Maimonides on Israel

Rambam believed the Land of Israel does not have objective importance.

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The place of the realization of messianism. In view of the previous two considerations, messianism serves personal perfection, re­leasing people from the deprivations of ex­ile and restoring the political ideal. The Land of Israel is also an indispensable precondi­tion for the realization of messianism.

It is clear from these three considerations that the Land of Israel does not stand on its own. Maimonides never discusses it in and for itself; its whole existence is instrumen­tal.…

Legal Issues

Turning now to the second category of sources, one finds Maimonides referring with great frequency to the halakhic status of the Land of Israel. As the whole legal system is, for him, an instrument in the achievement of political or intellectual perfection (Guide of the Perplexed 111:27, etc.), that is, a means toward other ends, it is only natural that the Land of Israel should find a distinctive place in that system.

This category of Maimo­nidean sources also begins with a negative point: Maimonides does not count the settlement of the Holy Land as one of the 613 commandments listed in his Book of Commandments. That is to say, the conquest of the land is a commandment, given in the Torah, but residence in the Land of Israel is not considered a biblical precept. This re­mains Maimonides' view in his discussion of messianic times (end of Hilkhot Melakhim in his Mishneh Torah), that is to say, the settle­ment of the Land of Israel will not be a reli­gious duty even in the future.

On the other hand, in a series of rulings, Maimonides establishes the legal status of the Land of Israel, an act significant beyond the halakhic achievements of the geonim [early Diaspora Jewish leaders] and of other Diaspora scholars. Thanks to the unique qualities of the Mishneh Torah as a compre­hensive, systematic legal code, it was here that the legal status of the Land of Israel was clearly stated and founded on definite halak­hic criteria; here lies Maimonides' contrib­ution to the subject.

Laws of the Land

Despite the fact that he is essentially reworking and rewriting things said by earlier rabbinic authorities and Diaspora scholars, such as Judah Halevi, his choice of laws and rulings and their in­clusion in the monumental framework of the Mishneh Torah clearly defined the unique legal status of the Land of Israel.

This status, according to Maimonides, is based on the following principles:

(1) Jewish presence in the Land of Israel is crucial for the authority of the Great Court (Bet ha-Din ha-Gadol). Once the dominant position of the Jews in their land had become impaired, the supreme legal authority of that body was also undermined. In Hilkhot Kiddush HaHodesh 5:3, Maimonides states that the original sanctification of the New Moon by witnesses was replaced by sanctification by calculation "at the time the Land of Israel was destroyed." Before then, "everyone re­lied on the determination of the Land of Israel."

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Dov Schwartz

Dov Schwartz is a professor in the philosophy department at Bar Ilan University.