Land and Messianism

Aryeh Cohen
American Jewish University

Medieval Jewish thinkers staked out the full spectrum of opinions on the status of the Land of Israel. On the one hand, Nachmanides is of the opinion that settling in the Land of Israel is a positive commandment; moreover, all of the commandments are intended to be fulfilled only in the Land. Outside of the Land, the people of Israel are urged to fulfill the commandments so that they will not forget them.

And of this matter they stated in the [midrashic collection] Sifri (Eqev 43): “And you will be quickly dispersed,” (Deut. 11:17) even though I am exiling you from the land to the Diaspora, be marked by the commandments so that when you return they will not be as new to you. It is like a master who became angry at his wife and sent her to her father’s house. He said to her: “Adorn yourself with jewelry so that when you return they will not be as a new thing upon you.” So too did Jeremiah state: “Erect markers [ tziyunim ],” these are the commandments by which Israel is marked [ me-tzuyanim ]. (Nachmanides, Commentary to Torah, Leviticus 18:25)

In the middle-ground position, Maimonides does not list settling in the Land of Israel as one of the commandments in and of itself. However, the Land of Israel does hold special significance: it is better to live in the Land than in the Diaspora.

The greatest of the Sages would kiss the borders of the Land of Israel and kiss its stones and roll around in its dirt, and so too Scripture states: “Your servants take delight in its stones, and cherish its dust.” (Psalms 102:15; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Laws of Kings 5:10)

Further, Maimonides writes that a person should always prefer living in a city in the Land of Israel, even a city of idolaters, over living even in a completely Jewish city in the Diaspora.

Commenting directly on Maimonides’ listing of the commandments—or, more accurately, commenting on the fact that Maimonides does not count settling in the Land of Israel as a commandment—Nachmanides writes the following:

And I say that the commandment that the Sages praise overwhelmingly, that is settling the Land of Israel, to the point of saying: all who leave it and live outside the Land should be in your eyes as idolaters, etc….it is all from a positive command which we were commanded to inherit the Land and settle in it. It is therefore, a positive commandment for all generations, and every one of us is obligated to fulfill it even in the time of the Exile. (Nachmanides, Comments on Maimonides’ Book of Mitzvot)

In this comment, Nachmanides takes Maimonides to task for praising settling in the Land of Israel but not declaring it a positive commandment (that is, a commandment demanding an action). Nachmanides reiterates his own opinion that settling in the Land is the fulfillment of the commandment to “inherit the Land and settle in it.”

In another position stands Rabbenu Hayim, one of the main scholars of the Franco-German Tosafist school of the late twelfth century. He was known as the central student of Rabbenu Tam, one of the founders of the Tosafist school. Rabbenu Hayim was asked about a case in which a man wanted to go up to the Land of Israel and his wife refused. Do we force the wife in accordance with the baraita found in b. Ketubot 110b?: “He wishes to go up [to the Land of Israel] and she refuses, they force her to go up.” Rabbenu Hayim is recorded as saying that this law does not apply “in these times.”

For now there is no commandment to live in the Land of Israel, for there are many commandments which are dependent on the Land and many punishments [associated with them] so that we are not able to carefully fulfill them. (Tosafot commentary to b. Ketubot 110b s.v. hu ‘omer la-a lot)

It is not a commandment to live in the Land of Israel; additionally,living there is not even suggested, because there are so many commandments to fulfill once one resides in the Land (the commandments of tithing, etc.). It becomes inevitable that one will abrogate them.

Settling and living in the Land of Israel is (a) a positive commandment, (b) a good thing to do, or (c) something which should not be done. It seems that all the possibilities are covered. Reading the tradition as a whole, one is inevitably drawn to the conclusion that the status of the Land of Israel is essentially contested. It is not an incidental matter that there remains much debate on such a central component of the Jewish religious imagination. Torah, at times, seems focused on what will happen when the Children of Israel get to the Land. However, the Rabbinic construction of Judaism complicates this focus.

