Israel in Rabbinic Literature

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

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To these rabbis, the sanctity of the Land enriches all aspects of life, such as Torah study: "There is no Torah like the Torah of the Land of Israel" (Sifrei Parshat Ekev). Even death and burial is elevated in Israel: One who is buried there is forgiven of all sins, as if hr or she were "buried under the altar of the Temple itself" (Ketubot 111a). This holiness is such that even one who is outside of Israel must "direct his heart to the Land of Israel" during prayer (Tosefta Berakhot).

The Tannaitic rabbis do not mince words when it comes to the importance of living in Israel: "Our Rabbis taught: One should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city with a population that is primarily non-Jewish, rather than in a city outside of the Land in which there is a majority of Jews. Whoever lives outside the Land of Israel is as one who does not have God." (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 110b).

Not only is the value of living in Israel more important than living in a vibrant Jewish community, it is also more important than family. The Mishnah states that a wife who wants to move to Israel can force her husband to divorce her if he refuses to join her (and vice versa).  In the same vein, leaving the Land is also grounds for divorce.  

Stubborn, But Realistic

We do not know the full effect that these and similar laws and teachings had on Jewish practice during the Tannaitic period, but we know that these texts set the tone for the future.  Later rabbis would be forced to rationalize their own lives outside of Israel according to the benchmark set by the Tannaim. 

While stubbornly struggling to maintain the community in Israel, the Tannaim were also realists. They knew that Jewish life needed to adapt to the reality of the destruction of Jerusalem and the mass movement of Jews to the Diaspora. They did all they could to ensure that Judaism would not just survive these challenges, but would thrive--with the Land of Israel remaining at the center of Jewish consciousness.  

There are many innovations from this period that simultaneously established a framework for Diaspora Jewish life while retaining a strong connection to the Land:

The adoption of the synagogue as a proxy for the Temple in Jerusalem gave every Jewish community a spiritual home and the opportunity to connect to the Land of Israel in a number of ways: Synagogues face Jerusalem and the liturgy and rituals are based on the service in the Temple.

The Jewish calendar was crafted to coincide with the seasons in the Land. 

The Rabbis established a number of rituals and special days to keep Israel at the center of Jewish memory, such as the fast of Tisha B'av.

The ability of the early rabbis to remain stubbornly attached to the Land while at the same time react to challenges and crises in a flexible and creative way, allowed the Jewish faith to survive in exile.

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Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

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