Numbers 33:53 and the Mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael

1. Introduction

This dvar deals with the question of whether living in the Land of Israel is a mitzvah according to traditional rabbinical sources. The Hebrew term for this topic is "Yishuv Eretz Yisrael". It is important here to distinguish between a mitzvah in the formal sense (i.e. one of the 613 Biblical and seven rabbinical commandments and their consequences)  and a simple meritorious act.  In a previous dvar, several years ago, I discussed the topic of pilgrimage in Judaism. My conclusions were that when the Temple existed, there was a mitzvah of pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the Shalosh Regalim, (Aliyah Leregel), but not to any other holy places. After the destruction of Temple , pilgrimage has remained as part of the folk religion and also has mystical significance. Moreover, it serves to enhance the natural bond between the Jewish people and its historical homeland, outside of any religious considerations. However, it is no longer a mitzvah in the formal sense. Living in Israel on a permanent basis is a separate issue.  

2. Biblical View

The popular conception suggested by numerous Biblical passages is that the Land of Israel is a gift from God to the Jewish people, based on promises to the patriarchs. In the book of Genesis this promise appears to be unconditional. In the other books of the Pentateuch, it becomes evident that the promise is contingent on Israel following the laws of the Torah. The Land of Israel is therefore both a gift and a reward for observing the commandments. However there are also passages which suggest that living in Israel is, in itself, a commandment. The most important of these is: Numbers 33:53.

נב והורשתם את-כל-ישבי הארץ, מפניכם, ואבדתם, את כל-משכיתם; ואת כל-צלמי מסכתם תאבדו, ואת כל-במותם תשמידו. 
נג והורשתם את-הארץ, וישבתם-בה:  כי לכם נתתי את-הארץ, לרשת אתה 

Reference [3] refers to it as the "central verse in the Torah for deriving this commandment":

הפסוק המרכזי בתורה, שממנו נלמדת מצווה זו, הריהו בסוף ספר במדבר, פרק לג', פסוק נג

The translations differ on the meaning of the verb "vehorashtem" in verse 53.  Two typical examples are:

King James Version   Numbers 33
52.  Then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their pictures, and destroy all their molten images, and quite pluck down all their high places: 53.  And ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein: for I have given you the land to possess it.

New American Standard Bible   Numbers 33
52.  then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; 53.  and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.

Note that "horashtem" is the HIPHIL (causative) form of the verb "yarosh" meaning to inherit. If the standard pattern of HIPHIL were followed,  "vehorashtem" would mean: you shall pass on as an inheritance (to your children) i.e. bequeath. This use does occur in Ezra 9:12

".. that ye may be strong, and eat the good of the land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever"

However, in most cases "vehorashtem" means to drive out or disposes, as all agree it does in the previous verse (NUM:33:52).  The KJV,  Webster's Bible,  JPS(1917), Hertz et. al. use this latter interpretation. Other translations (e.g. NAS, Darby, NJV-Etz Chaim) read it as "You shall take possession" - i.e. a sense similar to the "binyan kal".

It is interesting to note that although the Aramaic targums, Onqelos and Pseudo-Jonathan, read ותתרכון i.e. "drive out",  there is also a variant reading of Onqelos which has  ׳ותרתון i.e. "you shall take possession" [8], the same word used in Deut. 11:31 for the Kal form..

(See reference [4] for a further discussion of the biblical use of this verb.)

The meaning of the next verb phrase - "veyeshavtem ba" (you shall live or dwell in it) is also uncertain because it can interpreted as either a command or a promise. While Biblical Hebrew does have an imperative mood, it is not used with the inverting vav ("vav-hahipuch"). The form used here does not differentiate between the future and the imperative.

3. Medieval Commentaries

Two views stand out among the classical medieval Jewish Bible commentators:

A:  Rashi (1040-1105) interprets "vehorashtem" as a command to drive out the Canaanites and "veyeshavtem ba" as a promise:

RASHI:Numbers 33:53

נג) והורשתם את הארץ - והורשתם אותה מיושביה ואז וישבתם בה, תוכלו להתקיים בה, ואם לאו לא תוכלו להתקיים בה

53. And you shall clear out the Land. You shall vacate it of its inhabitants, and then you shall “settle in it.” Only then will you be able to survive there, but if you do not do this, you will be unable to survive there. Verse 53: Drive out [the inhabitants of] the land.

