Maimonides on Israel

Rambam believed the Land of Israel does not have objective importance.

Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from
The Encyclopedia of Judaism
, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.


The major innova­tion in Maimonides’ treatment of the concep­tual significance of the Holy Land lies in his disregard for the issue. In his greatest philo­sophical work, Guide of the Perplexed, Mai­monides conducts a profound discussion of numerous areas in Judaism, but nowhere in that framework does he deliberately discuss the Land of Israel. In fact, he demonstrates that one can engage in a philosophical dis­cussion of Judaism without even touching on the Holy Land.

Accordingly, Maimonides’ view of the Land of Israel may only be deter­mined from sources of two categories, direct and indirect: One includes various conceptual and national considerations that depend for their definitions and realization on the Land of Israel; the other includes the halakhic [legal] material pertaining to the Land of Israel, as expressed in his legal writings.

The Land as Instrument

We begin with the first category. Maimonides presents a series of objectives that can be achieved only on national soil. Clearly, here, the Land of Israel is understood in a purely instrumental sense: It permits the re­alization of certain ends.

land of israelThese objectives are as follows:

The historiosophical approach of auto­nomy and exile. According to Maimonides, adversity and persecution prevent the per­fect person from devoting himself to the acquisition of knowledge. Insofar as proph­ecy depends on intellectual virtues, stressful situations such as exile do not further its re­alization. Thus the intellectual perfection of any individual is dependent on leading an au­tonomous, peaceful existence in the Land of Israel

Importance of the political dimension in religious and intellectual life. Scholars do not agree on the significance of political aims in Maimonides’ thought. Some consider the ultimate Maimonidean political end to be creation of a just government, while others see political perfection as merely a step on the way to individual perfection.

In either case, the political dimension is essential to Maimonidean thought, as it is a major sta­tion on the road to perfection. Government and leadership are also considered part of the personal ideal of imitatio Dei [emulating God]. The Land of Israel makes it possible to establish a proper government and is therefore of paramount significance for realization of the political ideal.

The place of the realization of messianism. In view of the previous two considerations, messianism serves personal perfection, re­leasing people from the deprivations of ex­ile and restoring the political ideal. The Land of Israel is also an indispensable precondi­tion for the realization of messianism.

It is clear from these three considerations that the Land of Israel does not stand on its own. Maimonides never discusses it in and for itself; its whole existence is instrumen­tal.…

Legal Issues

Turning now to the second category of sources, one finds Maimonides referring with great frequency to the halakhic status of the Land of Israel. As the whole legal system is, for him, an instrument in the achievement of political or intellectual perfection (Guide of the Perplexed 111:27, etc.), that is, a means toward other ends, it is only natural that the Land of Israel should find a distinctive place in that system.

This category of Maimo­nidean sources also begins with a negative point: Maimonides does not count the settlement of the Holy Land as one of the 613 commandments listed in his Book of Commandments. That is to say, the conquest of the land is a commandment, given in the Torah, but residence in the Land of Israel is not considered a biblical precept. This re­mains Maimonides’ view in his discussion of messianic times (end of Hilkhot Melakhim in his Mishneh Torah), that is to say, the settle­ment of the Land of Israel will not be a reli­gious duty even in the future.

On the other hand, in a series of rulings, Maimonides establishes the legal status of the Land of Israel, an act significant beyond the halakhic achievements of the geonim [early Diaspora Jewish leaders] and of other Diaspora scholars. Thanks to the unique qualities of the Mishneh Torah as a compre­hensive, systematic legal code, it was here that the legal status of the Land of Israel was clearly stated and founded on definite halak­hic criteria; here lies Maimonides’ contrib­ution to the subject.

Laws of the Land

Despite the fact that he is essentially reworking and rewriting things said by earlier rabbinic authorities and Diaspora scholars, such as Judah Halevi, his choice of laws and rulings and their in­clusion in the monumental framework of the Mishneh Torah clearly defined the unique legal status of the Land of Israel.

This status, according to Maimonides, is based on the following principles:

(1) Jewish presence in the Land of Israel is crucial for the authority of the Great Court (Bet ha-Din ha-Gadol). Once the dominant position of the Jews in their land had become impaired, the supreme legal authority of that body was also undermined. In Hilkhot Kiddush HaHodesh 5:3, Maimonides states that the original sanctification of the New Moon by witnesses was replaced by sanctification by calculation “at the time the Land of Israel was destroyed.” Before then, “everyone re­lied on the determination of the Land of Israel.”

Thus, a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel is a criterion of institutional halakhic authority. This also follows from other issues, such as the interrupted ordination of judges owing to the exile from the land (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 4:11).

(2) The importance of the Land of Israel is a halakhic consideration. The scroll of Esther is read on Purim on the 15th of Adar in cities that have been walled since the time of Joshua, although the actual site of the miracle–Susa–was not walled at that time. The distinction was made solely “to express respect for the Land of Israel, which was in ruins at that time” (Hilkhot Megillah 1:5). Thus, even commandments originating in the Diaspora are linked with the status of the Holy Land.

(3) Various elements in personal law are dependent on the sanctity of the Land of Israel. Maimonides systematically restated the laws that derive from the rule: “Everyone may be brought up to the Land of Israel, but not everyone may be brought out” (Hilkhot Ishut 13:20). These laws perpetuate the supe­riority of the Land of Israel in such matters as a dispute between husband and wife, one wishing to immigrate to the Holy Land and the other refusing.

One could extend this list of examples, of course, with the many legal situations that arise only in the Land of Israel, such as the commandments dependent on the Holy Land, the laws of the Temple, and the laws of Nazirites. In the last-named category, for example, Maimonides disagrees with other authorities, ruling that a person who takes a Nazirite’s vow in the Diaspora must immi­grate to the Land of Israel to keep that vow (Hilkhot Nezirut 2:21).

In general, Maimonides relates to the sanctity of the Land of Israel on a purely halakhic level (Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 7:12). His approach, therefore, may be defined as rejecting any objective, “scientific” merit–or, a fortiori, uniqueness–of the land. The unique feature of the Holy Land is that it is national ground, on which the nation can maintain its autono­mous legal and political life.

Discover More

Black-Jewish Relations in America

Relations between African Americans and Jews have evolved through periods of indifference, partnership and estrangement.