In reality, Torah’s account is itself complex. While there is a drive towards “the place where I will choose,” that is, a centripetal locus of divinity and therefore worship, there is also a centrifugal or decentered notion of divinity. While the Temple would be only in “the place where I will choose” in the Land, the Torah would be given in the desert—which is, as it is said, a “no-man’s land.” Ultimately, the Temple would stand in one place; before that, the tabernacle would travel. Having God in one place was always a problem. [1]

Rabbinic Judaism flowers into this tension between the ultimate importance of the one place, of the Land, and God in all places, the Diaspora. From its earliest layers, the written Rabbinic tradition is unsettled about the ultimate centrality of the Land. The Tannaitic texts leave the question unresolved (Tosefta BK 7:3):

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai said five things….Why was Israel exiled to Babylonia as opposed to any other land? Because our father Abraham’s home was there. It is as a woman who went wrong on her husband. Where does he send her (i.e., divorce her)? To her father’s house.

The “exile” was not an Exile but a return: a return to the aboriginal homeland. Babylonia held a primacy above even the Land of Israel. At the same time, however, Tosefta Avodah Zarah 4:2 says that “settling in the Land of Israel is as weighty as all the commandments in the Torah.” [2] The continuation of that chapter of Tosefta reports God saying: “As long as you are in the land of Canaan behold I am your God, when you are not in the land of Canaan it is as if I am not your God” (4:5).

The version of this Tosefta that is found in the Babylonian Talmud is even sharper.

One who dwells in the Land of Israel is as one who has a God. One who dwells outside the Land of Israel is as one who has no god. As it says: “[I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,] to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.” (b. Ketubot 110b)

The anonymous Sage of the baraita reads the phrase “to be your God” as dependent on the previous clause, thereby rendering it as follows: it is only in the Land of Canaan that I will be your God. This baraita, lauding the Land of Israel, privileging it to the point that living in the Land of Israel is tantamount to believing in God—while living outside the Land is tantamount to idolatry—is embedded in a much longer sugya or Talmudic text. In that sugya we also find the following statements attributed to the Babylonian Amora of the late third century-early fourth century Rabbi Yehudah:

One who goes up from Babylonia to the Land of Israel abrogates a positive command as it says: They shall be brought to Babylon, and there they shall remain, until I take note of them — declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 27:22)

One who lives in Babylonia, it is as if he lives in the Land of Israel, as it says: Away, escape, O Zion, you who dwell in Fair Babylon! (Zechariah 2:11)

In the former statement, Rabbi Yehudah rereads a prophetic statement from God to Jeremiah as a normative statement — an obligation, a commandment. It is thus a positive commandment to remain in Babylonia. In the second statement, Rabbi Yehudah reads the two clauses of the verse from Zechariah as synonyms. Rather than the contextual reading—you of the exile of Zion who now dwell in Babylon—Rabbi Yehudah rereads this as: Zion, that is, you who dwell in Fair Babylon. This radical rereading (which views the Jewish community in Babylon as the true Zion) yields a leveling of the status of Israel and Babylonia or the displacement of the Land of Israel as the one center. [3]

This primacy that is bestowed upon Babylonia is reiterated by Rav Sherira Gaon in his famous tenth-century epistle about the development of the Talmud. He both situates and grounds the Babylonian community in the line from Ezra as a, or the, Jewish center.

Know that when Israel was originally exiled in the Exile of Jeconiah and the craftsmen and smiths (Jeremiah 24:1) and several prophets with them, they came to Nehardea [a site of one of the academies in Babylonia]. Jeconiah the King of Judah and his party built a synagogue and set its foundation with stones and dirt that they brought with them from the Temple, in order to fulfill what is said: “Your servants take delight in its stones, and cherish its dust” (Psalms 102:15). [4] And they called that synagogue the Synagogue that Slipped and Settled in Nehardea, that is that the Temple traveled and settled here. And the Divine Presence [ shechinah ] was with them as they say in [Babylonian Talmud] Megillah (29a) “[…this teaches that the Holy One of Blessing settled with them in the Exiles.] Where [did the Holy One of Blessing settle] in Babylonia? Rav says in the synagogue of Hutzeal, and Shmuel says in the Synagogue that Slipped and Settled in Nehardea. Do not say it was here and not there, rather at times it was here and at times it was there. Abbaye says, Whenever I am within a parasang from there, I go there to pray.” That synagouge in Hutzal was close to the study hall of Ezra the Scribe below Nehardea. [5] ( Iggeret R. Sherira Gaon, 72) [6]

