“You shall possess the Land, and you shall settle in it, for to you have I given the Land to possess it.” (Bamidbar Chapter 33 Verse 53) The Ramban Comments:
“In my opinion this is a positive commandment, in which Hashem is commanding Am Yisrael to live in the Land and inherit it, because He has given it to them, they should therefore not reject ‘the inheritance of the Eternal’. Thus, if the thought occurs to them to go and conquer the land of Shinar or the land of Assyria or any other country and to settle there, they will be transgressing the commandment of G-d. And that which our Rabbis have emphasized, the significance of the commandment of settling in the Land of Israel, and that it is forbidden to leave it, except for certain specified reasons, and the fact that they consider a women who does not want to emigrate with her husband to live in the Land of Israel as a ‘rebellious wife’, and likewise the man – the source of all these statements is here in this verse, where we have been given this commandment, for this very verse constitutes a positive commandment…..Our interpretation of the verse is the principal one.”
These words of the Ramban are repeated in detail in his comments to the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot, at the end of the fourth Mitzvat Aseh.
As we are all well aware, the stand of Rambam on this issue is far from clear. It would certainly appear by the mere fact that Rambam leaves this Mitzvah out when counting the 613 commandments that he is of an opinion contrary to that of Ramban, and that there is in fact no positive commandment to settle the Land of Israel.
Indeed the Megillat Esther, a famous commentary to the Sefer Hamitzvot of the Rambam, takes issue with the Ramban in support of the apparently obvious position of the Rambam.
The Megillat Esther states: “That it appears to me that the fact that Rambam excludes the commandment of settling the Land from the 613 Mitzvot, is due to the fact that this was a commandment only during the earlier generations of Moshe, Yehoshua and David. The Mitzvah remained in tact until the exile. However, once Am Yisrael went into exile, this Mitzvah was indeed suspended until the coming of Mashiach. On the contrary, it would appear from the Talmud at the end of Massechet Ketubot that we are forbidden to return en masse to Eretz Yisrael until ‘the end of days’. The fact that our Rabbis praised the idea of living in Israel was clearly referring to the times when the Temple was still standing, however, nowadays there is no such Mitzvah. This is also the opinion of Tosafot in Ketubot (10b)….”
Rabbi Teichtal, in his beautiful work “Eim Habanim Semeicha” disputes the rationale of the Megillat Esther. He is of the opinion that Rambam, in actual fact agrees that settling in the Land of Israel is a positive commandment, he comments:
“I am amazed at the Gaon Megillat Esther, and his understanding of Rambam that not only is there no commandment to settle in Israel, it is in fact a transgression. How could one possibly interpret Rambam in this way?
Regarding the Mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh (Mitzvah 153), Rambam writes, that our accounting for the calendar in the exile is of no consequence. We are reliant totally on the accounting of those in Eretz Yisrael. If there were no Jews living in Eretz Yisrael, our calendar in the Diaspora would be null and void, ‘For out of Zion comes the Torah’. From these comments of Rambam, we can see how inherently important it is that Jews live in Eretz Yisrael.
I would like to add further in the name of the Chatam Sofer, who when quoting the above Rambam stated quite categorically, that even though Hillel and his colleagues sanctified all of the months in advance until the coming of Mashiach, nevertheless, the acts of Hillel are only relevant, if there are Jews living in Israel.
Similarly, the Gaon Sdeh Chemed in quoting the Chatam Sofer emphasizes that it is not only important to encourage settling in Israel for the sake of the actual Mitzvah, it is of essential importance for the ultimate spiritual survival of Am Yisrael, for if there are no Jews in Eretz Yisrael the Jews in exile cannot halachikally function. The Chidah adds that because of the Rambam’s view we must endeavor to ensure that there should always be Jews living in Israel.
The reason as to why Rambam excluded this Mitzvah from his accounting of the 613 commandments, is not due to the fact that he does not view settling in Eretz Yisrael as a Mitzvah, as is claimed by Megillat Esther, but because the commandment to live in Israel is a general commandment, and is so fundamental that according to the requirements set out by Rambam before starting his account of the 613 Mitzvot, it was not necessary to be counted. Indeed we can see from Rambam’s words on Kiddush Hachodesh, how fundamental for the nation as a whole living in Eretz Yisrael actually is.”
