Before Zionism did orthodox rabbis forbid living in Israel?

All of the classic codifiers of Jewish law; the Halachot Gedalot, the Rif, the Rosh, the Tur, the Shulchan Aruch, the Rambam, the Mishnah Berurah etc. made no mention of a law preventing the Jewish people from establishing a state. This concept occurred much later in history and was largely an innovation of European rabbis.

In fact the opposite is true. Not only did no major rabbis forbid a Jewish State, almost all of them recorded moving to the Land of Israel as a religious obligation. But for many it wasn’t enough to simply codify the law, they decided to physically fulfill the obligation and move to Israel (the Ari, the Bartenura, Hayyim Abulafia, RadBaz, the Ramak, the Ramban, Yehuda Halevi, Yosef Saragossi, Yosef Karo, to name but a few). Some rabbis such as Yehudah heHasid and Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk even lead thousands of Jews from Europe to the Land of Israel.

At a time when European Jews faced great persecution, its rabbis would draw on the parable of the ‘Three Oaths’ to discourage their populations from raising armies to rebel against the nations.

We must prepare ourselves with prayer and gifts, but not with war. Scripture has prohibited this under oath

– Yehuda Ben Maharam Chalava, Imrei Shefer – Vayishlach

Rav on living in Israel

“‘And you shall inherit them and you shall dwell in their land’ (Deuteronomy 12:29). The dwelling in the Land of Israel is equal to all the mitzvot in the Torah.” (Sifre, Re’eh 80)

Rabbi Chiyya HaGadol on living in Israel

“A man should dwell in the Land of Israel, even in a city with a majority of non-Jews, rather than outside of the land, even in a city of Jews.” (Tosefta, Avoda Zara 5:2)

Nachmanides / Ramban on living in Israel

Nachmanides explicitly stated that Jews are commanded to not just dwell in the land, but to attempt its conquest the Land of Israel in every generation. In his glosses (Hashmatot) to Maimonides Sefer HaMitzvot on Positive Commandment #4 Nahmanides wrote:

That we are commanded to take possession of the Land which the Almighty, Blessed Be He, gave to our forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov; and not to abandon it to other nations, or to leave it desolate, as He said to them, You shall dispossess the inhabitants of the Land and dwell in it, for I have given the Land to you to possess it, (Numbers, 33:53) and he said, further, To Inherit the Land which I swore to your forefathers, (to give them,) behold, we are commanded with the conquest of the land in every generation.

Seven hundred years before Zionism arose as a political movement, long before the likes of Neturei Karta, Nahmanides explicitly stated that Jews are commanded to return to Israel in every generation and establish a Jewish State.

Maimonides / Rambam on living in Israel

Maimonides’ magnum opus was the Mishneh Torah, the first comprehensive code of Jewish law. In this work he meticulously records every law that was instituted from the time of Moses to the sealing of the Talmud. Nowhere in this great work is there any mention of law forbidding a Jewish State or returning to Israel en masse. In fact when we study the Mishneh Torah we find two laws that express the opposite idea.

  1. Jews are commanded to dwell in the Land of Israel.
  2. It is forbidden for a Jew to leave the land of Israel, except in certain pressing circumstances.

At all times, a person should dwell in the Land of Israel even in a city whose population is primarily gentile, rather than dwell in the Diaspora, even in a city whose population is primarily Jewish.

– Hilchot Melachim 5:12

It is forbidden to leave the Land of Israel for the Diaspora at all times except: to study Torah; to marry; or to save one’s property from the gentiles. After accomplishing these objectives, one must return to Eretz Yisrael.

– Hilchot Melachim 5:10

Maimonides discusses the ‘Three Oaths’ in his Iggeret Teiman. The Iggeret Teiman was a letter he wrote to the Jews of Yemen. In this letter he describes the Three Oaths as being “al derech mashal” (a parable) to teach us not to antagonise those that are stronger than us.

At that time the Yemenite community was suffering from a tyrant ruler obsessed with forcing Jews to convert to Islam by the sword. A messianic pretender had arisen in Yemen, during this time. So Maimonides explained how the pretender of Yemen was not the messiah; highlighting the danger the community faced if they entertained this fantasy. He provided a number of historical cases where messianic pretenders attracted the fury of gentile leaders. It was against this backdrop; a Messianic pretender and tyrannical ruler, that Maimonides used the ‘Three Oaths’, as a parable to persuade the Yemenite community not to rise up en masse or place their faith in this messianic pretender.

Yehuda HaLevi

My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west.
How can I find savour in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain

Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

Yehuda HaLevi on living in Israel

One of greatest Jewish philosophers and rabbis, Yehuda Halevi, was the proto-Zionist. After proclaiming his love for Israel throughout his life’s work. Unable to ignore the call of the Holy Land, Halevi, at the age of 60 left Spain to settle in the country of his dreams.

My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west.
How can I find savour in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain

In the following poem, Halevi, not content with making a personal pilgrimage to Israel, looks to awaken this same longing in others. He appears to encourage Jewish priests to their renew annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Seeing that all Israel bows toward the House of God, my heart yearned for my father’s house and my soul longed for the Holy Mountain – to prostrate myself to it nearby; among the priests where the ark lies buried, and say to the Lord: “Rise and have mercy on Zion! For your servants take delight in her stones and cherish her soil”

– A letter to Shmuel HaNagid, Chief Minister of the Kingdom of Granada

Solomon Ibn Verga on living in Israel

Solomon Ibn Verga spoke of great admiration for hundreds of rabbis who departed from Europe to settle in the land of Israel.

In the year 4971 [1211 C.E.] God inspired the rabbis of France and England to go to Jerusalem. They numbered more than 300 and were accorded great honor by the king. They built for themselves syngaogies and houses of study. Our teacher the great kohen R. Jonathan haKohen went there as well. A miracle occurred. They prayed for rain and were answered, and the name of Heaven was sanctified because of them.

The Vilna Gaon on living in Israel

Also the Vilna Gaon in the sefer Kol Hator says that the Jewish people should go to Israel with at least 600,000 Jews at one time. Incredibly this is the halachic definition of en masse.

“If it is possible to bring 600,000 Jews at one time to the [Land of Israel], it would have to be done immediately, because this number is a great and perfect strength to neutralize the Sitra Achra (dark forces) at the gates of Jerusalem. As a result, THE REDEMPTION WOULD BE COMPLETED IMMEDIATELY ‘with the clouds of Heaven’ (Sanhedrin 98a).

– Kol HaTor, Chapter 1:5

The Vilna Gaon writes in his commentary to Shir HaShirim 2:7 that The Oaths actually relate to the building of the Temple rather than to the settlement of the Land of Israel itself; The Oaths are warning us not to burst forth and build the Temple without Divine authorization through the message of a Prophet.

Rabbi Abraham Bornstein (d.1910),

The Head of the Rabbinic Court of Sochaczew, writes in his work “Avnei Neizer” that if the Jews ascend to the Land of Israel with the permission of the Gentile nations then it cannot be considered a strong-handed or rebellious act.(Avnei Neizer Y.D. 453) In addition, Rabbi Bornstein writes that in accordance with Jewish tradition one cannot derive Halacha from non-legal statements in the Talmud and therefore it would not be possible to apply legal legitimacy to The Three Oaths as that sections is an aggadata and therefore non-legal in nature. (ibid 454

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