Mystical Israel

Medieval kabbalah offers various approaches to the Land of Israel.

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The coupling of the two principles is already symbolized in early Kabbalah by the unification of "Zion" (Glory or Foundation) and "Jerusalem" (Kingship). Since the righteous person simi­larly is symbolized by the sefirah of Foun­dation, the sexual aspect is also reflected in the fact that only perfectly righteous people can possess the land. Third, there were mixed implications for messianic activism. Some authorities considered the kabbalistic activ­ity symbolized by the land of Israel as a sub­stitute for active immigration to that country, while others, on the contrary, considered it a catalyst for immigration.

The Zohar presents a broad variety of con­cepts of the land of Israel besides the theoso­phical dimension and its sexual implications:

All these combined with the philosophies already formulated by Judah Halevi and Abraham ibn Ezra in a final consolidation of the theosophical conception. The Zohar uses climatological considerations to explain the position of the land of Israel at the center of the universe, the fact that the land is suited exclusively for the Jewish nation and that, contrary to other countries, it is not affected by the normal astrological system. The vari­ous theosophical traditions were summed up and merged with other conceptions of the status of the land of Israel in the many works of Moses Cordovero (Safed, 16th century), particularly in his commentary Or Yakar to the Zohar. A more concise account may be found in Hesed le-Avraham by Abraham Azulai (Morocco and Palestine, 16th century).


The second approach to the land or Israel among 13th-century kabbalists is well represented by the thought of Moses b. Nach­man of Gerona, better known as Nahmanides or by the acronym Ramban. This approach is more concerned with the theurgic action of the commandments in the Holy Land than with its symbolism, though it too relies directly and indirectly on Judah Halevi and Abraham ibn Ezra.

An important point here is Nahmanides' sharp criticism of Maimo­nides' failure to count settlement of the land of Israel as one of the 613 commandments. Among the commandments that Nahmanides added in his hassagot ("criticisms") of Mai­monides' Sefer ha-Mizvot was the injunction "to inherit the land that God, blessed and praised be He, gave our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and it has never been aban­doned to the hands of any other nation or to desolation." In Ramban's view, this injunc­tion is "a positive commandment for all gen­erations, binding upon every individual even in the time of exile, as stated frequently in the Talmud."

In addition, Nahmanides insisted that ob­servance of the commandments was intended solely for the land of Israel, with their observance in the Diaspora merely a preparation for the nation's future return to its land.

Nahmanides took his own conclusions seriously and immigrated to the land of Israel. It is noteworthy that, by contrast, several Ashken­azic [European] scholars ruled out immigration to the Holy Land, not only because of the dangers attendant on the journey but also because not all the commandments can be fulfilled in the present. This is the approach taken in a responsum [rabbinic legal decision] of Hayyim b. Hananel Hakohen (Paris, second half of 12th cent.), cited in Tosafot to B. Ket. I l0a. But Nahmanides thought otherwise, and his conception of the commandments was in full accord with his kabbalistic ideas, for arguing that we have no tradition concerning the secrets of the Merkavah (the "Divine Chariot" or Throne of God), he confined his kabbalistic delibera­tions to the reasons for the commandments.

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Dov Schwartz

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