Author Archives: Dov Schwartz

Dov Schwartz

About Dov Schwartz

Dov Schwartz is a professor in the philosophy department at Bar Ilan University.

Mystical Israel

Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from
The Encyclopedia of Judaism
, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

The kabbahistic [mystical] literature, which reached its proper formulation at the beginning of the 13th century, exhibits three approaches to the land of Israel: (1) the theosophical, beginning with the works of the Provençal Isaac the Blind and the kabbalists of Gerona, Ezra and Azriel, which reflect, in the main, the symbolic development of the image of the land of Israel; (2) the theurgic, as expressed in the writings of Nahmanides; and (3) the personal, as in the ecstatic kab­balah of Abraham Abulafia.

The Land & Sefirot 

We begin with the theosophical approach. In the earliest stages of kabbalah, the Land of Israel in general and Jerusalem in particu­lar were assumed to represent the uppermost sefirot [different categories of divine emanations], particularly, Wisdom, Foundation, and Kingship. As the sefirot represent hid­den divine powers, the land of Israel itself becomes a manifestation of supernal, divine aspects. The kabbalists thus set the terres­trial land aside in favor of the celestial land of Israel, focusing attention on its inner, divine dimensions. At Leviticus, 84a, the Zohar, edited at the end of the 13th century, illustrates this approach. The text comments on a talmudic legend according to which the entire land of Israel was “rolled up” beneath Jacob as he slept on his flight from Beersheba to Haran (B. Hul. 91b):

mystical israel“How is it possible that the land of Israel, which measures 400 by 400 miles, was uprooted from its place to come beneath him? Nay, the Holy One, blessed be he, has another, supernal, Holy Land, also called the land of Israel, and it is beneath the level of Jacob on which he stands.”

This “other land” of the mystic is the sefirah of Kingship, which stands beneath the sefirah of Glory, symbolized both by the term “the Holy One, blessed be he” and by the name “Jacob.”

Maimonides on Israel

Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from
The Encyclopedia of Judaism
, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.


The major innova­tion in Maimonides’ treatment of the concep­tual significance of the Holy Land lies in his disregard for the issue. In his greatest philo­sophical work, Guide of the Perplexed, Mai­monides conducts a profound discussion of numerous areas in Judaism, but nowhere in that framework does he deliberately discuss the Land of Israel. In fact, he demonstrates that one can engage in a philosophical dis­cussion of Judaism without even touching on the Holy Land.

Accordingly, Maimonides’ view of the Land of Israel may only be deter­mined from sources of two categories, direct and indirect: One includes various conceptual and national considerations that depend for their definitions and realization on the Land of Israel; the other includes the halakhic [legal] material pertaining to the Land of Israel, as expressed in his legal writings.

The Land as Instrument

We begin with the first category. Maimonides presents a series of objectives that can be achieved only on national soil. Clearly, here, the Land of Israel is understood in a purely instrumental sense: It permits the re­alization of certain ends.

land of israelThese objectives are as follows:

The historiosophical approach of auto­nomy and exile. According to Maimonides, adversity and persecution prevent the per­fect person from devoting himself to the acquisition of knowledge. Insofar as proph­ecy depends on intellectual virtues, stressful situations such as exile do not further its re­alization. Thus the intellectual perfection of any individual is dependent on leading an au­tonomous, peaceful existence in the Land of Israel

Importance of the political dimension in religious and intellectual life. Scholars do not agree on the significance of political aims in Maimonides’ thought. Some consider the ultimate Maimonidean political end to be creation of a just government, while others see political perfection as merely a step on the way to individual perfection.

Judah Halevi On the Land of Israel

The poet and philosopher Judah Halevi (c.1075-c.1141) lived in Spain during the Golden Age. The following article explores his philosophical attitude toward the Land of Israel. On this topic, however, Halevi is best known for a line of poetry that expressed his intense yearning for the Holy Land: “My heart is in the East and I am at the end of the West.” Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

Undoubtedly the first thinker to propose a systematic, comprehen­sive philosophy of the Land of Israel, in his Sefer ha-Kuzari (II:9-24), Judah Halevi deals with the unique status of the land on three levels:Northern Israel

Philosophical Level

Halevi posits two parallel hierarchies: a hierarchy of levels of reality (inanimate, vegetable, animal, man, prophet) and a hierarchy of soils (the theory of climates, fully developed in the Hellenis­tic period, according to which the country was divided into seven climatic regions, each with characteristic geophysical and astrolo­gical conditions).

The two summits of the hierarchies are interrelated and influence one another. A Jew may become a prophet only when he or she is in (or refers to) the Land of Israel, which is the choicest region of the fourth climate, itself the best of all possible climates. Residence on the soil of the Land of Israel becomes a necessary condition for the perfection of any Jew, and prophecy may exist only in (or for) it.

This principle is ex­plained through the parable of a vineyard, which can thrive only in mountainous soil. A vineyard uprooted from its native soil will wither and die. The vineyard symbolizes the people of Israel; the soil, the Land of Israel. But the uniqueness of the Land of Israel is not just a question of climatology. Jews, who need the land in order to grow and develop, are essentially and qualitatively different from gentiles; hence the Land of Israel, too, has a special quality that is conducive to the appearance of a new level of reality, the of israel quiz