What About the Land?

Early rabbinic literature does not devote much attention to the uniqueness of the Land of Israel.

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After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the rabbinic leadership, focused in the city of Yavne, reformulated Judaism to withstand exile and the loss of the Temple, which had been the central focus of Jewish life. The crushing defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans (132-135) further demoralized and disbursed the Jewish people. The following article traces the evolving role that the Land of Israel played in the thought of the early leaders of the era of rabbis known as the Tannaim (1st century C.E. to 200 C.E.) in Yavne. Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from Land, Center, and Diaspora: Jewish Constructs in Late Antiquity (Sheffield Academic Press).

A systematic study of all rabbinic statements on "the Land," its status, attributes, and require­ments, serves to temper significantly any sense of a monolithic, unchang­ing rabbinic approach to the issue. Indeed, a comprehensive analysis of these statements reveals, to begin with, that the degree to which these issues surrounding the Land were even taken up in statements attributed to the early Tannaim, up to and including the Bar Kokhba war, is minimal. 

A review of the hundreds of statements attributed to sages such as Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, R. Joshua, R. Eliezer, R. Eleazar b. Azariah, and even R. Akiva, reveals a striking paucity of allusions to the character and supernatural attributes of the Land, and similarly there is minimal allusion to the Land's centrality vis-à-vis the Diaspora and the consequently required commitment of Jews towards the Land.

Dual Homelands?

All this is striking precisely in light of the numerous statements attributed to these very same rabbis regarding the "commandments pertaining to the Land." Indeed, the only statement by Yohanan b. Zakkai relating to the status of the Land and the nature of exile totally ignores any discussion of the attributes of the Land, and in fact seems to suggest almost the opposite:

land of israel"Why were Israel exiled to Babylonia more than all other lands? Because the House of Abraham our patriarch is from there. To what might this be likened--to a woman who has misbehaved towards her husband. To where does he send her--to her father's home!" (Talmud, Baba Kama 7:3).

One might almost read into this statement the embracing of what is usually considered a uniquely Hellenistic idea, namely that Israel, like other ethnic groups, have a dual homeland. Philo refers to Egypt as the other homeland (Vit. Mos. 1.36), whereas the rabbinic statement considers Babylonia to be the nation's second (or even original) homeland.

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Isaiah Gafni is a Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specializes in the history of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period.