Israel in Rabbinic Literature

In rabbinic literature, the Land was of primary importance--even as the Diaspora grew.

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The Land in Amoraic Literature

The  rabbis known as Amoraim lived from 200 C.E. through the fifth century. They were based in two major centers: The Land of Israel and Babylonia, each of which produced its own version of the Talmud. 

The Amoraim of the Land of Israel continue on the road of the Tannaim, struggling to maintain their community in the face of great difficulties. It is perhaps a sign of this difficulty that the Jerusalem Talmud (actually edited in the Galilee) is terse, not very comprehensive, and difficult to study, compared to the Babylonian Talmud.

On the other hand, the Jerusalem Talmud discusses the nine tractates of the Mishnah

that deal with the land-based laws of the Torah--tractates not included in the Babylonian Talmud. These agricultural laws were of great importance to the Jewish community in Israel, and it is not surprising that the Jerusalem Talmud is widely studied in Israel today.

The Jews of this period left us more than the Gemara (the section of the Talmud written by Amoraim) and other texts; they also left us archaeological evidence of their devotion to these laws. An ancient synagogue dated to this period was excavated at Tel Rehov in the Bet Shean Valley. The entire floor is covered with a 26-line mosaic inscription of a Tannaitic text (almost identical to the written version we have today) that demarcates the borders of Israel, naming Rehov as a border town.  The Jews who prayed in this synagogue were constantly reminded of these laws and the role of their town with every step they took.

Babylonia: A New Reality

In the centuries following the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132-135 B.C.E., the Babylonian community became a magnet for Jews. During the Amoraic period, many rabbinic leaders in Babylon began to see their community as equivalent, if not equal to, the Land of Israel. This led to an ideological and political struggle between the communities. Who is the final authority in Jewish law?

Despite these challenges, it is important to remember that the Babylonian Amoraim accepted the premise of the Land of Israel as the "gold standard" for measuring and describing Jewish life. When they want to say that Babylonia was a good place to be Jewish, they say, "In Babylonia we have made the Land of Israel" (Gittin 6a) .

Some rabbis, like Rabbi Yehudah, see the loss of the Land of Israel as punishment for the sins of the people, and they discourage their students from moving there, since only God can end the exile. In this way, we see the movement away from the living Land of Israel toward an idealized "Heavenly Jerusalem" that takes a central role in the Messianic hopes and dreams of the Jewish people.

The Messianic era and the miraculous return of the Jews to Israel is discussed throughout the Babylonian Talmud; for example: "When Jerusalem is miraculously rebuilt, King David will arrive… and sacrifices will be reestablished in the Temple..." (Megillah 18a). The contrast between this abstract view of the Land to the familiar view of the Tannaim is jarring.

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Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

Rabbi Ed Snitkoff is the Director of the Ramah Israel Seminar and lives in Jerusalem.