“The Mitzvah of Living in the Land of Israel”
(updated and revised from Matot-Masei 5764-2004)


by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Masei, the second of this week’s double parashiot, G-d speaks to Moses, Numbers 33:50-52, in the Plains of Moab and tells him to tell the Children of Israel that when they pass over the Jordan river and enter the land of Canaan, they are to drive out all the inhabitants of the lands and destroy their idols and their places of worship.

In the next verse, Numbers 33:53, the people of Israel are, once again, instructed to rid the land of the indigenous inhabitants. וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ וִישַׁבְתֶּם-בָּהּ, כִּי לָכֶם נָתַתִּי אֶת הָאָרֶץ לָרֶשֶׁת אֹתָהּ, You shall drive out the inhabitants of the land and dwell therein, for unto you have I given the land to possess it.”

There is an ancient tradition that the Torah contains תרי״ג“Taryag,”–613 mitzvot/commandments. What these 613 mitzvot are, however, is subject to dispute. One of the major disputes concerning the 613 mitzvot, is whether there is an explicit Torah mitzvah for every Jew to settle and live in the land of Israel.

Based on these verses in parashat Masei, Numbers 33:52-53, Nachmanides counts the mitzvah of settling in the land of Israel as number four on his list of mitzvot. Hence it is known as the “Fourth Mitzvah.” This mitzvah incorporates the command to accept G-d’s offer of the land and to live in it. In his commentary, Nachmanides proclaims this doctrine forcefully:

In my opinion, this constitutes a positive command of the Torah, wherein He [G-d] commanded them [the People of Israel] to settle in the land and inherit it; for He gave it to them; and they should not reject the heritage of the L-rd! Should it enter their mind, for instance, to go and conquer the land of Shinar [Babylon] or Assyria or another country and settle therein, they would have transgressed the commandment of the L-rd…

The great biblical commentator, Rashi maintains that the phrase (Numbers 33:52-53), וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם–“V’ho’rahsh’tem,” means that the people of Israel must drive out (from the root of the Hebrew word “to conquer”) the indigenous inhabitants. Nachmanides, however, interprets “V’ho’rahsh’tem,” to mean that one must “inherit” the land as patrimony. Nachmanides emphasizes that the people must take this Divinely granted heritage, and not be further concerned, for G-d will provide for the security of the land.

In his comments on the Sefer ha’Mitzvot (Book of Divine Precepts) authored by Maimonides Nachmanides outlines, at great length, where and how he differs with Maimonides in his method of reckoning the 613 mitzvot.

Nachmanides takes Maimonides to task for not counting the duty to settle in the land of Israel as a separate mitzvah. Even though Maimonides, in many of his writings, often underscores the indispensable importance of the land of Israel, he never explicitly spells out the mitzvah of settling in the land of Israel as one of the 613 mitzvot.

Rabbinic and Talmudic tradition place great emphasis on living in Israel. The midrashic commentary on the Torah known as Sifre (Deuteronomy 12:29), tells of four rabbis who journeyed from Israel to the Diaspora. When they reached Palatium, a location outside of Israel, they remembered the land of Israel and their eyes welled up with tears. They proceeded to rent their clothes, while recalling the verse, Numbers 33:53: And thou shall drive out the inhabitants of the land and dwell therein.” At that point, retracing their steps, they returned to Israel, and declared forcefully that living in Israel is equal to all the other mitzvot in the Torah.

The Talmud in Ketubot, 110b, underscores the centrality of the Land of Israel by reminding all Jews that it is preferable for a Jew to dwell in a city in Eretz Yisrael where the majority of the residents are idolaters, rather than live outside of Israel, even in a city mostly inhabited by Jews. The rabbis declare that those who reside in the land of Israel are like people who have a G-d, while those who reside outside of Israel are like those who have no G-d and serve idols.

Whereas all the other nations merely inhabit and reside in their respective homelands, the Jews have a particular obligation to observe an ethical and religious way of life in the land of Israel. That is why, according to Nachmanides, the Jews are specifically commanded to take possession of the land of Israel and to live there in order to fulfill this central religious mission.

Many argue that, in fact, Maimonides also maintained that Jews are duty bound to live in Israel, even though he did not list it among the “Taryag,” the 613. According to these commentators, Maimonides considered himself a sinner for not living in the Holy Land. Furthermore, it is an undisputed halachic ruling, (Ketubot 110b), that either a husband or wife may insist that their spouse make aliyah (move to Israel), and if the spouse refuses, he/she is penalized.

There are those who argue further that Maimonides actually sees the mitzvah of living in the land of Israel as so fundamental, that he did not deem it necessary for the mitzvah to be listed and counted.

So where does that leave us? Jews who live in galut, the Diaspora, often proffer a host of legitimate and not so legitimate excuses for not living in Israel. Be that as it may, there really are no valid excuses for not visiting Israel regularly or supporting Israel economically, and  especially educating and encouraging our children about the centrality of Israel. Diaspora Jews who purchase second homes, should purchase those homes in the land of Israel. If they wish to invest in additional businesses, the land of Israel should be a primary investment consideration.

To paraphrase Nachmanides, we, the Jews of the Diaspora, should not look to conquer the alien lands of “Shinar” or “Asyria” or any other country to settle therein. The Diaspora should not be allowed to become the long-term alternative to the land of Israel. To the contrary, the land of Israel must always be seen as the Jew’s primary residence, and the Diaspora as a waystation, not a destination. Israel is our land to conquer and to possess. And, if we really wish to “possess” it, we can do so only by first “conquering” our own reluctance and reticence.

May you be blessed.