Does the Ramban Contradict the Three Oaths?
The Ramban Does Not Advocate Conquest
Only with a Prophetic Command
Fruits of Eretz Yisroel During Exile
Basing Sins on the Torah
“And you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for to you I have given the land to inherit it.” (Bamidbar 33:53).
The Ramban in Sefer Hamitzvos counts this as one of the 613 commandments, and he writes, “We were commanded to take possession of the land that G-d promised to our forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov, and that we should not leave it in the hands of any other people, or leave it desolate… We must not leave the land in their [the Canaanites] hands or in the hands of any other people in any generation.”
Many people ask: how could the Ramban say that we must conquer Eretz Yisroel in every generation, if there are Three Oaths prohibiting such a conquest? Obviously, they argue, the Ramban must hold that these oaths are merely Agadta, not halachically binding.
The error here is in the assumption that the Ramban means we must conquer Eretz Yisroel in every generation, including during exile. Let’s look further in the Ramban. He brings proof from Chazal’s statement that Dovid Hamelech was wrong to conquer Syria before completing the conquest of Eretz Yisroel, and he ends off, “So we see that we were commanded to conquer it in all generations.”
Then he says, “And I say that the mitzvah of which Chazal speak highly, living in Eretz Yisroel…is all part of this positive commandment, for we were commanded to take possession of the land in order to live in it. If so, it is a positive commandment for all generations, in which each one of us is obligated, even during exile.”
We see clearly that the Ramban needed a second proof, from the fact that Chazal speak highly of living in Eretz Yisroel, that the mitzvah applies during exile. His first proof from Dovid Hamelech did not cover exile.
So why does he say “we were commanded to conquer it in all generations”? He is anticipating someone defending the Rambam, who does not count this mitzvah, by saying that the mitzvah was a one-time-only command to Yehoshua to conquer the land. One-time-only mitzvos aren’t counted in the 613, as per the Rambam’s third rule of counting mitzvos. The fact that the mitzvah applied to Dovid Hamelech proves that it was not a one-time-only mitzvah. To use the halachic terms, it is ledoros (for the generations) and not leshaah (one-time-only). And that is exactly what the Ramban means when he says we were commanded to conquer it in all generations – that it is a permanent mitzvah. But there are certainly times when the mitzvah of conquest is suspended, namely during exile. In this respect it is just like all the mitzvos relating to the Beis Hamikdash and the korbanos, which are considered permanent mitzvos, counted among the 613, yet they are suspended during exile.
In the end, the Ramban does prove that it’s a mitzvah during exile too. But let’s be exact: he proves that the mitzvah of living there applies during exile, not the mitzvah of conquering. We have to read the Ramban carefully. Up until this point, the Ramban calls the mitzvah lareshes, “to take possession” of the land. Now he makes an additional point: that the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisroel of which Chazal speak is also part of this same mitzvah, “for we were commanded to take possession of the land in order to live in it.” In other words, the real mitzvah is to live in the land, and conquering is only a hechsher mitzvah – a preparatory stage in order to reach the mitzvah. Writing tefillin is preparation for putting them on, but the mitzvah is only to put them on. If one has pre-written tefillin, he is under no obligation to write them. Building a succah is preparation for sitting in it, but the mitzvah is only to sit in it. If one has a pre-built succah he does not have to build another one. Similarly, from the fact that Chazal speak highly of living in Eretz Yisroel even during exile, the Ramban concludes that the real mitzvah is living there, not conquering it. Conquering in the time of Yehoshua and Dovid was only a preparation that made it possible to live there, but if one can live there without conquering it, he also fulfills the mitzvah. Therefore, even during exile when conquest is forbidden under the oaths, it is possible to live there and fulfill the mitzvah.
This fits very well with the words of the Ramban. And on the contrary, the Ramban actually sounds like he makes the unstated assumption that there is an oath that forbids conquest during exile. Otherwise, why does he have to bring another proof that the mitzvah applies during exile? What should be the difference between Dovid Hamelech’s time and our time, if not the oath?
And the Ramban expresses no surprise that Chazal in their time speak only of the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisroel, not conquering it. He merely says that despite the suspension of the hechsher mitzvah of conquering, it is still possible to do the mitzvah itself, living there.
Also note his words: “It is a positive commandment for all generations, in which each one of us is obligated, even during exile.” Why does he say “each one of us”? Because he knows that if the mitzvah were on the Jewish people as a whole, it would be impossible to fulfill it during exile without conquest. There is no way that any power ruling the land would allow the entire Jewish people to return to the land en masse – they would see it as a threat to their rule. They would only allow one Jew here and one Jew there to come. Therefore, the Ramban says, it is a mitzvah that whatever individual Jews can come and live there, should do so.
