The Land of Israel in Medieval Jewish Thought

Most medieval Jews lived outside the Land of Israel. The Land remained a central theme in Jewish learning and liturgy, but it was abstract, an object of speculation and imagination. Indeed, in several instances, the Zohar–the most important work of medieval Jewish mysticism–erroneously describes the Land’s physical features. 

However, not all medieval Jewish thinkers philosophized about the Land. Saadiah Gaon (882-942) avoided the subject entirely. This might be attributable to Saadiah’s polemic against the Karaites, a heretical Jewish sect. The Karaite group known as Avelei Zion (Mourners of Zion) were defined by their grief over the exile and the destruction of the Temple, and they stressed the importance of re-settling the Land. land of israel quiz

Perhaps the most important medieval statement about the Land came not from a philosopher, but from Rashi (1040-1105), the greatest of the medieval exegetes. Rashi’s first comment on the Torah quotes the tradition that the Torah begins with Creation, and not the first commandment, to stress God’s ownership of the world. Since God is the Creator, God can give the Land of Israel to whomever God pleases. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Traditional education includes Torah study with Rashi’s commentary. Thus, for generations, the very first lesson learned from the Torah has been the Jewish People’s right to the Land of Israel.

A number of philosophers employed natural or pseudo-scientific theories to explain the uniqueness of the Land. According to Judah Halevi (1086-1145), the Land of Israel has the best of all possible climates, and it is in the middle of the inhabited earth. The Land’s geographical centrality and spiritual centrality are intricately connected. The Land lingers on the border between physical and metaphysical realms. Indeed, its physical qualities facilitate metaphysical perfection. According to Halevi, perfection and prophecy is only possible in the Land.

Similarly, Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) believed that the Land of Israel was astrologically superior to other lands. The Land’s coordinates made it particularly attuned to the power of the stars. Within the Land there were gradations of astral excellence, too. Jerusalem was the best-situated city, and the Temple Mount was Jerusalem’s prime astrological real estate.

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