The word mitzvah can mean good deed, but, technically, it refers to one of the 613 mitzvot or commandments in the Torah. This number was originally stated by Rabbi Simlai in the third century (Makkot 23b);Â² since then dozens of rabbis have enumerated the 613 commandments.Â³
As I have explained elsewhere,?Eretz Yisrael holds a unique place in Jewish tradition and history. As a result, we would expect our tradition to unanimously require aliyah. Yet, in fact, rabbinic literature contains at least five different approaches towards aliyah:
1. The early midrash of Sifrei Devarim (paragraph 80) relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and Rabbi Yohanan ha-Sandlar (ca. 150 c.e.) were on their way to study Torah outside of Eretz Yisrael. When they reached Sidon in Lebanon, they remembered Eretz Yisrael. They began to cry and they rent their garments and they recited the verse (Deuteronomy 11:31-32): “When you have occupied it and are settled in it, take care to observe all of the laws. . . ” Said they: `Dwelling in Eretz Yisrael is equal to all of the other commandments in the Torah’. Whereupon they turned around and went back to Eretz Yisrael.
Nahmanides (1194-1270) followed their approach by ruling that it is a positive commandment to inherit the land and dwell therein.?Furthermore, he practiced what he preached, arriving in Jerusalem from Spain in 1267 and settling in Acre. 6 His opinion was accepted by a number of prominent medieval rabbis and is very popular among Israeli rabbis today.?
2. On the other hand, the above-mentioned Rabbi Simlai did not view aliyah as a mitzvah in and of itself but rather as a makhshir mitzvah or preparatory act which enables one to perform the mitzvot which can only be performed in Israel such as tithing and the Sabbatical and Jubilee years.?
Rabbi Simlai expounded: Why did Moses our teacher yearn to enter the land of Israel? Did he want to eat of its fruits or satisfy himself from its bounty? But thus said Moses: “Many mitzvot were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled inEretz Yisrael. I wish to enter the land so that they may all be fulfilled by me” (Sotah14a).
Rabbi Simlai’s approach was also followed by a number of medieval rabbis. 9
3. Other talmudic sages did not rule explicitly on whetheraliyahis amitzvah, but tried to encouragealiyahand discourage emigration via specific legislation: 10 “Both husbands and wives may force their spouses to makealiyah(Mishna Ketubot13:11). If a Jew wants to buy land in Israel, he may tell the non-Jewish owner to draw up the contract even on Shabbat (Gittin8b andBava Kamma80b). “It is forbidden to leaveEretz Yisraelunless twose’ah(26.4 liters) of wheat sell for oneselah. Rabbi Shimon said. . . if one can find any wheat at all, even if onese’ahcosts aselah, he should not emigrate” (Bava Batra91a).
Maimonides followed this approach. He codified the specific laws mentioned above, 11 yet he did not listaliyahas one of the 613mitzvot. Indeed, Maimonides himself seems to have visited Israel in the year 1165, but did not remain. 12
4. A number of medieval rabbis took a pragmatic approach. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (Germany ca. 1215-1293), for example, did not think thataliyahwas one of themitzvot, but he did think that whoever moves to Israel “for the sake of heaven and conducts himself in holiness and purity, there is no end to his reward, provided that he can support himself there”. 13
Rabbi Israel Isserlein (Austria, 1390-1460) ruled that it is certainly praiseworthy to live in Israel. However, since there is danger involved and since it is hard to earn a living there, “every person should judge his physical and monetary capabilities if he will be able to fear Heaven and observemitzvot[in Israel]” (Pesakim U’ketavim, no. 88).
5. Lastly, there is the lone talmudic voice of the Babylonian sage Rabbi Judah who declared that whoever makesaliyahfrom Babylon to Israel actuallytransgressesa positive commandment (sic!). 14
This negative approach toaliyahwas followed by quite a few medieval rabbis. 15 Rabbi Judah the Pious (Ashkenaz, thirteenth century) ruled, for example, that it is preferablenotto makealiyah, because he who does so will not be able to find a wife in Israel nor have time to study Torah due to the difficult economic conditions. 16
In modern times, Rabbi Judah’s approach has been adopted by the Satmar Hassidim who rabidly oppose massaliyah, Zionism and the State of Israel due to their conviction that only God may redeem the Jewish people from Exile. 17
Given these five approaches, it is difficult to statethehalakhic approach toaliyah, since all five can be justified by talmudic and halakhic sources. Therefore, I would like to explainmyhalakhic approach toaliyah.
I made aliyah in 1972 because I believe thataliyahis both amitzvahand amakhshir mitzvah. First of all, Nahmanides was right to listaliyahas amitzvah. He remained in the minority only because all attempts to list the 613mitzvottook place at a time when it was virtually impossible for most Jews to makealiyah. It seems that most rabbis saw no point in requiring something so dangerous and expensive that it was virtually unobtainable. By requiringaliyah, the rabbis would have turned almost the entire Jewish people into sinners. 18 But the thrust of Numbers 33:53 as well as of the entire Bible and Talmud isthat all Jews are supposed to live in Eretz Yisrael. That is what God repeatedly promised our ancestors, that is why God redeemed us from Egypt, and that is where a large percentage of themitzvotneed to be observed.
Furthermore,aliyahis amitzvahin the sense of a preparatory act because it enables one to perform not only themitzvotconnected to the land (no. 2 above) butallof themitzvot. In Israel, one can observe Shabbat and all of the Jewish holidays with ease because the entire country is on “Jewish time”. Israel is conducive to Torah study both in terms of vast opportunities and in terms of enabling the Bible and the Talmud to come to life. Living in Israel allows one to master Hebrew and thereby connect to our heritage which is written in Hebrew. Israel ensures “Jewish continuity” because, religious or secular, your children will most likely marry other Jews. Finally, Israel is the actualization of the prayers we have recited for 2,000 years: “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion with mercy”; “Blessed are you God who gathers the dispersed of Your people Israel”.
In conclusion, one should makealiyahbecause living in Israel is amitzvahin and of itself as well as a preparatory act which enables one to observe all of themitzvotand to observe all of the mitzvot and to live a full Jewish life by living in a Jewish state.