It has also been proposed by Rabbi David Smith (Derech Hachaim, p. 25) that the Ramban’s intent was that even the commandment that a Jew should live in the land as an individual during exile applies only when living in the land is consistent with exile, that is, when a non-Jewish government rules the land. But living under a Jewish government such as the State of Israel might itself constitute a violation of the oath. The Ramban felt no need to mention this exception to the commandment because he did not foresee the rise of a Jewish government in the Holy Land before moshiach.
And you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for to you I have given the land to inherit it. (33:53).
The Ramban in his commentary to the Torah and in Sefer Hamitzvos argues that this verse is a commandment, not merely a promise as Rashi interprets it. He says that the commandment to live in Eretz Yisroel should be counted as one of the 613 mitzvos, and that this is why Chazal say (Sotah 44b) that Yehoshua’s war against the Canaanites was a “milchemes mitzvah,” an obligatory war. It was not a war just for the sake of killing the Canaanites, like the war against Amalek, but a war to conquer the land. If the Canaanites had left the land, there would no longer have been any mitzvah to fight them.
Then the Ramban adds that when Chazal say that anyone who lives outside Eretz Yisroel is as if he worshipped idols (Kesubos 110b), and that living in Eretz Yisroel is equal to all the other mitzvos (Sifri Re’eh 80), they are referring to this mitzvah. Thus we that the mitzvah applies even during exile.
Some people mistakenly think that the Ramban means that the mitzvah during exile is the same obligation as during the time of the Beis Hamikdash: to conquer the land and drive out its inhabitants. But this is incorrect – this would be forbidden by the oaths against taking over the land “as a wall” and “forcing the end” of exile (Kesubos 111a). Rather, he means that if an individual Jew lives in the land, he fulfills a mitzvah. This is apparent from the Ramban’s choice of words: “If so, it is a positive commandment for all generations, in which every one of us is obligated, even during the exile.” (Vayoel Moshe 2:2)
This is explained by the Rashbash (Responsa, #2): “There is no doubt that living in Eretz Yisroel is a great mitzvah at all times, both during and after the time of the Temple, and my grandfather the Ramban counted it as one of the mitzvos, as it says, ‘You shall take possession of it and live in it,’ and so is the opinion of my father the Rashbatz in his work Zohar Harakia. And even according to the Rambam who did not count it as a mitzvah, it is at least a Rabbinic mitzvah, besides the many other benefits of living there. However, during exile this is not a general mitzvah for all Jews, but on the contrary it is forbidden, as the Gemora says in the last chapter of Kesubos, that this is one of the oaths that the Holy One, blessed is He, made the Jews swear: that they not hurry the end and not go up as a wall. Go and see what happened to the children of Ephraim when they hurried the end! However, it is a mitzvah for any individual to go up and live there, but if there are considerations that prevent him he is not obligated.”
Similarly, Rabbi Shmuel Salant quotes the law that a wife may force her husband to move to Eretz Yisroel (Kesubos 110b), and then asks why – even according to the Ramban, he says, there is no obligation on every Jew to move to Eretz Yisroel, since this is one of the Three Oaths. He therefore explains that she can only force him to move if she is willing to move even without him. In that case, if he refuses to come along, he is not fulfilling his marital obligations to her, and he must divorce her. But if she wants to move only with him, then he has no obligation to move. (Printed in Tzefunos, year 3 issue 1, p. 46)
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The Rambam does not count living in Eretz Yisroel as one of the 613 mitzvos. The Megillas Esther explains that this is because the mitzvah only applied in the ancient Temple times, and the Ramban only counts mitzvos that apply for all times. This is a very strange statement by the Megillas Esther, for surely the mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisroel will apply in the times of Moshiach, and the Rambam counts mitzvos that will come back into force only in the times of Moshiach, such as terumah, maaser, challah, and all the mitzvos of the Temple service.
