By: Rabbi Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
Parasha Mattot begins:
In Parasha Mas’e, we find a command that the Jewish people “shall take possession of the land [of Yisra’el] and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.” Bamidbar 33:53.
In contravention of the plain language of Parasha Mas’e, some claim that the “Three Oaths” require that the Jewish people not form a sovereign state in Eretz Yisra’el (the Land of Israel) prior to the coming of the Messiah.
According to aggadahic legend, the Three Oaths are oaths that were compelled by HaShem. They are found in Shir ha-Shirim (Song of Songs), in Ketuvim (Writings), in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). The Three Oaths are expounded upon in Midrashic aggadah and later discussed in the Talmud, in Masechet Ketubot, 110b, 111a.
The Three Oaths consist of two oaths for Yisra’el and one oath for the other nations. The two oaths which, according to Shir ha-Shirim, are applicable to the Jewish people are: (1) The Jewish people will not go up to the Eretz Yisra’el en-masse. Rashi, an 11th century Jewish commentator, interpreted this “oath” as meaning that the Jewish people would not take Eretz Yisra’el by force. (2) The Jewish people will not rebel against the nations.
The oath that HaShem made the nations swear was that they would not oppress Yisra’el “too much.”
There are at least three reasons why the Three Oaths do not prohibit the Jewish people from forming (or maintaining) a sovereign state in Eretz Yisra’el.
1. The Written Law Trumps Aggadah
The Written Torah, divinely conveyed by HaShem commands that: the Jewish people “shall take possession of the land of [Yisra’el] and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.” Bamidbar 33:53. The Writings (Ketuvim), written by mere human beings, are ineffective to contradict the Written Torah.
The Three Oaths, which are aggadah, do not form any part of Jewish Law (Halakha). The Three Oaths are not found in the Shulhan Arukh (the Code of Jewish Law) or in any other authoritative source of Jewish Law. To the contrary, Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish commentator, held that the Three Oaths are merely “metaphorical” and wrote that “[i]t is forbidden to leave Eretz Yisrael for the Diaspora at all times except: to study Torah; to marry; or to save [one’s property] from the gentiles. [After accomplishing these objectives,] one must return to Eretz Yisrael.” Mishneh Torah, Melachim 5:9.
2. The Three Oaths Are Not Binding
Because the Nations Oppressed Israel “Too Much”
The oaths allegedly sworn by Yisra’el and the oath allegedly sworn by the nations are interdependent. That is, the violation of an oath by one relieves the other of its obligations.
The nations violated their oath by oppressing Yisra’el “too much” during the Shoah (Holocaust), which resulted in the nullification of any obligation on the part of the Jewish people.
Following World War II, the United Nations passed Resolution 181, which resulted in the formation of Medinat Yisa’el, the modern-day state of Israel.
3. The Jewish People Did Not Violate the Oaths
by Establishing the State of Israel
Regardless of whether the nations oppressed Yisra’el “too much,” the Jewish people did not violate their “oaths.”
The Three Oaths do not enjoin the Jewish people from having a sovereign state. Rather, they simply purport to enjoin the Jewish people from forming a state by force of arms or through rebellion. The Jewish people did not conquer Eretz Yisra’el by force, nor did the Jewish people rebel against the nations.
As mentioned above, Medinat Yisra’el was established as a result of international consensus, which did not involve any use of force or rebellion on the part of the Jewish people. The fact that Medinat Yisra’el, immediately after its formation, successfully defended itself from attack by all surrounding Arab countries is irrelevant. The Three Oaths only proscribe conquering the Land by force or rebelling against the nations; they do not proscribe self-defense.
Thus, we see that the Three Oaths do not, in any way, bear upon the legitimacy of the existence of the modern-day State of Israel.
May all nations and peoples, Jew and Gentile alike, come to understand and accept that HaShem gave Eretz Yisra’el to the Jewish people as an inheritance and that the Jewish people are – for all time – the rightful owners of the entirety of Eretz Yisrael.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American attorney who resides in Jerusalem, Israel.