‫ומזל ידוע כאשר נודע באצטגנינות‬
believes the land is endowed may with Eretz Yisrael, and because of

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Yom Haatzmaut 5777
the elevated status that adorns Eretz hat’luyot ba’aretz), such as shemitta
Yisrael, the Land has a heightened and teruma /ma’aser, and mitzvot Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l
level of purity and sanctity, which whose fulfillment have no inherent on the Value of Ramban’s
brings with it a degree of sensitivity. dependence on the Land (mitzvot Commentary on the Torah
The Land is unable to withstand she’aynan teluyot ba’aretz), such as ‫ היה‬,”‫לו אבד הספר “מורה נבוכים‬
spiritual contamination. A sin Shabbat observance, tefillin, and ‫זה הפסד אבל לא כביר; עם ישראל‬
performed in the Land of Israel is prayer. While some ambiguity exists ‫ אבל אם פירושו של‬.‫היה מחזיק מעמד‬
more severe, as it is an affront to the regarding how to categorize certain ‫הרמב”ן לתורה היה הולך לאיבוד אני‬
holiness and dignity of the Land. mitzvot, the Talmud makes it clear ‫מרגיש שהייתה קטסרופה … דמותו‬
Ramban elaborates on this idea in an that there is a subset of mitzvot that ‫של הרמב”ן ופירושו לתורה מעמידים‬
additional context. The Torah records one is only obligated to fulfill inside … ‫את עולמו הרוחני של עם ישראל‬
G-d’s especially harsh punishment of of Israel. On a basic level, Israel is ‫ הרמב”ן הוא חיבור‬,‫מבחינה היסטורית‬
the people of Sedom. The Ramban significant because it is a Land in ‫ חיבור‬,‫של תורת אשכנז ותורת ספרד‬
(Breishit 19:5) describes the moral which one has the opportunity to ‫ חיבור של כל‬,‫של רש”י ואבן עזרא‬
depravity of the people of Sedom, but fulfill a greater amount of mitzvot. ‫ יש בו‬.‫ אבל לא זו בלבד‬.‫מיני מקומות‬
also shares an additional dimension The Sifrei5 extends this concept in a ‫ סינתזה‬,‫גם סינתזה מורכבת הרבה יותר‬
in clarifying why G-d’s reaction fairly drastic manner. The Sifrei states .‫מבחינת התחומים‬
was so swift and severe. The ethical the purpose of mitzvah fulfillment in ‫ שיחות עם‬- ”‫מתוך ספר “מבקשי פניך‬
corruption, the Ramban explains, was chutz la’aretz is to prepare us for our 40 ’‫ עמ‬,‫הרב אהרן ליכטנשטיין‬
intolerable to the Land of Israel. The eventual return to Israel. The startling If the Guide for the Perplexed
holy Land of Israel, the Land that is perspective that emerges from this would have been destroyed
referred to as “nachalat Hashem,” the Sifrei is that mitzvah performance (and never published), it would
portion of Hashem, simply cannot outside the Land of Israel has no have been a loss, but not a huge
bear sin and corruption. intrinsic value. If that is the case, why, loss. The [Torah theology of
according to the Sifrei, must Jews the] nation of Israel would have
The Status of Mitzvah continue to observe mitzvot when in been sustained. However, if the
Performance Inside and chutz la’aretz? The Sifrei explains that commentary of Ramban on the
Outside of Israel it is important for Diaspora Jewry to Torah would have been destroyed,
flex their religious muscles so that I feel that it would have been
A further dimension of the when the time comes that mitzvah catastrophic … The image of the
distinctiveness of Eretz Yisrael relates observance actually matters, i.e. when Ramban and his commentary to
to the performance of mitzvot in and we return to Eretz Yisrael, we will be the Torah support the spiritual
out of the Land. In the same way that religiously “in shape” and capable of world of the Jewish nation …
sinful behavior may be more egregious meticulously performing mitzvot. From a historical perspective,
when performed in the Land of Israel, Needless to say, the extent to which the [commentary of] Ramban
so too, fulfillment of mitzvot in the the Sifrei downplays the significance is an amalgamation of the Torah
Land of Israel may possess a special of mitzvah observance in chutz la’aretz of Germany and the Torah of
quality. In order to better understand is quite surprising. Indeed, many Spain, of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, of
this issue, we will first explore the statements of Chazal seem to suggest all different places. But this is
views of other Jewish thinkers and that mitzvah performance in chutz not all. It also contains a multi-
we will then return to the unique la’aretz is absolutely valuable. Many layered synthesis, a synthesis of
approach of the Ramban. commentators attempt to mitigate disciplines....