The Minchas Elazar explains that in the time of Moshiach, the mitzvah to conquer the land and expel its inhabitants will not simply come back into force like terumah and maaser. Moshiach will come in a miraculous way, predicted by a prophet; he himself will be a prophet close to Moshe Rabbeinu’s level (Rambam Teshuva 9:2), and he will be able to tell each Jew what tribe he comes from (Melachim 12:3). He will succeed in getting all Jews to repent (Melachim 11:4), a feat no one could accomplish under normal conditions. All the gentile nations will call in the name of Hashem (ibid.), and they will come to hear Moshiach as well (Teshuva 9:2). The statement of the Gemora (Shabbos 63a), quoted by the Rambam (Melachim 12:2), that “there is no difference between this world and the days of Moshiach except the subjugation of the nations,” means that in the general world there will be nothing miraculous, but Moshiach himself will be a wondrous person. Thus the Jewish people will not have to conquer Eretz Yisroel in those future times; Moshiach, with his influence over the nations, will solve that problem. It is thus incorrect to say that the mitzvah of taking over the land will apply in the future, for even in the future it will not be a mitzvah for the Jewish people; it will be Moshiach’s task. (Minchas Elazar 5:16)
The Minchas Elazar adds that nowadays, since the Zionists have made living in Eretz Yisroel the center of their ideology, even the Ramban would agree that we should not put effort into this mitzvah. This is comparable to the one-stone altar called a matzeivah, which was used by the Avos and was beloved to Hashem at that time, but later became forbidden because the idol worshippers had begun to use it (Rashi on Devarim 16:22).
Rabbi Isaac of Komarna (1806-1874) contends that the Rambam basically agrees to the Ramban that there is a mitzvah to conquer Eretz Yisroel and that we must not leave it in the hands of gentiles or unoccupied. However, he holds that it cannot be counted among the 613 mitzvos because we do not count mitzvos that are not within human power to fulfill. For example, prophecy is central to Judaism, yet there is no mitzvah for a Jew to be a prophet, because a Jew cannot select that status for himself; it is up to G-d to give it to him.
Here too, the conquest of Eretz Yisroel, no matter at what point in history, was not something that the Jews could just do on their own. They needed to be commanded by a prophet to do so. The conquests of Yehoshua and David, as well as the establishment of the Second Commonwealth in the time of Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly, were all accompanied by commands from the prophets of the time. But in the absence of a command, Jews are forbidden under oath to rebel against the nations, and we must accept exile with love until the coming of moshiach. When moshiach arrives, the restoration of the Jews to Eretz Yisroel will not take place naturally, but through prophecy and wonders. Thus it cannot be counted as one of the 613 mitzvos, for the mitzvos were given to men of flesh and blood, not to prophets who change the laws of nature.(Otzar Hachaim, Kitzur Taryag Mitzvos, p. 59)
Although the Rambam (Melachim 12:2) quotes the Gemara’s statement (Shabbos 63a) that “there is no difference between this world and the days of moshiach except the subjugation of the nations,” the Minchas Elazar (5:16) explains that this means that in the general world there will be nothing miraculous, but moshiach himself will be a wondrous person. He will come in a miraculous way, predicted by a prophet; he himself will be a prophet close to Moshe Rabbeinu’s level (Rambam Teshuva 9:2), and he will be able to tell each Jew what tribe he comes from (Melachim 12:3). He will succeed in getting all Jews to repent (Melachim 11:4), a feat no one could accomplish under normal conditions. All the gentile nations will call in the name of Hashem (ibid.), and they will come to hear Moshiach as well (Teshuva 9:2).
The difference between Rabbi Isaac of Komarna’s explanation of the Rambam and that of the Megillas Esther (as explained by the Minchas Elazar) is that according to the Megillas Esther, conquering Eretz Yisroel was at one time in history a mitzvah given to the Jewish people to be fulfilled through natural means, like any other mitzvah. But since in the time of moshiach it will not be fulfilled through natural means, it is considered a temporary mitzvah and cannot be counted in the 613. Rabbi Isaac of Komarna, on the other hand, holds that even in ancient times it was not a natural mitzvah, since it required the command of a prophet.
And you shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I dwell, for I am Hashem who dwells in the midst of the Children of Israel (35:34)
In the blessing after cake, fruit or wine we say, “And build Jerusalem, the holy city, speedily in our days, and bring us up to its midst, and make us joyful in its building, and let us eat of its fruit and be sated from its goodness, and may we bless You for it in holiness and purity.” The Tur Orach Chaim 208, quoting the Sefer Mitzvos Katan 151, writes that it is incorrect to say the words “and let us eat of its fruit and be sated from its goodness” because we must desire Eretz Yisroel for spiritual reasons, not for the sake of its fruit and its goodness.
However, the Bach defends the commonly accepted text of the blessing as follows: “The holiness of Eretz Yisroel, which descends to it from the holiness of the heavenly Eretz Yisroel, is felt even in its fruits, which derive nourishment from the holiness of the Divine Presence that lives in Eretz Yisroel. This Divine Presence is the reason why the Torah warns at the end of Parshas Masei, ‘Do not defile the land in which you live, in which I dwell, for I am Hashem who dwells in the midst of the Children of Israel.’G-d warns us: If you defile Eretz Yisroel, the defilement will extend even into its fruits which derive nourishment from it.