B: RAMBAN  ( a.k.a.  Nahmanides )(1194-1270) taking issue with Rashi,  interprets "vehorashtem" as a command to take possession of the land (as in NAS, Etz Chaim, et. al.) and "veyeshavtem ba" as a command to dwell in it [11].

In his commentary on Maimonides' Sefer Hamitzvot (Enumeration of the 613 Commandments), Nahmanides discusses this topic in greater detail and criticizes Maimonides for not including the commandment to dwell in the Land of Israel in the list of positive commandments.

4. Talmudic Literature

It is unclear whether the Rabbis of the Talmud considered Yishuv Eretz Yisrael to be a mitzvah, binding for all time, or just an important goal with Halachic implications. It is interesting to note that much of the material related to this question occurs at the end of tractate Ketubot, dealing with marriage contracts. This is because, in general, the Halachah grants a woman the right to refuse her husband's request to move to another country. However, if he wishes to move to Israel , the wife must agree or lose the value of her Ketubah. Similarly, if the wife decides to live in Israel , the husband must go with her or pay her the value the Ketubah. Remarkably, if the couple already resides in Israel and one of the spouses wishes to move to Jerusalem , the same considerations apply. Ramban in his commentary uses this as one the proofs that the Talmudic rabbis considered Yishuv Eretz Yisrael to be a mitzvah.

Still more remarkable, is that a similar law also applies to a slave, which according to most commentaries (other than Rashi in Ketubot 110b) - means a non Jewish slave. Thus if a slave wishes to perform Aliyah, the owner must go along or sell the slave to someone who is willing to go. This ruling is given in identical language in both Maimonides' Code (Hilchot Avadim 8:10) and the Shulhan Arukh ( Yoreh Deah 267:85 ) and both codes take pains to specify that the law actually applies to their own time, when the Land of Israel was not under Jewish sovereignty. [9]. What makes this so interesting, is that it attaches an importance to living in Israel that also applies to non-Jews. This principle is confirmed by Rabbi Abbahu's claim in Ketubot 111a: that:

"Even a Canaanite bondwoman who [lives] in the Land of Israel is assured of a place in the world to come,"

דאמר ר' אבהו אפילו שפחה כנענית שבא"י מובטח לה שהיא בת העולם הבא

5 . Contemporary Issues

One must differentiate between living in Israel as a mitzvah directed at individuals and collectively taking possession of the land by setting up a state, particularly if the latter option requires military force. The religious Zionists use the Ramban's writings to support their position, [1],[3]. In particular they are inspired by his use of the term "Kibbush Eretz Yisrael -. the conquest of the Land of Israel" in addition to "Yishuv Eretz  Yisreal - dwelling in the ..." and also the phrase "Milchemet Mitzvah - i.e. a war that is a Mitzvah",  in his commentary to Maimonides' Sefer Hamizvot. (Yes, Christianity has the crusade, Islam the jihad/holy war and Judaism the Milchemet Mitzvah).

The religious anti-Zionists base their halachic argument on the "Three Strong Oaths" - a midrashic interpretation of Song of Songs 2:7, (given in Ketubot 111a and in other Midrashim ) which effectively forbids the Jews from rebelling against the nations of the world by attempting to recapture the Land of Israel  by force. They cite numerous examples, starting with Maimonides' Iggeret Taiman, to show that this Midrash was taken seriously by rabbinical authorities throughout history [5]. They also accuse the religious Zionists of distorting the Ramban's views [6],[7]. They fail, however, to take into account the historical context in which this Midrash was probably formulated - i.e. the period following the destruction of Betar, when the Rabbis wanted to discourage any further rebellion against Rome .

