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Is One Required to Live in Israel?

Part I: Ketubot 110b

“A person should always live in the Land of Israel even if he lives among idolaters and should not live outside Israel even if he lives among Jews. “The Torah commands one to live in Israel.” “If one lives in Israel, it is as if one has fulfilled all the commandments of the Torah.” “To live in Israel is a biblical commandment that applies to each individual in each generation even in the time of the Diaspora.”

So why are we here? And why did so many of our great sages, from the Rambam to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, live outside Israel?

First of all, it is not universally accepted that there is a biblical obligation to live in Israel.

Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, as understood by the Ramban, implies that there is no obligation to live in Israel. Rabbeinu Chaim, one of the Tosafists of the 12th century, states clearly that following the destruction of the second Temple and the exile from Israel, there is no longer any requirement to live in Israel. According to the Megillat Esther, the Rambam agrees with Rabbeinu Chaim and accordingly, did not include living in Israel in his list of the 613 positive commandments. The Rabbi of Satmar, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, points out that the Shulchan Aruch does not include the mitzvah of living in Israel in its code of law.

The majority opinion prevailing in the halacha, however, follows the Ramban and maintains that there is a biblical obligation to live in Israel today.

This majority opinion is clearly endorsed by Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Hirsch Eisenstadt in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch. He points out that all halachic authorities, both rishonim and acharonim, agree that a man can compel his wife to move to Israel and if she does not agree, he may divorce her. This could not be the law if there were no biblical obligation to live in Israel today.

According to this majority opinion, the failure by the Rambam to include the mitzvah of living in Israel in his Sefer Hamitzvot, does not mean that there is no such mitzvah. On the contrary, because living in Israel is tantamount to fulfilling all the mitzvot of the Torah, the Rambam considered it to be an all-encompassing mitzvah. According to the rules established by the Rambam himself in his Sefer Hamitzvot, the Rambam did not include all-encompassing commandments such as “heed all that God has commanded you,” in his list of 613 mitzvot, which do not specify a specific mitzvah.

So why are we here? Are we all ignoring the biblical commandment of living in Israel today? Must we all pack up and go? What follows are some of the answers of many poskim who struggle with this question.

Although it is preferable to live in Israel, there is no obligation to go. However, once you live in Israel, there is an obligation not to leave. In fact, the language used by the Ramban in his supplement to Sefer Hamitzvot is that “anyone who leaves Israel,” “kol hayotze mimenah,” is like an idol worshiper. The Pe’at Hashulchan also follows this formulation.

The Avnei Nezer compares the mitzvah of living in Israel to the mitzvah of tzitzit. There is no obligation per se to emigrate to Israel. Emigrating to Israel is like wearing a four-cornered garment. Nobody obliges you to wear a four-cornered garment, but if you do, you must wear tzitzit. Similarly, suggests the Avnei Nezer, nobody obliges you to live in Israel, but if you do, you may not leave. This is also the approach taken by Rav Moshe Feinstein.

Perhaps that is why many great rabbis throughout the ages refrained from emigrating to Israel. As long as they did not go, they were not violating any Torah commandment. If they would go and then leave, they would violate the negative commandment of not leaving Israel.

Another answer cited by almost all poskim is that any mitzvah there may be to live in Israel today applies only if one can make a living there. A person who owns property and earns his living outside Israel and cannot earn a living in Israel or has no property to sell in order to finance emigration, is not obliged to rely on charity to live in Israel.

The point of living in Israel, says the Sochochover, is to earn a living from the Land. Israel, unlike other lands, is sustained directly by God. You are not maximizing the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael, he says, if finances generated outside Israel support your living in Israel. In fact, many poskim rule that one is permitted to leave Israel if one is unable to earn a living there.

Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received semichah in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, zt”l. This article is an extract from Raphael’s book “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerai’m,” available for purchase at www.amazon.com/dp/057816731X  or by emailing Raphael at [email protected].

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