Israel in Rabbinic Literature

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

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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.

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Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

Rabbi Ed Snitkoff is the Director of the Ramah Israel Seminar and lives in Jerusalem.