“Nowadays,” continues the Bach, “the Divine Presence has already departed from the midst of the land. G-d says: My Presence, which once dwelt literally in the earth of Eretz Yisroel, has departed due to the defilement with which you have defiled it. As a result, I took My Presence away from the midst of the Children of Israel. Until now they were the sanctuary of Hashem, in whose midst the Divine Presence was literally dwelling. But now that they eat from fruits that derive their nourishment from the defilement of Eretz Yisroel, the Divine Presence goes out, because when the defilement enters with the eating of the fruits, the holiness goes out of the Jewish people.”
“Therefore, it makes sense for us to insert into the blessing the words, ‘and let us eat of its fruit and be sated from its goodness’ because through eating the fruits of Eretz Yisroel we will derive nourishment from the holiness and purity of the Divine Presence, and we will be sated with the goodness of the Divine Presence.”
We see an amazing concept in this Bach. The difference between Eretz Yisroel during exile and Eretz Yisroel at the time of the redemption is not that during exile Eretz Yisroel does not produce fruits and at the time of the redemption it will produce fruits. It produces fruits at all times, but during exile the land is defiled, its fruits are defiled and so those who eat it become defiled, resulting in the departure of the Divine Presence from them. When the redemption arrives, G-d’s holiness will once again fill the land, its fruits will be holy and those who eat them will be nourished from holiness. Thus the Smak’s objection is unfounded, because when we say this blessing we truly are praying for the spiritual aspect of Eretz Yisroel.
Many Zionists quote the Gemara in Sanhedrin 98a as a proof that their state is a part of the redemption process. The Gemara says, “You have no more revealed end [of exile] than this: ‘And you, mountains of Israel, give forth your branches and bear your fruit to my people Israel’ (Yechezkel 36:8).” Rashi says, “When Eretz Yisroel gives forth its fruit generously, then the end will draw near, and you have no more revealed end.”
We have already quoted (Parshas Bechukosai) the Maharsha, who says that the Gemara refers to the land miraculously producing new fruit every day, or at least exceptionally large and abundant fruit like in Temple times (see Kesubos 112a). Regular fruit is not a sign of anything, and indeed the land produced regular fruit throughout the centuries of exile. This is implied by Rashi, who says that the sign is only if it produces fruit “generously.” Now, in the words of the Bach, we find further confirmation of the fact that Eretz Yisroel does produce fruit during exile, and the fundamental difference between the fruits of exile and the fruits of redemption is a spiritual one.
This is further born out by the Midrash Eicha, Pesicha 34: “Rabbi Zeira said: How audacious is Eretz Yisroel! For it still produces fruit [during exile]. And why does it produce fruit? Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi discussed this. One said: Because they fertilize it. The other said: Because they turn over its soil.” Hashem does not wish to alter the natural order of the world, and the natural order of the world is that when one plants and puts in the proper effort, the seeds sprout and grow.
Similarly, the Gemara in Avodah Zarah 54b says, “If one steals a measure of wheat and plants it in the ground, by all rights it should not grow. But the world follows its normal course, and the fools who sinned will be punished.”
And I brought you to the luscious land, to eat its fruit and its good, but you came and defiled My land, and My property you made into an abomination. (Yirmiyah 2:7)
Some Zionists have claimed that it is better for irreligious Jews to live in Eretz Yisroel than elsewhere in the world. They based themselves on the Yalkut on Eichah 3:20: “Said the Holy One, blessed is He: If only the children of My people would be in Eretz Yisroel, even if they defile it!” But the true meaning of the Yalkut is in line with the Ramban in his introduction to the book of Devarim. The Ramban says that the reason Moshe Rabbeinu told the Jews all the stories of how they rebelled in the wilderness, and how Hashem Yisborach forgave them, was so that they should not be afraid to enter Eretz Yisroel. The Jews might have said, “How can we live in Eretz Yisroel? Everyone commits some sins, and in that holy land where everything proceeds with strict justice, we will be punished immediately.” Therefore Moshe taught them how merciful and forgiving Hashem Yisborach is. He wants his children to stay in the land He gave them, even though they sin occasionally. This is what the Yalkut means: “If only the children of My people would be in Eretz Yisroel” – as long as they are My people, even if they commit some sins. But those who completely turn their backs on Hashem, His people and the Torah have no place in the Holy Land. (Vayoel Moshe 1:103)
The Kohanim did not say, “Where is Hashem?” And the supporters of the Torah did not know Me, and the leaders sinned against Me, and the prophets prophesied about the Baal, and followed those who will not help. (Haftarah, Yirmiyahu 2:8)
Rabbi Meir Arik, the Buchacher Rav (1855-1926), used to explain this verse as follows: The Kohanim were the spiritual leaders of the people, whose job it was to teach the people the proper Torah outlook. But they did not say, “Where is Hashem?” They chose to remain silent. Consequently, “the supporters of the Torah do not know Me” – the simple Jews remained ignorant of what the Torah says. From where did they draw their viewpoint on the world? From the prophets of the Baal, who were anything but silent. “The prophets prophesied about the Baal” – they are the ones doing the talking, and thus the simple Jews think that their help will come through the Baal. The whole situation, however, could have been rectified if only the Kohanim had spoken out and taken a stand against the prophets of the Baal. (Kol Yaakov, p. 15)
These false prophets were not as obviously false as we might think. The trial they presented was such that people greater than the greatest among us fell into their trap (see Sanhedrin 102b). They used Torah to justify their position.
