Pesachim 87

Center and diaspora.

Much of early modern Zionist throught put a strong emphasis on shelilat hagolah, the “negation of the diaspora.” Whether motivated by a fear of political vulnerability, assimilation, cultural atrophy, religious anti-Semitism, or physical danger, this concept held life in exile to be inferior to that which could be had in a Jewish homeland, whatever that homeland might look like. For this reason, diasporic existence was considered ultimately untenable, and Zionism of one kind or another the only reasonable and rational response to the Jews’ situation.

And then there’s Rabbi Oshaya (from today’s daf), who stakes out a very different opinion about diaspora. He offers this interpretation of a verse from Judges:

What is the meaning of that which is written: The righteous acts of his rulers (pirzono) in Israel? (Judges 5:11) The Holy One, Blessed be He, performed a charitable deed toward Israel in that He scattered them (pizran) among the nations.

Rabbi Oshaya suggests the scattering of Israel is actually a blessing; gathering all Israel in one place creates a dangerous vulnerability — making it too easy for an enemy to wipe out the entire nation. 

The Gemara now recounts a story (almost assuredly fictional, as will become obvious from the way it is told) about a time when Rabbi Oshaya put this argument to good use. In the story, a gentile mocks the Jewish people for impatience, reflecting that King David wiped out the Edomites in six months flat, while Rome has bided its time, extending toward Israel relative tolerance because it is in no hurry to destroy the Jews. (Note: The rabbis identify the Edomites with Rome, so there’s a symmetry here — both groups trying to destroy the other.) The set up is almost too obvious; Rabbi Oshaya responds with the same argument we saw above:

This is simply because you (Rome) do not know how to do it (i.e., destroy us). You cannot destroy all of the Jewish people, because they are not all within your kingdom. And if you destroy only those Jews who are with you in your kingdom, you will be called a severed kingdom for murdering part of your own population. 

In other words, Rabbi Oshaya retorts, Rome is not patiently biding its time to destroy the Jews — it wishes very much to wipe them out, but cannot because the spread of the Jewish people presents too much of a challenge. 

While Rabbi Oshaya doesn’t explicitly elevate the general concept of diaspora above Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, his statement at the least implies that a scattered existence among many ruling countries is preferable to all Jews living in the Land of Israel under Roman rule.

Perhaps Rabbi Oshaya is making lemons out of lemonade: in contrast to early Zionists, Rabbi Oshaya wasn’t in a position to recreate Jewish sovereignty or gather Jewish exiles from around the world, and his goals didn’t include bringing such changes about. Perhaps instead of complaining about the challenges of diaspora, he sought out a silver lining.

The debate over where Jews should live rages elsewhere in rabbinic and post-rabbinic literature. Ketubot 110b offers an opposite perspective: “anyone who resides in the Land of Israel is considered as one who has a God, and anyone who resides outside of the Land of Israel is considered as one who does not have a God.” But the Tosafot commentary on the same page holds that going to live in the Land of Israel “is not practiced in our times, as there is danger on the roads. And Rabbenu Chaim says that today it is not a commandment to live in the Land of Israel.”

Shelilat hagolah continues to have its advocates and detractors. What sticks with me from this page, though, is how Rabbi Oshaya is able to highlight the benefits of a challenging state of affairs and provide a real-life example of that favorite adage: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Read all of Pesachim 87 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 16th 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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