What are the ‘Three Oaths’?
Ultra-orthodox Jewish groups like Satmar and Neturei Karta have built entire religions around a single passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Ketubot 110b – Ketubot 111a) known as the ‘Three Oaths’.
Before exploring this subject further, we need to first understand what the Talmud is. Jewish law comes in two parts; the Written Law (the Torah) and the Oral Law (it’s explanation). The Talmud contains the Oral Law, capturing the legal rulings of the Supreme Court (Beth Din HaGadol) that stretched from the fifth century kallot of Rav Ashi and Ravina all the way back to Moses and the seventy elders. Although the Talmud’s primary function is to record Jewish Law (halacha), it also records the non-legal statements of the rabbis of that period (aggadata).
In this particular Talmudic discussion a baraita (a particular type of authoritative source) is introduced. This baraita teaches that “A [Jew] should always reside in the Land of Israel, even in a city that is mostly populated by gentiles, and he should not reside outside of the Land of Israel, even in a city that is mostly populated by Jews”. It is prefixed with the words tanu rabbanan (‘thus the rabbis recited’), an expression only ever used to indicate when a rabbinic position has been accepted by all of the National Academies (Yeshivot). When it comes to determine how authoritative a baraita is – this is the golden seal.
In short, this complex legal jargon was establishing a legal requirement for Jews to reside in the Land of Israel.
As is the way of the Talmud, this idea initiated a conversation between the amoraim (Talmudic rabbis). Rabbi Zeira – who desired to live in Israel and Rav Yehuda – who believed Jews were obligated to remain exiled in Babylon. Rav Yehuda argued that under no circumstance can the Jews move to Israel before the redemption. To this position Rabbi Zeira introduced a line from the Torah, which became known as the ‘Three Oaths’, which he believed put restrictions on Rav Yehuda’s belief. The verse said as follows: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles and by the hinds of the field, that you not awaken or stir up love, until it please” (Song of Songs 2:7).
Rabbi Zeira interpreted the ‘Three Oaths’ to mean:
- The Jews should not rise like a wall (e.g. move to Israel en masse)
- The Jews should not rebel against the nations of the world
- The nations of the world will not excessively oppress Israel
At this point, you may be struggling to identify what the law actually is. We’ll break it down into two simple parts:
- Law As the baraita said Jews need to live in Israel, this legally is binding on all Jews as it was accepted by all of the Yeshivot.
- Opinion:The ‘Three Oaths’ that Rabbi Zeira mentioned are not halacha, they are his opinion.1 There is absolutely no obligation for Jews to follow the opinion of one rabbi. We never treat solitary opinions as law, if we did Judaism would be a tapestry of contradictions and chaos.
So if the ‘Three Oaths’ are not halacha, what are they? The famous codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides, provides an explanation in his Iggeret Teiman. In this work Maimonides describes the ‘Three Oaths’ as being “al derech mashal” (a parable). This parable teaches us not to antagonise those who are stronger than us. For a defenceless people living under the rule of mighty nations this is sensible advice. However, it is not Jewish law, which is why it was purposely left out of every major codification of Jewish law – including his own Mishneh Torah.
Rabbi Zeira changes his mind
The author of the Three Oaths himself actually recanted. The author of the Three Oaths was Rabbi Zeira. But elsewhere, Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 8:11 says that when Rabbi Zeira moved from Babylonia to Israel, he changed his opinion and said that Jews should have risen “like a wall” (i.e. en masse) from Babylonia to Israel. To quote Rabbi Aviner:
Thus it is related in the Midrash: ‘If it is a wall,’ if Israel would have ascended like a wall from Babylonia, the Temple would not have been destroyed during that period for a second time. Rabbi Zeira went to the marketplace to buy something. He said to the one who was weighing: That was weighed very fairly. He responded: Do not depart from here Babylonian because your ancestors destroyed the Temple. At that moment Rabbi Zeira said, are not my ancestors the same as the ancestors of this one?! Rabbi Zeira entered the house of study and heard the voice of Rabbi Sheila who was sitting and teaching: ‘If it is a wall,’ if Israel would have ascended like a wall from the Exile, the Temple would not have been destroyed a second time. He said: The unlearned person taught me well.
Summary of the ‘Three Oaths’
- The ‘Three Oaths’ are not Jewish law, they are aggadata.
- The prelude to the ‘Three Oaths’ is binding law. This prelude commands Jews to live in the land and forbids them from leaving it.
- The rabbi that spoke of the ‘Three Oaths’ changed his mind and moved to Israel.
More about Judaism and Zionism here:
- Do Orthodox Jews support Israel?
- Is it true that the Torah forbids a Jewish State?
- Three Oaths - Does the Talmud forbid a Jewish State?
- Before Zionism did orthodox rabbis forbid living in Israel?
1. Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in his letter to the Keren Hayesod