The Land of Israel in Medieval Jewish Thought

Print this page Print this page

Unlike Halevi and Ibn Ezra, Maimonides (1135-1204) believed that the Land of Israel was inherently like all other lands, but this didn't mean it was philosophically insignificant. According to Maimonides, intellectual perfection is the goal of human existence, and exile and instability make it more difficult to achieve these goals. In addition, certain commandments could only be observed in the Land. In these regards, however, the Land is a means, not an end in itself. In fact, Maimonides did not believe that settling the Land was one of the 613 commandments.

Nahmanides (1194-1270) severely criticized Maimonides for this position. According to him, not only was the settlement of the Land a commandment; all of the commandments were meant exclusively for those residing in the Land. They are observed in exile in preparation for the return to the Land. In addition, Nahmanides approved of--perhaps encouraged--militarily conquest of the Land.

Nahmanides' devotion to the Land was rooted in kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism. In the kabbalistic theory of the sefirot (the ten divine attributes/emanations), the Land of Israel was an important symbol of Malkhut (Kingship), a female divine attribute also known as Shekhinah. In the sexual imagery of kabbalah, it was desirable to try to unite this female attribute with the male attribute Tiferet (Glory). This conjunction was facilitated by commandments fulfilled in the Land of Israel, and it increased harmony in both the divine and human realms.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.