Is It A Mitzvah To Make Aliyah?
Is it a mitzvah to make aliyah?
The word mitzvah can mean good deed, but,
technically, it refers to one of the 613 mitzvot or commandments in
the Torah. This number was originally stated by Rabbi Simlai in the
third century (Makkot 23b);
since then dozens of rabbis have
enumerated the 613 commandments.
As I have explained elsewhere,
Eretz Yisrael holds a unique place
in Jewish tradition and history. As a result, we would expect our
tradition to unanimously require aliyah. Yet, in fact, rabbinic
literature contains at least five different approaches towards aliyah:
1. The early midrash of Sifrei Devarim (paragraph 80) relates that
Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and Rabbi Yohanan ha-Sandlar (ca. 150
c.e.) were on their way to study Torah outside of Eretz Yisrael. When
they reached Sidon in Lebanon, they remembered Eretz Yisrael. They
began to cry and they rent their garments and they recited the verse
(Deuteronomy 11:31-32): "When you have occupied it and are
settled in it, take care to observe all of the laws. . . " Said they:
`Dwelling in Eretz Yisrael is equal to all of the other commandments
in the Torah'. Whereupon they turned around and went back to
Nahmanides (1194-1270) followed their approach by ruling that
it is a positive commandment to inherit the land and dwell therein.
Furthermore, he practiced what he preached, arriving in Jerusalem
from Spain in 1267 and settling in Acre.
His opinion was accepted
by a number of prominent medieval rabbis and is very popular
among Israeli rabbis today.
2. On the other hand, the above-mentioned Rabbi Simlai did not
view aliyah as a mitzvah in and of itself but rather as a makhshir
mitzvah or preparatory act which enables one to perform the mitzvot
which can only be performed in Israel such as tithing and the
Sabbatical and Jubilee years.
Rabbi Simlai expounded: Why did Moses our teacher yearn to
enter the land of Israel? Did he want to eat of its fruits or
satisfy himself from its bounty? But thus said Moses: "Many
mitzvot were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled
in Eretz Yisrael. I wish to enter the land so that they may all be
fulfilled by me" (Sotah 14a).
Rabbi Simlai's approach was also followed by a number of
3. Other talmudic sages did not rule explicitly on whether aliyah is a mitzvah, but tried to encourage
aliyah and discourage emigration via
"Both husbands and wives may force their
spouses to make aliyah (Mishna Ketubot 13:11). If a Jew wants to buy
land in Israel, he may tell the non-Jewish owner to draw up the
contract even on Shabbat (Gittin 8b and Bava Kamma 80b). "It is
forbidden to leave Eretz Yisrael unless two se'ah (26.4 liters) of wheat
sell for one selah. Rabbi Shimon said. . . if one can find any wheat at
all, even if one se'ah costs a selah, he should not emigrate" (Bava Batra
Maimonides followed this approach. He codified the specific
laws mentioned above,
yet he did not list aliyah as one of the 613
mitzvot. Indeed, Maimonides himself seems to have visited Israel in
the year 1165, but did not remain.
4. A number of medieval rabbis took a pragmatic approach. Rabbi
Meir of Rothenburg (Germany ca. 1215-1293), for example, did not
think that aliyah was one of the mitzvot, but he did think that
whoever moves to Israel "for the sake of heaven and conducts
himself in holiness and purity, there is no end to his reward,
provided that he can support himself there".
Rabbi Israel Isserlein (Austria, 1390-1460) ruled that it is certainly
praiseworthy to live in Israel. However, since there is danger
involved and since it is hard to earn a living there, "every person
should judge his physical and monetary capabilities if he will be
able to fear Heaven and observe mitzvot [in Israel]" (Pesakim
U'ketavim, no. 88).
5. Lastly, there is the lone talmudic voice of the Babylonian sage
Rabbi Judah who declared that whoever makes aliyah from Babylon
to Israel actually transgresses a positive commandment (sic!).
This negative approach to aliyah was followed by quite a few
Rabbi Judah the Pious (Ashkenaz, thirteenth
century) ruled, for example, that it is preferable not to make aliyah,
because he who does so will not be able to find a wife in Israel nor
have time to study Torah due to the difficult economic conditions.
In modern times, Rabbi Judah's approach has been adopted by
the Satmar Hassidim who rabidly oppose mass aliyah, Zionism and
the State of Israel due to their conviction that only God may redeem
the Jewish people from Exile.
Given these five approaches, it is difficult to state the halakhic
approach to aliyah, since all five can be justified by talmudic and
halakhic sources. Therefore, I would like to explain my halakhic
approach to aliyah.
