The Brain Behind the Borders by Michael Leff


Parashiyot Matot-Ma’sei include, among other things, the division of the land and boundaries of Eretz Yisrael. Unfortunately, even though the Torah gives boundary cities and geographical markers, the location of those boundaries are still disputed. This uncertainty can have a variety of Halachic implications for those who do certain Minhagim or Mitzvot tied to the ancient borders of Eretz Yisrael. But while there are many ramifications, there are various opinions regarding where the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael actually lie.

The western and eastern borders of Eretz Yisrael, the Yam HaGadol and the Yam HaMelech, are universally understood as the Mediterranean and Dead Seas. The dispute regarding the borders of Eretz Yisrael is how far north and south they extend. A series of mountains and cities including Atzmon, Chatzar-Einan, and Hor HaHar, which are listed in Mas’ei as the borders, are mapped out by several different opinions over the centuries.

Both the Kaftor VaFerach and the Tevu’ot HaAretz write that the southern border is a horizontal line across the Sinai Desert. Using either of these interpretations which make Kadeish Barnei’a and Atzmon as part of the southern boundary implies that borders of Eretz Yisrael would include an area roughly 110 kilometers west from the current boundaries of Israel with a total approximate size of 3600 square kilometers. However, this boundary also does not include much of southern Israel which was conquered by Shlomo HaMelech during his reign. Both of these opinions end the southwestern-most border of Eretz Yisrael at an eastern tributary of the Nile. Other minority opinions would put this tributary further west, thereby including a larger portion of the Sinai and Eastern Egypt.

There are even more major differences regarding the border of Eretz Yisrael north of the Kinneret. While the Tevu’ot HaAretz would place Hor HaHar a small distance above the 34° latitudinal line, the Kaftor VaFerach would place it only slightly below the 36° latitudinal line, resulting in a difference of at least 90 miles. Both of these opinions include the majority of Lebanon, including modern day Beirut, as part of Eretz Yisrael. The Kaftor VaFerach’s opinion includes all of Lebanon in Eretz Yisrael, expect certain inner portions that are further east, and all of Syria bordering the Mediterranean.

This, of course, presents an apparent conflict regarding the borders Hashem presents Avraham Avinu in the Berit Bein HaBetarim – “HaAretz HaZot, MiNehar Mitzrayim Ad HaNahar HaGadol Nehar Perat,” “This land, from the Egyptian (Nile) River until the Great River, the Euphrates River” (BeReishit 15:18). This land, from the Nile to the Euphrates River, represents a significant portion of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria, as well as all of Jordan and Lebanon. Altogether, this area of Eretz Yisrael exceeds any of the interpretations of the boundaries that are conveyed in Mas’ei many times over. In fact, the subsequent Pesukim, in which Hashem lists the tribes whose land He has given to Avraham’s descendants, include tribes that did not live within the area of Israel as discussed in Mas’ei (as proven archaeologically and by the fact that they are not discussed in the conquest of Israel by Yehoshua). Later in BeReishit (28:13), we see a similar issue, as Hashem told Ya’akov that he and his children would inherit all the land upon which he travelled. This is interpreted by Rashi and Seforno to mean Cena’an. However, in the next Pasuk, Hashem says that their holdings will expand in all directions, as it says,“UFaratzta Yamah VaKeidmah VeTzafonah VaNegbah,” “And you will be spread to the west, and the east, and the north, and the south, (28:14), which again indicates territorial boundaries beyond just the land of Cena’an.

The questions raised by both sections of BeReishit can be answered together. Seforno makes two different arguments for the issues raised. Regarding the Berit Bein HaBetarim, Seforno explains that if the Davidic Dynasty wished to expand the borders of Israel via conquest, the Kedushah of Israel, perhaps in a Halachic sense as well, would expand to these new borders. Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik offers a similar approach in the case of Hashem’s promise to Ya’akov. However, Seforno gives a more elaborate answer. The two promises exist in different time periods: one pre-exile, in which Ya’akov and his descendants will control the land of Cena’an, and one post-exile, in which Mashiach will bring the nations to Israel and expands Israel’s borders. In context of Seforno’s earlier opinion, we must conclude that Seforno believes that the Davidic Dynasty may expand the borders of Israel but the period of the Messianic Era will certainly expand those borders even further.

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