What About the Land?

Early rabbinic literature does not devote much attention to the uniqueness of the Land of Israel.

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After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the rabbinic leadership, focused in the city of Yavne, reformulated Judaism to withstand exile and the loss of the Temple, which had been the central focus of Jewish life. The crushing defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans (132-135) further demoralized and disbursed the Jewish people. The following article traces the evolving role that the Land of Israel played in the thought of the early leaders of the era of rabbis known as the Tannaim (1st century C.E. to 200 C.E.) in Yavne. Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from Land, Center, and Diaspora: Jewish Constructs in Late Antiquity (Sheffield Academic Press).

A systematic study of all rabbinic statements on "the Land," its status, attributes, and require­ments, serves to temper significantly any sense of a monolithic, unchang­ing rabbinic approach to the issue. Indeed, a comprehensive analysis of these statements reveals, to begin with, that the degree to which these issues surrounding the Land were even taken up in statements attributed to the early Tannaim, up to and including the Bar Kokhba war, is minimal. 

A review of the hundreds of statements attributed to sages such as Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, R. Joshua, R. Eliezer, R. Eleazar b. Azariah, and even R. Akiva, reveals a striking paucity of allusions to the character and supernatural attributes of the Land, and similarly there is minimal allusion to the Land's centrality vis-à-vis the Diaspora and the consequently required commitment of Jews towards the Land.

Dual Homelands?

All this is striking precisely in light of the numerous statements attributed to these very same rabbis regarding the "commandments pertaining to the Land." Indeed, the only statement by Yohanan b. Zakkai relating to the status of the Land and the nature of exile totally ignores any discussion of the attributes of the Land, and in fact seems to suggest almost the opposite:

land of israel"Why were Israel exiled to Babylonia more than all other lands? Because the House of Abraham our patriarch is from there. To what might this be likened--to a woman who has misbehaved towards her husband. To where does he send her--to her father's home!" (Talmud, Baba Kama 7:3).

One might almost read into this statement the embracing of what is usually considered a uniquely Hellenistic idea, namely that Israel, like other ethnic groups, have a dual homeland. Philo refers to Egypt as the other homeland (Vit. Mos. 1.36), whereas the rabbinic statement considers Babylonia to be the nation's second (or even original) homeland.

In a similar manner we have almost no statements attributed to the two great disciples of Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai--R. Joshua b. Hananya and R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus--that allude either to the unique attributes of the Land or to the imperatives deriving from its centrality. This situation is apparent in the following tannaitic midrash to Exodus 16.25:

"'Eat it--the manna--today': R. Joshua says: If you will succeed in keeping the Sabbath, The Holy One Blessed be He will give you three festivals--Passover, Pentecost [Shavuot], and Tabernacles [Sukkot]…. R. Eliezer says: If you will succeed in keeping the Sabbath you will escape the three visitations: The day of Gog, the suffering preceding the advent of the Messiah, and the great Judgment Day."

It was only their student, R. Eleazar Ha-Moda'i, who first connected the Land to the rewards promised by God to those who keep the Sabbath:

"R. Eleazar Ha-Moda'i says: If you succeed in keeping the Sabbath, the Holy One Blessed be He will grant you six good portions: The Land of Israel, the future world, the new world, the kingdom of the House of David, the priesthood, and the Levites' offices" (Mek, Beshalah, 4).

The Yavne Period

This is the sole reference to the Land in all the teachings of R. Eleazar Ha-Moda'i, and given his particular role in the Bar-Kokhba uprising, the promises he attributes to God (David, Priests, the Land) take on a special significance. The lack of statements regarding the Land issued during the Yavne period, or even attributed at a later time to sages of that period, is striking, and thus while R. Akiva interpreted God's words to Moses upon his death--'This is the Land' (Deuteronomy 34:4)--to mean that God "displayed to Moses all the recesses in Israel," the earlier Yavnean sage R. Eliezer omits the Land of Israel from his inter­pretation of "This is the Land" and explains instead: "He gave strength to Moses' eyes to see from one end of the earth to the other."

'The Land,' in the eyes of the early tannaim, it appears, did not automatically conjure up the image of Eretz Israel, but rather the earth, or the world.

At times one is struck by the fact that the tannaitic midrash, in the context of a long and detailed discussion of the Land of Israel and its attributes, will pass for a moment to the sayings or the actions of the Yavnean sages, and what emerges is that these rabbis took no active part in such deliberations, but were introduced into the text by the editor only to explain some peripheral issue. Thus, for example, chapters 37-40 of Sifre Deuteronomy are devoted almost entirely to statements praising the Land of Israel Noteworthy, however, is the fact that all the state­ments are either anonymous or transmitted in the names of R. Judah and R. Shimon b. Yohal--that is, disciples of R. Akiva who were active in the post-Bar Kokhba period. Sifre Deuteronomy 38  takes up one particular advantage of the Land of Israel over all other lands:

"[Whereasj all other lands were given 'servants' to tend them--Egypt is watered by the Nile, Babylon by its rivers--the Land of Israel is not like that. Rather, there the inhabitants sleep in their beds while God causes the rains to fall for them. Thus we learn that God's ways are different from those of creatures of flesh and blood. A man acquires manservants to feed and sustain him, but He who spoke and the world came into being (= God) acquires manservants so that He Himself may feed and sustain them.

"And once it happened that R. Eliezer, R. Joshua, and R. Zadok were reclining at a banquet for the son of Rabban Gamaliel. Rabban Gamaliel mixed a cup (of wine) for R. Eliezer, who declined it. R. Joshua took it, whereupon R. Eliezer said to him, 'What's this, Joshua, is it fitting for us to be reclining while Rabban Gamaliel stands and serves us?'"

At this point a discussion commences over the issue of who may receive the ministering of those greater than himself. How striking then, that while the entire thrust of the midrash is to extol the advantages of the Land of Israel, the only reference to Yavnean sages has absolutely nothing to do with the Land, but is introduced to illustrate a totally different issue?

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Isaiah Gafni is a Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specializes in the history of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period.