By: HaRav Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
Published in the U.S.A.
Parashat BeHar [בהר] begins, “And the Lord spoke to Moshe in Mount Sinay. . . .” Vayyiqra 25:1. The root of the Hebrew word “BeHar” is “Har [הר],” which means “mount” or “mountain.” The first letter of the word “BeHar [בהר] is the Hebrew letter “bet” [ב], which means “in” or “with.” Thus, BeHar [בהר] means “in the mountain” or “with the mountain.”
The root of the Hebrew word “Behuqqotay” [בחקתי] or [בחוקותי] is “hok” [חק] or [חוק], which means “law” or “statute.” “Behuqqotay” means “in My statutes.” A related word “hoka” [חוקה]means “constitution.”
Parashat Behuqqotay begins with HaShem saying, “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments, and do them, then I will give you rain in due season and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. . . .” Vayyiqra 26:3-4.
In other words, HaShem is telling the Jewish people that if they live according to the Torah, then HaShem will bless them; He will give the Jewish people rain when rain is needed and make “the land” productive. The land to which HaShem is referring is not, of course, Boston, Brussels, Berlin, Barcelona, Beijing, or Bombay; “the Land” is Eretz Yisra’el.
How do we know that HaShem is referring to Eretz Yisra’el? We know this because HaShem just told us in Parashat BeHar that HaShem brought the Jewish people “out of the land of Misrayim to give [them] the land of Kena’an,” that is, to give the Jewish people Eretz Yisra’el, “and to be [their] G-d.” Vayyiqra 25:38.
Returning to Parashat Behuqqotay, we find that HaShem, after telling the Jewish people that He will bless them if they live according to the Torah, then proceeds to give the Jewish people an admonition [תוכחה], telling them that He will punish them if they fail to comply with the commands of the Torah. “But if you will not harken to Me and will not do all of these commands, and if you shall despise My statutes, or if your soul abhor My judgments so that you will not do all of My commandments. . . .” Vayyiqra 26:14. The admonition [תוכחה] then continues, setting forth five increasingly severe levels of punishment for continued disobedience. Vayyiqra 26:14 – 26:43.
This brings us to the misva of Yishuv Eretz Yisra’el [ישוב ארץ ישראל], that is, the misva to settle in Eretz Yisra’el, also known as making Aliyah [עליה], which in Hebrew literally means to “go up.”
The Talmud states:
Furthermore, the misva of living in Eretz Yisra’el is timeless. The Shulhan Arukh states that: “If [a husband] proposes to ascend to Eretz Yisra’el and [the wife] does not want to [go], [the husband] must divorce her. . . . [And if the wife] proposes ascending [to Eretz Yisra’el] and [the husband] does not want to [go], he must divorce her.” Shulhan Arukh, Even HaEzer 75:4.
Some, however, are of the opinion that it is forbidden to Yishuv Eretz Israel [ישוב ארץ ישראל], that is, to make Aliyah [עליה] and settle in Eretz Yisra’el, prior to the Redemption.
This belief is typically based on three verses from Shir HaShirim [שיר השירים], one of which occurs twice: “I adjure you, O daughters of Yerushalayim, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you stir not up, nor awake my love, until it please,” Shir HaShirim 2:7, 3:5, and another similar verse that occurs once: “I adjure you, O daughters of Yerushalayim, that you stir not up, nor awake my love, until it please.” Id. 8:4.
A Midrash in the Talmud explains that the three verses from Shir HaShirim [שיר השירים] refer to three oaths, two of which HaShem elicited from the Jewish people and one which He elicited from the nations (“Three Oaths”).
The Talmud explains that the Three Oaths are: (1) the Jewish people should not ascend to Eretz Yisra’el as a wall, but little by little; (2) the Jewish people should not rebel against the rule of the nations of the world; and (3) the nations of the world should not excessively subjugate the Jewish people. T.B. Masechet Ketuvot 111a.
In Hebrew, the phrase that “the Jewish people should not ascend to Eretz Yisra’el as a wall [שלא יעלו ישראל בחומה] has been interpreted by the Rabbis to mean that the Jewish people should not “break-in” to Yerushalayim, that is, should not take Yerushalayim by force.
Although the Midrash which discusses the Three Oaths appears to have been written in an effort to prevent a recurrence of the defeat which the Jewish people suffered at the hands of the Romans as a result of the Bar Kokhba revolt (c. 132 C.E. – 136 C.E.), it must, nevertheless, be conceded that the Midrash itself is silent on the issue of whether the Three Oaths were intended to be permanent or limited to a particular period of time.
However, there are at least four reasons why the Three Oaths were either never binding Halakha, or no longer constitute binding Halakha.
First, an “oath,” by definition, is a promise or statement which is made by an individual while invoking the name of HaShem. It is questionable whether a nation – the Jewish people as a whole – are capable of taking an oath, as in all likelihood, not all members of the nation would – or did – agree to be bound by the oath. At most, only members of the nation who actually agreed to be bound by an oath would be subject to its terms.
Therefore, because a nation is not capable of taking an oath, it follows that a nation cannot be bound by the terms of an oath. Thus, the Three Oaths are not, and never were, binding Halakha.
Second, the Three Oaths were never binding on the Jewish people because the Midrash which discusses them is Aggadic in nature (commentary on the non-legal aspects of the Tanakh), as opposed to Halakhic in nature (an explanation of the legal aspects of the Humash).
Halakha (Jewish law) generally requires at least some rabbinical consensus and typically involves the issuance of legal opinions. The purpose of Aggadah, on the other hand, is to motivate the masses by teaching moral, metaphysical, and mystical lessons. Accordingly, Aggadah is not subjected to the rigors which are present in the development of Halakha. For this reason, Halakha is not derived from Aggadah.
Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon (969 C.E. – 1034 C.E., Babylon), one of the last of the Geonim and the author of Mevo HaTalmud [מבוא התלמוד] (Introduction to the Talmud), which is appended to most editions of T.B., Masechet Brachot, wrote that any commentary in the Talmud that does not relate to a misva from the Torah is Aggadah and that Aggadah should be incorporated into Halakha only when it is logically sound to do so. Authorship of Mevo HaTalmud [מבוא התלמוד] is generally attributed – although erroneously – to Shmuel ibn Naghrillah, who is better known as Rabbi Shmuel HaNagid (Shmuel the governor) [שמואל הנגיד] (993 C.E. – c. 1056 C.E., Spain).
Shir HaShirm is a poetic, not a legal, text and does not relate to a misva
from the Torah. Thus, the Three Oaths are Aggadic in nature. Although it may have been logically sound to incorporate the Three Oaths into Halakha for some period of time immediately following the Bar Kokhba revolt, the rationale for doing so no longer exists. Therefore, today, the Three Oaths have no Halakhic application.
Third, that neither the oath to not ascend to Eretz Yisra’el as a wall [שלא יעלו ישראל בחומה], that is, to not “break-in” to Yerushalayim, or the oath to not rebel against the nations, have been violated. Medinat Yisra’el, the modern-day State of Israel came into existence on May 14, 1948, as the result of international agreement in the form of a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly.
Acting in accordance with a United Nations resolution can hardly be construed as ascending to Eretz Yisra’el as a “wall,” “breaking-in to Yerushalayim, or rebelling against the nations of the world. The fact that the State of Israel was attacked by all of its Arab neighbors immediately after it declared its independence, although important for other reasons, is of no Halakhic consequence in the context of the Three Oaths.
Fourth, the nations of the world unnecessarily subjugated the Jewish people during the Holocaust [שואה], thereby releasing the Jewish people from any oaths which may have applied to them.
In conclusion, we know from the Talmud and Halakha that it is a misva to Yishuv Eretz Yisra’el [ישוב ארץ ישראל], that is, to settle in Eretz Yisra’el. We also learn from Parashat Behuqqotay that HaShem promises the Jewish people blessing if we keep His Torah. We also learn, from the Admonition [תוכחה], that there are consequences for not keeping the Torah.
May we all keep the Torah to the best of our ability, including the misva of Yishuv Eretz Yisra’el [ישוב ארץ ישראל] when that is possible, and receive HaShem’s bountiful blessings.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American attorney who resides in Jerusalem, Israel.