The Torah commands us to perform the implication of the Sifrei, as they From Mevakshei Panecha: Sichot Im
613 mitzvot. The mishna in Kiddushin4 perceive it inconceivable that the Sifrei HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein p. 40
distinguishes between two kinds of actually intends to so significantly
mitzvot, those that are dependent downgrade the value of mitzvot Rabbeinu Hillel6 suggests that the
on the Land of Israel (mitzvot outside of Israel. Sifrei’s comment is limited to mitzvot

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Yom Haatzmaut 5777
hat’luyot ba’aretz. Even though Since the essence of all of the we await a return to a more ideal life in
technically these mitzvot are only commandments are for those who are our national homeland. This perspective
binding in Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish dwelling in the Land of the Lord. And seems puzzling, as the mitzvot cited
people should continue to observe therefore they said in Sifrei “’And you as examples—tefilin, mezuzah—do
them even in chutz la’aretz in shall possess it and you shall dwell in it. not have any obvious link to Eretz
preparation for our eventual return And you will guard to keep.’—Dwelling Yisrael. Indeed, the Gera (Kol Eliyahu,
to Israel. Other mitzvot, though, do in the Land of Israel is equal to all of the Eikev) and others (Beit ha-Levi 3:1)
have inherent value outside of Israel, [other] commandments in the Torah.” proposed alternate explanations of the
as their performance is not tied to a Sifrei. However, it is possible that the
The Ramban himself admits that
particular geographical location. Sifrei needs to be understood precisely
yes, on a technical level, all mitzvot
within the context of the second section
Radbaz7 offers an alternate that are not dependent on the Land
of Keriyat Shema where it appears. It
explanation.8 According to the Radbaz, of Israel are binding wherever in the
is evident as Rashi (11:13) also notes
the obligation to fulfill the Torah’s world one may find oneself.9 But
that this section (contrasted with the first
mitzvot applies universally. However, on a metaphysical level, one cannot
part of Shema in Vaetchanan), which
the Sifrei is highlighting a technical compare mitzvot observed in Israel
focuses on kabbalat ol mitzvot (Berachot
reality that may have implications with mitzvot observed in chutz la’aretz.
13a—the commitment to implement the
for our ability to perform mitzvot in The same technical behavior assumes
Torah’s norms), is addressed collectively
chutz la’aretz. Due to the hardship a completely different spiritual status,
to the entire nation. Even mitzvot that
of the exile, it may be challenging depending on whether it is performed
devolve upon individuals are enhanced
for Jews to keep all the mitzvot. We in the Land of Israel. The holiness
in a national-collective setting. The Sifrei
may therefore acquire the status of of the Land alters and elevates each
declares that this communal dimension
ones—one who is unable to perform mitzvah that is observed on its soil.10
of personal mitzvot is primarily attained
mitzvot due to factors beyond his/
only in Eretz Yisrael, although as
her control. Therefore, this distinction The Communal Impact individual performances there is no
between mitzvah performance in and
particular link to the Land.
out of Eretz Yisrael has no bearing Rav Michael Rosensweig11 offers
on the intrinsic value of the mitzvah an additional perspective on the Some explain the limitation that the
fulfillment; rather, it points to a aforementioned Sifrei, one that while Sifrei places upon mitzvot performed
difference in pragmatic realities, which, not explicitly stated by the Ramban, in chutz la’aretz as referring to
in turn, affects one’s level of obligation.certainly dovetails nicely with the mitzvot hateluyot ba’aretz; others
Ramban’s overall perspective. As refer to the pragmatic limitations
In contrast to Rabbeinu Hillel and the
noted above, the Ramban maintains when living under foreign rule. Rav
Radbaz, who unequivocally mitigate
that one is permitted to ask a non-Jew Rosensweig highlights an additional
the ideas expressed by the Sifrei, the
limitation on mitzvah performance
Ramban on Vayikra 18:25 embraces the to perform a melacha on Shabbos in
in chutz la’aretz, or, concomitantly,
simple reading of the Sifrei as expressing order to secure land purchase in Eretz
Yisrael. This, as Rabbi Jachter notes, is an additional benefit to performing
an important element of truth. The
mitzvot in Israel. While the individual
Ramban quotes the idea that mitzvot in reflective of the significance of Jewish
can perform mitzvot on a personal
chutz la’aretz serve as practice for when presence in Israel, not only at the level
level anywhere in the world, there is
we return to Eretz Yisrael, and connects of the individual fulfilling a mitzvah,
but as benefiting the collective Jewish a communal dimension to mitzvah
this to the notion that the Land of
nation. Rav Rosensweig explains the performance that only exists in Eretz
Israel has a higher degree of Divine
Sifrei based on a similar observation: Yisrael. Fulfillment of mitzvot in
providence and closeness:
chutz la’aretz contributes to one’s
.’‫ כי עיקר כל המצות ליושבים בארץ ה‬The Sifrei in parshat Eikev (also cited own personal religious development,
‫ וירשתם אותה‬,)‫ ולפיכך אמרו בספרי (ראה פ‬by Rashi and Ramban Devarim 11:18) while mitzvah performance in Israel
‫ וישבתם בה ושמרתם לעשות (דברים יא לא‬strongly implies that our performance imbues a national significance into the
‫ ישיבת ארץ ישראל שקולה כנגד כל‬,)‫ לב‬of halakhic norms outside of Eretz personal fulfillment of mitzvot.