This myth of origins of the Babylonian Jewish community is a subtle (or perhaps a not-so-subtle) reworking of texts that we have already encountered. The Psalms verse, which is later quoted by Maimonides as a prooftext for underscoring why the Sages of old kissed the stones of the Land of Israel and rolled around in its dirt, is deployed by R. Sherira to ground the Temple in Babylonia. The Land itself is moved and then the Temple travels. Finally, the Divine Presence settles in Babylonia. Furthermore, this is not a new exile but, as is already implied in the statement attributed to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai above in the Tosefta, this is a homecoming to almost the same spot on which Ezra the Scribe had his bet midrash, his Rabbinic study hall. The Rabbinic tradition in Babylonia goes back to Ezra and, perhaps, back to Abraham.

To drive home his point, R. Sherira goes further and comments on a statement in Bavli Sanhedrin (5a):

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah,” (Gen. 49:10)—these are the Exilarchs in Babylonia who rule the people with the staff. “Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,”—these are the descendants of Hillel, who teach Torah in public.

R. Sherira comments on this:

Obviously, then these in Babylonia are better since they are [compared to the] scepter. (Iggeret R. Sherira Gaon, ibid.)

The place of the Land is essentially contested in these arguments. On one side, there is the line that leads from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (who favored Yavneh and its Sages over Jerusalem [7] ) to Rabbi Yehudah (whom we cited above identifying the Jewish community in Babylonia as the true Babylonia) to Rav Sherira (whom we just cited privileging Babylonia) to Rabbenu Hayyim in the Tosafot (who warned against settling in the Land of Israel) to the Satmar Rebbe (who viewed the Land of Israel as demonic). On the other side, there is the line from the anonymous Tanna of the Tosefta (who declared that living outside the Land of Israel is akin to not having a God) to Nachamanides (who thought that settling in Israel is a positive commandment, and that all the commandments only applied in the Land of Israel) to Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak haCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine (who writes of the essentialness of the connection between the Land of Israel and the people of Israel [8] ). The genius of Rabbinic Judaism was, in part, to elevate the bet midrash — the study hall — to the importance of the bet hamikdash — the Temple — without ever doing away with the latter. In this way, the Rabbis sidestepped the devastation of the oracular and geographical center of the Jewish people. Jewish textual tradition thus was divided into those who saw the present as also the end: the bet midrash was the present state as well as a window onto what the future would look like, and those who see the future as a return to the past—where the Torah that was taken on the path through the Exile would be replanted in the soil of the Land. While one path either transvalued or transcended the geographical center, the other path was one of longing and waiting. On both paths, the end was clouded in the mists of the future messianic age.

These two impulses exist in tension through the Talmudic corpus. [9] There was not a chronological development away from the notion of Exile—that is, a displacement due to punishment and therefore a conclusion that the exilic state is of necessity a lesser state, a state of punishment—towards a notion of Diaspora as a conception of living outside the Land of Israel, which bore no opprobation but, at times, bore the marks of privilege and grace. The notions of “Diaspora” and “Exile” co-existed in constant unrelieved tension.

It is only now with the accessibility of the Land for the price of a plane ticket that Jews refuse to wait for the messiah for a decision: they either stake a claim on the Land or claim the hallowed ground of the places that the Divine Presence has slipped to and settled in. The current choice between Diaspora and Land is, however, radically different than for Jews in the centuries prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. As we noted above, there was always a tension in the aggregate between those who longed to settle in the Land and those for whom the Diaspora was home (until some unspecified future messianic event). At the same time, for much of this period, Judaism in its textual and material forms was being created in Diasporic lands while the Land of Israel was mainly (except for short exceptions) the object of longing rather than a living alternative.

