Israel in Rabbinic Literature

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

In many ways, the story of the relationship of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is the story of Judaism. The entire body of rabbinic literature (including Jewish liturgy) chronicles the attachment of the ancient rabbis to the Land of Israel. These texts are moving, engaging, and eventually set the stage for the modern return to the Land.

The rabbinic view of the Land is a continuation and outgrowth of the Biblical view. In the Bible, the relationship of God, the Jewish people, and the Land of Israel (which plays a role in almost every biblical book) is the foundation upon which the Rabbis built their world view.

It is not surprising then, that when the Rabbis look at the world, they describe it as “Ha’aretz“–The Land, with everywhere else serving as “Hutz La’aretz“–outside the Land. In rabbinic parlance, one “goes up” to Israel and “goes down” upon leaving.  The linguistic proof is all-telling; to the Rabbis, there exists only one “Land.” This Land is above all others, and is the center of Jewish life, aspirations, and belief.

The Earlier Texts: Tannaitic Literature

The writings of the rabbis known as Tannaim (1st century C.E. to 200 C.E.) are exclusively the product of the Land of Israel. The rabbis of this period weathered two major storms that impacted on the way they saw the Land: The destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. and the dismal failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt against Roman rule in 135 C.E. The Tannaim set the foundation upon which rabbinic Judaism stands.

land of israelThe Tannaim, like the majority of Jews at the time, lived in the Land of Israel; this was their home, and they fought to maintain its Jewish character and population.  The Sanhedrin (high court) still functioned, but Jewish society was in turmoil because of the ongoing conflict with the Romans. At the same time, the Diaspora was growing stronger with each crisis in the Land.

Because of this, the Tannaim discouraged emigration from Israel and encouraged all Jews to settle in the Land by legislating and teaching about the unique beauty of the Land and its centrality in Jewish life. For instance, the Mishnah (the premiere work of Tannitic literature, declared: “The Land of Israel is Holier than all other lands” (Kelim 1).

The Tannaim teach that the only place where one can fully observe the Torah is in the Land of Israel. This statement is not hyperbole, but supported by the fact that more than half of the Torah’s commandments can be observed only in the Land. Tithes, first fruits, the sabbatical year, and the leaving of a corner of the field for the poor were part of everyday life only in the Land of Israel.

To these rabbis, the sanctity of the Land enriches all aspects of life, such as Torah study: “There is no Torah like the Torah of the Land of Israel” (Sifrei Parshat Ekev). Even death and burial is elevated in Israel: One who is buried there is forgiven of all sins, as if hr or she were “buried under the altar of the Temple itself” (Ketubot 111a). This holiness is such that even one who is outside of Israel must “direct his heart to the Land of Israel” during prayer (Tosefta Berakhot).

The Tannaitic rabbis do not mince words when it comes to the importance of living in Israel: “Our Rabbis taught: One should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city with a population that is primarily non-Jewish, rather than in a city outside of the Land in which there is a majority of Jews. Whoever lives outside the Land of Israel is as one who does not have God.” (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 110b).

Not only is the value of living in Israel more important than living in a vibrant Jewish community, it is also more important than family. The Mishnah states that a wife who wants to move to Israel can force her husband to divorce her if he refuses to join her (and vice versa).  In the same vein, leaving the Land is also grounds for divorce.

Stubborn, But Realistic

We do not know the full effect that these and similar laws and teachings had on Jewish practice during the Tannaitic period, but we know that these texts set the tone for the future.  Later rabbis would be forced to rationalize their own lives outside of Israel according to the benchmark set by the Tannaim.

While stubbornly struggling to maintain the community in Israel, the Tannaim were also realists. They knew that Jewish life needed to adapt to the reality of the destruction of Jerusalem and the mass movement of Jews to the Diaspora. They did all they could to ensure that Judaism would not just survive these challenges, but would thrive–with the Land of Israel remaining at the center of Jewish consciousness.

There are many innovations from this period that simultaneously established a framework for Diaspora Jewish life while retaining a strong connection to the Land:

The adoption of the synagogue as a proxy for the Temple in Jerusalem gave every Jewish community a spiritual home and the opportunity to connect to the Land of Israel in a number of ways: Synagogues face Jerusalem and the liturgy and rituals are based on the service in the Temple.

The Jewish calendar was crafted to coincide with the seasons in the Land.

The Rabbis established a number of rituals and special days to keep Israel at the center of Jewish memory, such as the fast of Tisha B’av.

The ability of the early rabbis to remain stubbornly attached to the Land while at the same time react to challenges and crises in a flexible and creative way, allowed the Jewish faith to survive in exile.

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.

By the end of rabbinic Period, the Land of Israel, in the eyes of most Jews, becomes a place that is not of this world. This attitude is widespread throughout most of Jewish history. Eventually the connection to the physical Land taught by the Tannaim prevails, leading to the modern return to the Land of Israel.

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