Rabbi Yochanan said: Jerusalem was only destroyed because they judged cases according to Torah law. The Gemara objects: How then should they have judged cases – with violence? The Gemara amends the words of Rabbi Yochanan: They based their laws on Torah law and did not go beyond the letter of the law. (Bava Metzia 30b)
We must ask: doing everything according to Torah law is no small achievement. If only all Jews today would follow the simple Torah law! Why then was the Jewish people punished for not going beyond the law? Not everybody is able to achieve that level.
Rabbi Avraham Lieberman answered this based on the Ksav Sofer’s comment on the verse ממרים הייתם עם ה’, “You have been rebels against Hashem” (Devarim 9:7). The word ממרים (“rebels”) can also mean “those who rule on a legal question”; thus Moshe Rabbeinu rebuked the Jewish people and said, “Whenever you sin, you find various legal grounds to permit what you do.” The words עם ה’, translated above as “against Hashem,” would now take on their literal meaning, “with Hashem”: By finding grounds to permit a sin, the Jews made their sin into something done “with Hashem,” i.e. permitted acts.
Accordingly, we can explain Rabbi Yochanan’s words differently: Jerusalem was only destroyed because they based their laws – the excuses they used to permit sins – on the words of Torah.
One might object that the context of this Gemara in Bava Metzia (“and did not go beyond the letter of the law”) shows that it is talking about following strict Torah law, not about using the Torah to justify outright sins. The answer is that the Gemara is talking about both, for both these problems stem from one mistake. When a person understands the spirit of the Torah’s laws, he will go beyond the letter of the law. To use the example mentioned earlier in the Gemara there, when a man asked Rabbi Yishmoel to help him lift his load of wood, Rabbi Yishmoel could have refused and walked away, since the Torah exempts an eminent scholar from this mitzvah. But Rabbi Yishmoel understood that the purpose of the mitzvah is to help another Jew in need. Therefore Rabbi Yishmoel paid the man the value of the wood and told him to leave it there.
When someone uses his scholarly skills to “prove” that the Torah justifies a sin, how are his listeners to know whether to accept his conclusion? They may not be scholarly enough to disprove his arguments, but they will be able to tell whether his conclusion follows the spirit of the Torah or not.
Thus, the mistake of not taking the trouble to understand the spirit of the Torah’s laws leads to two problems: the failure to go beyond the letter of the law, and the much more serious offense of basing sins on the Torah.
This is the time of year when we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and give thought to why it has not yet been rebuilt. The criticisms voiced by Yirmiyahu Hanavi and Rabbi Yochanan are still applicable to us today. We have in our midst many false prophets who use Torah arguments to claim that we have the right to rule over Eretz Yisroel during galus. Those who know better are, for the most part, silent on this issue. That leaves us simple Jews to decide the matter on our own. If we understand the spirit of the Torah – that Hashem placed us in galus and wants us there for many good reasons – we will know that any efforts to counter His decree are wrong and will ultimately be met with failure.
Furthermore, our non-acceptance of galus prolongs the galus. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi describes a dialogue between the king of the Khazars and a rabbi. The rabbi states that the Jewish people is closer to G-d today, in their humble state of exile, than if they were a mighty nation. The king asks: “That might be so if your humility were voluntary; but it is involuntary, and if you had power you would slay.” The rabbi replies: “You have touched our weak spot, O King of the Khazars. If the majority of us had accepted our humble status for the sake of G-d and His Torah, G-d would not have forced us to bear it for such a long period. But only the smallest portion of our people thinks thus…If we bore our exile and degradation for G-d’s sake, as we should, we would be outstanding even by the standards of the generation of the messianic era, for which we hope, and we would accelerate the day of our long-awaited deliverance.” (Kuzari Maamar 1, 113-115)