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Maimonides and The Commandment to Conquer the Land

September 17, 2013

Much ink has been spilled about Maimonides’s decision to not include the apparent commandment to “take possession of the [promised] land and not leave it in the hands of other nations” in his list of 613 commandments of the Torah. Nahmanides, in his glosses to the Book of Commandments, takes Maimonides to task  for this omission, and there have been many wonderful responses written. What is clear is that the response of the Megillath Esther, which has usually been printed alongside Nahmanides’s glosses, is far from being a defense of Maimonides’s omission, and ignores other clear and unambiguous statements and writings of Maimonides. He basically concludes that if there ever was such a commandment, it has been suspended and will only be in force once again in Messianic times, and Maimonides himself claimed that he would not count commandments that were not eternal. The problem with this claim is that Maimonides makes very clear in his code that there are many commandments which, due to historical circumstances, may  become impossible to fulfill, but they are still counted and in force, each described in its place. He makes no such mention of an on-and-off commandment to possess the Land in his code, but he does mention that there are many specific and eternal commandments that are contingent on the Jewish people taking possession of the land.

Despite not counting taking possession of the land as a commandment, Maimonides still felt that the Jews were supposed to take possession and that one should, at any point in history, try to live in the Land of Israel. This is Touger’s translation of Kings and their Wars, Chapter 5:

Halacha 1

A king should not wage other wars before a milchemet mitzvah. What is considered as milchemet mitzvah? The war against the seven nations who occupied Eretz Yisrael, the war against Amalek, and a war fought to assistIsrael from an enemy which attacks them.

Afterwards, he may wage a milchemet hareshut, i.e. a war fought with other nations in order to expand the borders of Israel or magnify its greatness and reputation.

This shows that Maimonides did consider it some of sort of commandment to conquer the land and expands its borders.

Halacha 9

It is forbidden to leave Eretz Yisrael 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. Similarly, one may leave Eretz Yisrael to conduct commercial enterprises. However, it is forbidden to leave with the intent of settling permanently in the Diaspora unless the famine in Eretz Yisrael is so severe that a dinar’s worth of wheat is sold at two dinarim.

When do these conditions apply? When one possesses financial resources and food is expensive. However, if food is inexpensive, but a person cannot find financial resources or employment and has no money available, he may leave and go to any place where he can find relief.

Though it is permitted to leave Eretz Yisrael under these circumstances, it is not pious behavior. Behold, Machlon and Kilyon were two of the great men of the generation and they left Eretz Yisrael only out of great distress. Nevertheless, they were found worthy of death by God.

Halacha 10

Great sages would kiss the borders of Eretz Yisrael, kiss its stones, and roll in its dust. Similarly, Psalms 102:15 declares: ‘Behold, your servants hold her stones dear and cherish her dust.’

Halacha 11

The Sages commented: ‘Whoever dwells in Eretz Yisrael will have his sins forgiven as Isaiah 33:24 states: ‘The inhabitant shall not say ‘I am sick.’ The people who dwell there shall be forgiven their sins.’

Even one who walks four cubits there will merit the world to come and one who is buried there receives atonement as if the place in which he is buried is an altar of atonement as Deuteronomy 32:43 states: ‘His land will atone for His people.’ In contrast, the prophet, Amos [7:17, used the expression] ‘You shall die in an impure land’ as a prophecy of retribution.

There is no comparison between the merit of a person who lives in Eretz Yisraeland ultimately, is buried there and one whose body is brought there after his death. Nevertheless, great Sages would bring their dead there. Take an example, from our Patriarch, Jacob, and Joseph, the righteous.

Halacha 12

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

This applies because whoever leaves Eretz Yisrael for the Diaspora is considered as if he worships idols as I Samuel 26:19 states ‘They have driven me out today from dwelling in the heritage of God, saying ‘Go, serve other gods.’ Similarly, Ezekiel’s (13:9) prophecies of retribution state: ‘They shall not come to the land of Israel.’

Just as it is forbidden to leave the chosen land for the Diaspora, it is also forbidden to leave Babylon for other lands as Jeremiah 27:22 states: ‘They shall be brought to Babylon and there they shall be until I take heed of them… and restore them to this place.’

It is interesting to note that Maimonides did not cite his sources in his code; rather, it has been an on going challenge for scholars to figure out what was the basis for each and very of Maimonides’s rulings. Now, considering all the above laws, it should be obvious that Maimonides did not count Nahmanides’s formulation of “the commandment to take possession of the land” merely because of some technicality, but he would agree with the specific laws entailed in Nahmanides’s formulation. Further, there are a number of frequently cited laws, which Maimonides did codify, which are premised on the assumed importance of settling the land. The best example (Laws of the Sabbath, 6:11):

When a person buys a house in Eretz Yisrael from a gentile, he is permitted to tell the gentile to compose a deed of sale on the Sabbath. Giving the gentile instructions [to perform a forbidden labor on the Sabbath] is a Rabbinic prohibition, and because [of the importance] of settling Eretz Yisrael the Sages did not enforce their decree in this instance.

Now what could be the source for Maimonides’s position regarding possessing the land?

I believe it is not based on a straight talmudic source, but rather on a biblical source. Numbers 32 describes how the tribes of Gad and Reuben sought to remain settled in the Transjordan and how Moses initially objected to their proposal. Now, from the entirety of  the Bible we know that G-d intended that Israel be the chosen people in the chosen land, and that Moses himself wanted to merit to live in that land, yet Moses’s objection was not that they were trying to evade fulfilling a personal commandment, but rather that their intended actions might discourage the rest of the nation from fulfilling its duty to enter the land. That is, Moses could accept that some individuals would not want to maintain the highest standards of behavior in this regard, but it had to be that the body of the people would want to go there so that the rest of the Torah could be fulfilled. As long as that could be ensured, individuals could  decide that they were incapable of moving to Israel. Read that chapter of Numbers and study Maimonides’s opinion above, and you will see that the Moses’s agree.



From → halacha, original

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