Regarding the other claim of Megillat Esther that this Mitzvah is not relevant during times of exile, a view that is indeed reflected in the Tosfot (Ketubot 110b). It would appear that the Shulchan Aruch disagrees, in that, he clearly states in Even Haezer Chapter75 Halacha 4 that: Refusal of either the husband or wife to go and live in Israel can be clearly used as grounds for divorce. If the wife refused to leave, her husband can divorce her without any obligation to pay the Ketubah fee. Similarly, if the husband refuses the wife’s request to immigrate to Israel she can invoke divorce, and receive her full rights.
The Pitchei Teshuva adds numerous sources in support of the view that it is indeed a Mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael: “In the responsa of the Meil Tsedaka: The Rav dealt with a situation regarding three people who wished to immigrate to Israel together with their wives and children, (the children were aged between two and three years), the regional Beth Din were of the opinion that due to the various dangers involved, the families were forbidden to leave the relative safety of their homes in order to journey to Eretz Yisrael. However, the Meil Tsedaka ruled differently, quoting the Ramban, that it is in fact a Mitzvah to settle in Israel, and that this is a Mitzvah equal to all other Mitzvot put together. The Meil Tsedaka also quotes a number of other responsa questioning the authenticity of the Tosfot in Ketubot.
Indeed the Pitchai Teshuva goes on to state that it is the view of all the Poskim, Rishonim and Acharonim, that one can force husband or wife to immigrate with their spouse to Eretz Yisrael. To claim that this Mitzvah is suspended when we are in exile, because of dangers, seems strange, particularly, when it was no less dangerous during the time of the Temple, and there is no opinion that would suggest that the Mitzvah was suspended then.
Therefore, even if a regional Beth Din were to forbid families to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael because of the possible dangers, such families could surely rely on all of the above sources, and nevertheless make the journey to Israel, thus fulfilling a positive commandment.
We can see that according to the vast majority of opinions living in Eretz Yisrael is an ideal that we should all endeavor to fulfil. It is a Mitzvah unlike any other; it is a national Mitzvah, to the extent that if there were no Jews living in Eretz Yisrael, it would, according to Rambam, Chatam Sofer, and the Chidah, actually undermine our existence.
We must therefore, at the least, apply ourselves to this Mitzvah as we apply ourselves to Shabbat, Kashrut, and other fundamental commandments. In fact, at a time when our rights to our Land are being so vigorously questioned, not just by our neighbors, but also by the United Nations, to my mind, we must show extra zerizut in relation to this Mitzvah. Would we ever contemplate not keeping Shabbat or wearing Tefillin if the nations attacked us for it, our behavior regarding Eretz Yisrael should certainly be no different.
Even if reality makes it difficult to fulfill the Mitzvah at present, we must encourage and strengthen the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael. Even if our current situation dictates that we remain temporarily in exile, we must remember the words of Ramban:
“Thus if the thought occurs to them to go and conquer the land of Shinar or the land of Assyria, or any other country and to settle therein, they are thereby transgressing the commandment of G-d”.
We must not “settle therein”, that is the transgression that the Ramban refers to. The Diaspora must never become a long- term viable alternative to our Homeland, we do not live there in order “to conquer”, our objective should not be to elect a “Jewish President”. We must always view our residence in chutz la’aretz as a station and not a destination; we should be ‘strangers in a strange land’. Our eyes are always to Zion, we must remember that wherever we maybe, and for whatever reason that we are there, that we only have one true home.
Yet that is not enough. It is not enough merely to settle in Eretz Yisrael, physically. As Rav Zevin comments so beautifully:
Eretz Yisrael is inherently holy, but we must also infuse holiness into the Land. We cannot come to Israel and be less religious; on the contrary, due to the absolute holiness of our Land, we must be even more diligent in our performance of the Mitzvot.
Happy are we that we have merited in our day to be – Am Yisrael, B’Eretz Yisrael, Al Pi Torat Yisrael.