.‫ המצות שבתורה‬Yisrael serves a preparatory function as

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Yom Haatzmaut 5777
Conclusion favorably, as compared to the American Endnotes
scene: widespread popular talmud Torah,
The Torah is unequivocal in the interaction of the Torah and general 1 Hasagot to Sefer HaMitzvot, Pos. Mitzvah
attributing Eretz Yisrael with no. 4.
communities in the implementation of
an elevated spiritual status. The Hoshen Mishpat etc. Every reply was 2 See the Ramban’s commentary to Shabbat
Ramban uncovers and elaborates 130b.
rebutted with the comment that its subject
on the unique holiness associated could have been found in Eastern Europe 3 Jachter, H. (2003). Living in Yesha During
with Eretz Yisrael. From a halachic as well, and so was neither endemic nor Dangerous Times, Kol torah: A student
perspective, the Ramban decisively publication of the Isaac and Mara Benmergui
unique to Eretz Israel. When he sensed Torah Academy of Bergen County, 12(14).
rules that inhabiting the Land of that I had exhausted my material, he
Israel is a fulfillment of a positive 4 36b.
pressed on, inquiring as to what indeed
commandment, one that may have a was special about my visit, and, when it 5 Parshat Ekev no. 43, cited by Rashi on
higher degree of import than other became clear that I could, at best, only Devarim 11:18.
mitzvot. On a metaphysical plane, the respond feebly, the Rosh Yeshiva opened 6 Sifrei ad loc.
Ramban describes the elevated degree with a volley of sources and dicta—the 7 Shut Radbaz 6:2154.
of Divine providence and spirituality, description of Eretz Israel as ’‫ארץ אשר ה‬
8 Maharal (Gur Aryeh Devarim ad loc) offers
one that enhances the quality of ‫לקיך דרש אתה‬-‫( א‬a land that Hashem a similar suggestion to Radbaz.
mitzvot performed within the Land your God cares for), or as that to which
of Israel. Finally, the words of the 9 See the Ramban on Devarim 4:5.
Moshe and Aharon had been barred
Ramban suggest that inhabiting the access, which was now open to us (‫דוכתא‬ 10 These ideas relate to the Ramban’s position
land and observing mitzvot within its on the famous question regarding whether
‫ )דמשה ואהרן לא זכו לה — כתובות קיב‬all
the Avot and Imahot observed the Torah as
borders achieve a national-collective trumpeting forth the sacral, metaphysical, we know it. The Ramban (Bereishit 26:5)
objective that is not attainable and historical uniqueness of the land and maintains that they only fully kept the Torah
anywhere else in the world. all causing me to realize, in a flash, that I in the Land of Israel. The Ramban points
had missed the boat entirely. As he railed to certain instances in the lives of the Avot
In the view of the Ramban, no place and Imahot that support this notion. For
allows us to better experience the on, as perhaps only he could, against
example, when Yaakov is entering Eretz
Divine presence and more effectively tourists he had met on the plane, acting Yisrael, he instructs his family members
actualize our individual and national and talking as if they were en route to to divest themselves of any possessions
spiritual potential than the Land of vacation in California, the sense of failure that are associated with idolatry (Bereishit
cut deeper and deeper. I walked out into 25:2). Wouldn’t propriety of such items
Israel. Reflecting upon an interaction be inappropriate at any point in time? The
with Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l in the Beit Hakerem evening air like a beaten
Ramban explains that because they were
1962, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein12 dog. But I knew I had been beaten justly; on the cusp of entering Eretz Yisrael, they
beautifully recounts an encounter that and today, almost forty-five years later, I augmented their meticulousness in mitzvah
highlights this perspective: remain deeply grateful to the Rosh Yeshiva observance. Similarly, the Ramban sheds light
for opening my eyes and for opening my on the time and place of the death of Rachel
In the course of my initial visit to Israel, heart. Imeinu. The Torah prohibits a man from
during the summer of 1962, I went to marrying two sisters. If so, how could Yaakov
Rav Hutner zt”l was emphasizing the Avinu have been married to two sisters? The
visit mori verabbi, Rav Y. Hutner zt”l, Ramban explains that this was only the case in
who, prior to his aliya, often spent the qualitative and categorical difference
chutz la’aretz, as Rachel Imeinu passed away
summer at Pension Reich in Jerusalem. between the Land of Israel and all immediately upon entering the Land.
After reproaching me gently for having other lands. Additionally, he was
11 Rosensweig, M. (2004). The central role
left my wife in the United States (‫אזא‬ alluding to the covert nature of this
of Eretz Yisrael in Torah life. Retrieved from:
‫)?כתובה האסטו געשריבען‬, he began to unique status. Seen through the lens
question me regarding my impressions— of casual eyes, one may see rocks parsha/rros_beraishis.html.
particularly, about what had struck my and shrubs and deserts like in many 12 Lichtenstein, A. (2008). Diaspora
notice especially. geographical regions of the world. Religious Zionism: Some current reflections.
As, at that stage, I had focused upon the But when viewing Eretz Yisrael In C. A. Waxman (Ed.), Religious Zionism
through spiritually astute eyes, one post engagement: Future directions (pp. 31-56).
Torah world in Israel, I noted a number Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, Inc.
of phenomena which had struck me sees G-d’s presence and closeness and
endowment of spiritual opportunity.

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Yom Haatzmaut 5777