What About the Land?

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

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"[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.