What About the Land?

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

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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:

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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.