Now that we are faced with the real existential choice, symbolized by that plane ticket, everything has changed. Or has it? I would conclude by suggesting that while the Zionist movement did sweep the Diaspora to the point that it was seen in many quarters (eventually) as self-evident that full Jewish life could only happen in the Land of Israel, that particular argument has begun to lose its appeal. As Amnon Raz-Krokotzkin pointed out some years ago, [10] Zionism was not the Jewish return to history — as its proponents claimed. Jewish communities had always been part of history; it is not even clear what it might mean to not be part of history. The claim was that Zionism was a return to a certain type of nationalist acting in world-historical terms. The reality is that the politics of return married longing [11] with modern military methods. The result has been a mixed bag of vital Jewish renewal in some quarters, and dangerous illiberal, anti-democratic, and immoral political behavior in others. The jury is out about the success of the Zionist project (or even how to measure that success). However, it is clear that the State of Israel has not in any way obviated the need for or dampened the vitality of Diasporic Judaism.

The tension now is between two homelands. On the one hand, the Land of Israel in its current instantiation as a nation state, and on the other, Judaism as homeland. This latter goes back to eighth century Babylonia when Parqoi ben Baboi wrote: “Even in the days of the Messiah, they (the Babylonian academies) will not experience the travail of the Messiah, [12] for it is written (Zech. 2:11) “O Zion, escape you who dwell in Babylonia,” …and Zion is nothing but the academy.” [13] Parqoi midrashically transvalues Zion as the Rabbinic academy, and not the geographic Land of Israel. [14] George Steiner does the same thing in the late twentieth century. [15] This Zion of the contemporary bet midrash /study hall is alive and well.


[1] Cf. Benjamin D. Sommer, “Expulsion as Initiation: Displacement, Divine Presence and Divine Exile in the Torah,” in Aryeh Cohen and Shaul Magid, eds. Beginning Again: Toward a Hermeneutic of Jewish Texts (New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2002) 23-48.
[2] It should be said that this is said of a number of commandments.
[3] Appended to the latter statement of Rabbi Yehudah is a statement attributed to Abbaye, one of the two most prominent Sages in the fourth generation of Babylonian Amoraim. He says: “It is an accepted tradition that Babylonia will not experience the birth pangs of the coming of the Messiah.”
[4] Rashi also has this in his comment on b. Megillah 29a.
[5] My translation is from the “Spanish” recension, though the differences with the “French” recension are mainly in choice of language—there is more Aramaic in the “French” recension.
[6] (B. M. Levin, ed. Jerusalem: Makor, 1972)
[7] Bavli Gittin 56b.
[8] In the early twentieth century, he writes: “The Land of Israel is not an external thing, an acquisition external to the people, only as a means to the goal of the general gathering and strengthening the material or even the spiritual existence [of the people]. The Land of Israel is an essential part, tied with a life connection with the people, embraced with unique internal characteristics by its existence…. Awaiting salvation is the staying power of exilic Judaism, while the Judaism of the Land of Israel is the redemption itself” (Orot, p. 9, [Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1975]).
[9] Elsewhere, I have called this “the anxiety of Exile”: see Cohen, “Beginning Gittin/Mapping Exile,” in Beginning/Again: Toward a Hermeneutics of Jewish Texts, eds. Aryeh Cohen and Shaul Magid, Seven Bridges Press (2002).
[10] See e.g. Amnon Raz-Krokotzkin, “The Return to the History of the Redemption,” (Heb.) in S. N. Eisenstadt, Moshe Lissak, eds., Hatziyonut Ve-hachazarah La-historiyah Ha’arachah Mechadash. Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, 1999. He writes that “[i]t is in Christian understandings of history in which Judaism is outside of history and must return to it and the Church.”
[11] As in Yehuda Halevi’s famous poem from twelfth century Spain: “My heart is in the East and I am in the farthest point of the West.”
[12] Cf. the statement attributed to Abbaye in b. Ketubot 111a: “We have a tradition that Babylonia will not experience the travail of the Messiah.”
[13] Translation from Robert Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 114.
[14] It is obvious that the medievals saw Franco-Germany and Spain as Babylonia too. See the discussion in the medieval commentators (Alfasi, Tosafot, Mei’ri) on Bavli Baba Kamma 84a-84b on the question of the courts in Babylonia being emissaries of the courts in the Land of Israel.
[15] “Our Homeland, the Text” (1985), reprinted in Robert Boyers, Peggy Boyers, eds., The New Salmagundi Reader (Syracuse University Press, 1996): 99-121.