6. Conclusions - Theory Versus Practice

Traditional Jewish sources are filled with teachings extolling the virtues of dwelling in the Land of Israel [1],[2],[3] .  However, prior to the modern era the number of olim was quite small. This can be attributed to the dangers of travel and poor economic conditions in Israel . In fact, according to Tosafot on Ketubot 110b, the family law aspects discussed in section 4, did not apply in their time because of what they referred to as "סכנת דרכים " i.e. "the perils of the roads". In spite of these perils, some did make the journey, often to seek refuge from persecution.. Maimonides travelled to Israel after fleeing from Morocco and lived there briefly, before settling in Egypt . Nahmanides was forced to leave Spain at age 72, after his celebrated religious disputation. He settled in Israel and contributed to the restoration of the Jewish community in Jerusalem [10]. Another famous medieval oleh was Rabbi Judah Halevi (1085-1142). In his philosophical treatise  "The Kuzari", written in the form of a dialogue between the pagan king of the Khazars and a Jewish sage, he criticizes his contemporaries for "talking the talk" while failing to "walk the walk". In sections II 23-24, after a hearing  a long exposition on the merits of the Holy Land, the king tells the sage:

" If this be so,  thou fallest short of thy religious duty by not endeavoring to reach that place and make it thy abode in life and death, although thou sayest: 'Have mercy on Zion, for it is the house of our life' and thou believest that the Shekinah will return thither".

 The sage replies:

"this is a justified reproach O King of the Khazars!"

 and concludes the discussion with the claim that when people mention Zion in their prayers but do not go there:

 " this is but as the chattering of a parrot or the chirping of a starling".

כן אין הדברים שאנו אומרים בתפלותינו השתחוו להר קדשו והשתחוו להדם רגליו והמחזיר שכינתו לציון וכדומה כי אם כדבור התכי וכצפצוף הזרזיר כי בלא כונת הלב אנו אומרים דברים אלה או דומיהם כאשר העירות בצדק שר הכוזרים

7. References


The Mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael


מצוות ישוב ארץ ישראל בראיה היסטורית

ירמיהו מלחי

 תשנ"ד ז-ח


מצוות כיבוש ארץ ישראל ויישובה

יהודה מוריאל

 סיון תשל"ז


הוריש - שלוש משמעויות


Three Strong Oaths


בענין סילוף דברי הרמב''ן במצות עשה ד' של ישוב ארץ ישראל


Yishuv Eretz Yisrael


The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon


 Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avadim 8:11

עבד שאמר לעלות לארץ ישראל--כופין את רבו לעלות עימו, או ימכור אותו למי שיעלהו לשם רצה האדון לצאת לחוצה לארץ--אינו יכול להוציא את עבדו, עד שירצה העבד. ודין זה בכל זמן, אפילו בזמן הזה, שהארץ ביד גויים


How Nachmanides Rebuilt Jerusalem .


Ramban's Commentary on Numbers 33:53

רמב"ן על במדבר פרק לג פסוק נג
(נג) והורשתם את הארץ וישבתם בה כי לכם נתתי את הארץ לרשת אתה על דעתי זו מצות עשה היא, יצוה אותם שישבו בארץ ויירשו אותה כי הוא נתנה להם, ולא ימאסו בנחלת ה' ואלו יעלה על דעתם ללכת ולכבוש ארץ שנער או ארץ אשור וזולתן ולהתישב שם, יעברו על מצות ה' ומה שהפליגו רבותינו (כתובות קי:) במצות הישיבה בארץ ישראל ושאסור לצאת ממנה, וידונו כמורדת האשה שאינה רוצה לעלות עם בעלה לארץ ישראל, וכן האיש, בכאן נצטווינו במצוה הזו, כי הכתוב הזה היא מצות עשה ויחזיר המצוה הזו במקומות רבים, באו ורשו את הארץ (דברים א ח) אבל רש"י פירש, והורשתם את הארץ, והורשתם אותה מיושביה, אז וישבתם בה, תוכלו להתקיים בה, ואם לאו לא תוכלו להתקיים בה, ומה שפירשנו הוא העיקר: