Mass migration to the Land of Israel

Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism
"During the second half of the fifteenth century, there was a mass movement in Castile; men, women, and children traveled by sea to the Land of Israel. This type of awakening, unprecedented for generations, was probably connected with messianic fervor and, as might be expected, aroused anger and suspicion among other contemporary Jews. The heads of the Jewish community in Saragossa were severely critical, emphasizing in a letter to their Castilian counterparts the dangers involved in a mass voyage to the Holy Land. In this protest it is difficult to separate theological considerations from pragmatic apprehensions of the Gentiles' reaction to such a move. In any event, this mass migration to the Land of Israel was openly denounced as an attempt to force the End and to meddle with messianic redemption.”

Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism
Translated by Michael Swirsky and Jonathan Chipman
Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism

The Orthodox Jewish tradition affirms that Jewish exile will end with the coming of the Messiah. How, then, does Orthodoxy respond to the political realization of a Jewish homeland that is the State of Israel? In this cogent and searching study, Aviezer Ravitzky probes Orthodoxy's divergent positions on Zionism, which range from radical condemnation to virtual beatification.

Ravitzky traces the roots of Haredi ideology, which opposes the Zionist enterprise, and shows how Haredim living in Israel have come to terms with a state to them unholy and therefore doomed. Ravitzky also examines radical religious movements, including the Gush Emunim, to whom the State of Israel is a divine agent. He concludes with a discussion of the recent transformation of Habad Hassidism from conservatism to radical messianism.

This book is indispensable to anyone concerned with the complex confrontation between Jewish fundamentalism and Israeli political sovereignty, especially in light of the tragic death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Web (Extracted 01-08-2016)


"Only a few years later, Rabbi Ezra, leader of the Kabbalist circle in Gerona, issued an appeal to the people to make their peace with the yoke of exile. "At this time," he wrote, "The people of Israel are already exempted from the obligation of [living in] the Land of Israel. When they suffer exile for the love of the Holy One, blessed be He, and undergo affliction and subjugation, this serves as an altar of expiation for them; as it is said: 'For Your sake...we are slain all day long' [Ps. 44:23].” Thus the concrete Land of Israel is not needed or required until the era of the Messiah; on the contrary, whoever goes there may be seen as forsaking the Shekinah, which now dwells with the dispersed people of Israel. A similar line was taken by Rabbi Azriel, the disciple of Rabbi Ezra (and apparently also his son-in-law). He too set aside the Land of Israel during the premessianic period, asserting that the Shekinah no longer dwelt there: "Wherever the people of Israel went into exile, sanctity dwells among them; therefore [the Holy One says], 'I will not come to the city' which has been joined together, to the lower Jerusalem, until the time of the End, when Israel will return there; and [only then] the Shekinah will return together with them...During the time of the Exile, however, because 'the Holy One [is] in your midst,' He will not come to the city [Hosea 11:9].”

The idea of the exile of the Shekinah illuminated the three oaths in a unique mystical light. The lower, historical exile reflects the metaphysical, supernal exile---the separation of the Shekinah from its higher, divine source; the oaths disinclined the Jewish people to rebel against their exile while the Shekinah had not been delivered from its supernal exile. In the language of Rabbi Ezra: "' I have adjured thee': these are the words of the Shekinah in the time of exile; adjuring Israel not to force the End and not to arouse love until there comes the time of favor... [At the present time, however], the Shekinah is far from its place.” As noted by Haviva Pedaya, the particular notion of the three oaths may have been connected by Rabbi Ezra with specific Kabbalistic ideas regarding the concept of oath as such. According to this idea, the power of an oath forces itself upon the Godhead itself. God, too, is bound by the vow until the End of Days. In any event, it is clear that these oaths of passivity dovetailed with Ezra's mystical approach. Even at the time of redemption, he believed, the people of Israel will uphold their vow and not rebel against the nations of the world: "Thereafter Israel, the scattered ones who are dispersed among the nations, will place upon themselves one head, that is, Messiah son of David who was with them in exile, and will go up to the Land of Israel by the permission of the kings of the nations and with their help!" That is to say, the Third Temple, like the second one, will also be built only with the consent of the Gentiles.

Is it mere chance that the best-known immigrant to the land in the thirteenth century, Rabbi Moses Nahmanides, emerged from this same circle of mystics in Gerona, but profoundly disagreed with them as to the mystical status of the Land of Israel? Nahmanides took a diametrically opposed position on all the above questions. In contrast to the view exempting contemporary Jews from the obligation of living in the Land of Israel, Nahmanides was the first to formally establish the act of dwelling in the land as “A positive commandment incumbent upon any individual in every generation, even in the time of exile.” In contrast to Rabbi Ezra's insistence that even in the messianic age the people of Israel will settle their land with the permission of other nations, Nahmanides insisted that "We not leave it [the land] in the hands of other nations, in any generation.” Moreover, as opposed to the view distancing the Shekinah from the land until the messianic End, Nahmanides ascribed a supreme, exclusive significance to the religious life in the Holy Land. In fact, he denied any independent, inherent value to observing the commandments in the lands of exile. No one before him had gone so far in placing the Land of Israel at the very center of Jewish teaching---not only in the age of the Messiah, but in present historical time.

Does this ideological polarization---between the passive position of Ezra and Azriel, who would defer aliyah to the messianic era, and the activist stance of Nahmanides---indicate the existence of a dialogue and confrontation over this subject among the Gerona Kabbalists? It is not impossible. Apparently, the young Nahmanides learned Kabbalah from the elderly Ezra, while the latter used a work by the youthful Nahmanides. By the time that Rabbi Ezra, in his last years, had set down his thoughts regarding the oaths and the permission of the nations, Nahmanides was already in his forties. Of course, we do not know the formative wellspring of Nahmanides' doctrine of the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, we may presume that the passive posture adopted by Ezra and Azriel on this question was not divorced from the living presence of the land in the consciousness of others, nor from the growing tendency toward aliyah in their own generation.


Beginning with the fourteenth century, our assumption that a dialectical relationship existed between the references to oaths and the phenomena of aliyah is no longer based on circumstantial evidence alone. It has a clear basis in fact. Indeed, during this period the edict of the oaths, which had originated in midrash and in Jewish thought, found its way directly into halakhic literature too. Apparently, only after Nahmanides' ruling that made dwelling in the land an obligatory precept for future generations, and only when this ruling became widely known, was there a counterreaction, in which the three oaths were powerfully reinvoked and even worked into the realm of halakhic discussion.

Interestingly, this reaction is first apparent in the writings of those very sages who felt drawn to the Land of Israel, but considered themselves obligated by the oaths to qualify their positive attitude toward aliyah. They therefore distinguished clearly between the piously motivated move of an individual to the land, which was blessed, and a collective break out of exile, which was forbidden.

Thus Estori ha-Parhi, an aficionado of the Land of Israel and a researcher of its antiquities, although citing a Talmudic saying praising those who dwell in the land, yet hedged it with restrictions and denied any Jewish longing to acquire political control there in the present age: "[We read] in the Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim (3:4): 'It was taught in the name of Rabbi Meier: Whoever dwells permanently in the Land of Israel and speaks the Holy Tongue, etc., is assured his share in the World to Come.' However, they may not go up in order to conquer until the End comes, as is stated at the end of tractate Ketubbot: '"Lest you arouse and awaken [the love].”..they should not ascend the wall.'"

This restriction was formulated in the Land of Israel itself at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Indeed, its author saw fit to characterize his own personal aliyah in the same spirit: "[God,] who knows every secret, knows that our [only] intention is to become sanctified by the holiness of the soil of Israel. We go there in awe [eimah], not to ascend the wall [homah]!" Estori ha-Parhi may have been responding here directly to contemporary opposition to aliyah.

At the end of the century we find similar restrictions in a halakhic responsum written in North Africa by Isaac bar Sheshet, "Ribash.” This sage, a refugee of the persecutions of 1391 in Spain, ruled on the question of aliyah in accordance with Nahmanides: "Aliyah to the Land of Israel is a mitzvah.” Surely, this dictum reflected the situation of Spanish Jewry following the pogroms, which inspired the move to the land. At the same time, the writer warned against any attempt to make a mass break from the Exile: "The prophet said to the people---'Build houses...' [Jer.29:5]--- addressing himself to those living in the Exile decreed upon them...Now, too, one of the three oaths the Holy One, blessed be He, made Israel take is not to ascend the wall.”[38]

Similarly, Solomon ben Simeon Duran, "The Rashbash," of Algiers, a son of refugees from those same pogroms, was asked a concrete halakhic question pertaining to aliyah. He responded in like spirit, taking great care to eliminate any possible messianic connotation accruing to aliyah: "It is incumbent upon every individual to go up to live [in the Land of Israel].” He wrote: "However, this is not an all-inclusive commandment for all of Israel in their exile, but is withheld from the collectivity... For it is one of the oaths which the Holy One, blessed be He, has adjured Israel, that they not hasten the End, and not go up in the wall. Consider what happened to the children of Ephraim when they forced the End prematurely.”

Just as the opponents of aliyah made the Land of Israel a strictly messianic category, the proponents of aliyah attempted to dissociate the land from any messianic context. To go to the land, the latter said, is in fact an ongoing, binding commandment, but those who obey it are expected to be doubly careful to observe the high barriers separating the age of exile from that of redemption. They may not go up "In order to conquer" (Estori ha-Parhi); they may not "Ascend the wall" against the will of the ruling peoples (Ribash); and they may not go up collectively---"The entire people" (the Rashbash).

During the second half of the fifteenth century, there was a mass movement in Castile; men, women, and children traveled by sea to the Land of Israel. This type of awakening, unprecedented for generations, was probably connected with messianic fervor and, as might be expected, aroused anger and suspicion among other contemporary Jews. The heads of the Jewish community in Saragossa were severely critical, emphasizing in a letter to their Castilian counterparts the dangers involved in a mass voyage to the Holy Land. In this protest it is difficult to separate theological considerations from pragmatic apprehensions of the Gentiles' reaction to such a move. In any event, this mass migration to the Land of Israel was openly denounced as an attempt to force the End and to meddle with messianic redemption. As the Castilians protested in their letter,

People of small value and great number have set out for the Land of Israel...We do not know what gave rise to this great foolishness...And if one will say: is it not well known and renowned from days of old that the people have always gone from every corner to the Land of Israel? [We answer:] This is true, but they have done it only in small numbers each time, and with adequate privilege from the rulers of the lands; never has such a great crowd been reported to go there together...Therefore, our learned brothers and leaders, we beseech you: Let all those making this move turn back, let every person return home in peace, and not hasten the End as the children of Ephraim did, heaven forbid...[We pray that] our eyes shall see the Lord returning to Zion...and all of the people of Israel shall [follow] and ascend there to see the presence of the Lord our God in His chosen house.

Again, the invitation of the oaths thrusts before us the way in which aliyah became an actual religious question in different eras and in different places. Their articulation in literature may reveal, paradoxically, the immediate presence of the Land of Israel in Jewish consciousness and its concrete impact upon the life of the communities. Although the three oaths were generally on the margins of Jewish discourse, from time to time they were drawn inside to build a high barrier between the people and the land.

Two questions remain to be dealt with in this context: First, was the edict of the oaths in fact limited to the Jewish collectivity only, to mass aliyah, or did it sometimes stand in the way of individual Jews too? As we have seen, already in the thirteenth century one can find some rabbinical reservations concerning aliyah as such---whether by individuals or by a group---rendering it an explicitly messianic category. The sixteenth century saw an additional, Halakhic (!) attempt in this direction, based explicitly on the old message of the oaths. The author was Rabbi Joseph de Leon, a Spanish immigrant in Italy. In his Halakhic work, Megillat Esther (on Maimonides' Sefer ha-mitzvot), de Leon sought to exempt even individual Jews from the call of the land.

The commandment to inherit the Land and dwell therein is not observed save in the days of Moses, Joshua and David, and so long as the people of Israel have not been exiled from their land. After they were exiled, however, this commandment is not binding upon subsequent generations until the advent of the Messiah. On the contrary, we are commanded, according to the end of tractate Ketubbot, not to rebel against the nations by conquering the land...not to ascend the wall. As for Nahmanides' statement that the Sages conceived the conquest of the land to be an obligatory war, this statement refers to a future time, when we shall not be subjugated to the nations.”

Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism
Aviezer Ravitzky, Sep 1 1996, pp. 218-222

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