I made aliyah in 1972 because I believe that aliyah is both a
mitzvah and a makhshir mitzvah. First of all, Nahmanides was right to
list aliyah as a mitzvah. He remained in the minority only because all
attempts to list the 613 mitzvot took place at a time when it was
virtually impossible for most Jews to make aliyah. It seems that most
rabbis saw no point in requiring something so dangerous and
expensive that it was virtually unobtainable. By requiring aliyah, the
rabbis would have turned almost the entire Jewish people into
But the thrust of Numbers 33:53 as well as of the entire
Bible and Talmud is that all Jews are supposed to live in Eretz Yisrael.
That is what God repeatedly promised our ancestors, that is why
God redeemed us from Egypt, and that is where a large percentage
of the mitzvot need to be observed.
Furthermore, aliyah is a mitzvah in the sense of a preparatory act
because it enables one to perform not only the mitzvot connected to
the land (no. 2 above) but all of the mitzvot. In Israel, one can observe
Shabbat and all of the Jewish holidays with ease because the entire
country is on "Jewish time". Israel is conducive to Torah study both
in terms of vast opportunities and in terms of enabling the Bible and
the Talmud to come to life. Living in Israel allows one to master
Hebrew and thereby connect to our heritage which is written in
Hebrew. Israel ensures "Jewish continuity" because, religious or
secular, your children will most likely marry other Jews. Finally,
Israel is the actualization of the prayers we have recited for 2,000
years: "May our eyes behold Your return to Zion with mercy";
"Blessed are you God who gathers the dispersed of Your people
In conclusion, one should make aliyah because living in Israel is a
mitzvah in and of itself as well as a preparatory act which enables
one to observe all of the mitzvot and to live a full Jewish life by living
in a Jewish state.
1. I.e. to immigrate to Israel. There is a vast literature on this subject. In English,
see J. K. Mikliszanski, Judaism 12/2 (Spring 1963), pp. 131-141; J. David
Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. 1, New York and Hoboken, 1977,
pp. 3-13: Ephraim Kanarfogel, Jewish Quarterly Review 76/3 (January 1986),
pp. 191-215; Hershel Schachter in Shubert Spero and Yitzchak Pessin, eds.
Religious Zionism, Jerusalem, 1989, pp. 190-212.
2. See Nahman Danzig, Sinai 83 (5738), pp. 153-158 for the history of this
3. See Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 5, cols. 760-783.
4. See my responsum in Moment 18/6 (December 1993), pp. 34 = above, pp. 31-
32. For the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish tradition, see above, p. 35,
5. Nahmanides to Numbers 33:53 and in his addenda to Sefer Hamitzvot by
Maimonides, no. 4.
6. Regarding Nahmanides' aliyah, see Rabbi Charles Chavel, Ramban: His Life
and Teachings, New York, 1960, pp. 56-66.
7. Responsa Ribash, no. 101: Responsa Tashbatz, part 3, no. 288; Rabbi Ovadiah
Yosef, Torah Shebe'al Peh 11 (5729), pp. 35-42; Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi,
Aseh Lekha Rav, part l, Tel Aviv, 5736, nos. 17-18. This was also the approach
of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook which has been adopted by most religious
Zionists in Israel.
8. For a good summary of the mitzvot dependent on the land, see Dayan I.
Grunfeld, The Jewish Dietary Laws, vol. 2, London, Jerusalem and New York,
9. Rashbam to Bava Batra 91a, s.v. ein yotzin and Rabbi Baruch of Worms,
Haterumah, Warsaw, 1897, p. 122a.
10. This legislation was probably a reaction to the dire economic situation after
the Bar Kokhba revolt. See Gedaliah Alon, The Jews in their Land in the
Talmudic Age, Jerusalem, 1984, pp. 659-661.
11. Ishut 13:20; Avadim 8:9-10; Shabbat 6:11; Melakhim 5:9-12;
Maimonides, ed. Blau, no. 365.
12. See Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 11, cols. 755-756. Regarding Maimonides'
attitude towards Eretz Yisrael, see I. Twersky in Joel Kraemer, ed.,
Perspectives on Maimonides, Oxford, 1991, pp. 257-292.
13. Responsa of the Maharam of Rothenberg, ed. Berlin. Nos. 14-15, but cf. ibid. no.
79 where he states that making aliyah is indeed a mitzvah.
14. Ketubot 110b-111a. Space does not allow me to explain the involved
Talmudic passage regarding "the three oaths" which follows.
15. See the exhaustive treatment by Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism and
Jewish Religious Radicalism, Chicago, 1996, pp. 211-234.
16. See Kanarfogel (above, note 1), pp. 205-206.
17. For the Satmar approach, see Ravitzky, chapter 2 and Encyclopaedia Judaica,
vol. 15, cols. 909-910.
18. Cf. Bava Kamma 79b and parallels: "one does not impose a decree on the
public unless the majority can abide by it".