Must American Jews Make Aliyah? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


            The reading of Parshat Lech-Lecha in which Hashem commands Avram and Sarai to make Aliyah, often makes us think about our living in Chutz Laaretz.  We are provoked to ponder whether we are obligated to follow the example of our ancestors and move to Israel.  This week we will review this issue from two different approaches.  The first approach we will discuss will be that of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (אגרות משה אבן העזר סימן קב at the conclusion of the responsum).  Then we will review the approach of Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rosh Kollel of Yeshiva University, in an essay published in the Fall 4891 issue of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society.

            Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked whether one should move to Israel in accordance with the view of Ramban (השמטות לספר המצוות מצות עשה ה; פרושו לבמדבר לג:נה) who states that even in "our days" (that is, his days) every Jew is required to live in Israel, or should one follow the opinion of Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen cited in Tosafot (כתובות קי: ד"ה והיא אמרת) that the Mitzvah to live in Israel does not apply today.  The latter is of the opinion that since the journey and subsequent life in Israel is fraught with danger and since it is difficult to fulfill the Mitzvot associated with Israel (מצוות התלויות בארץ), then today there exists no Mitzvah to live in Israel.

            Rabbi Feinstein writes that Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen's opinion should certainly be considered when contemplating moving to Israel.  Rabbi Feinstein writes that even though "most authorities" agree with Ramban, that one fulfills a מצוה by living in Israel today, there is no obligation to move to Israel.  Rabbi Feinstein believes that the Ramban and those who agree with him believe that if one moves to Israel he has fulfilled a Mitzvah.  In other words, living in Israel is only a מצוה קיומית and not a מצוה חיובית.

            Rabbi Feinstein seeks to prove this point from the fact that the Rambam (הלכות מלכים ה:יב) writes that it is prohibited to leave Israel, but does not state that one is prohibited to reside outside Israel.  If there exists an obligation to move to Israel, reasons Rabbi Feinstein, then the Rambam would have recorded a prohibition to live outside of Israel.  Rabbi Feinstein concludes that since there exists no obligation to move to Israel even according to the Ramban, then one must "certainly" consider Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen's opinion which discourages Aliyah lest one not fulfill the מצוות התלויות בארץ properly.

            Rabbi Hershel Schachter takes an entirely different approach to this vital issue.  First, Rav Schachter cites a responsum from the Avnei Nezer (יורה דעה תנד:ב) which states that Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen's concerns are no longer relevant.  Rav Schachter adds that "if conditions in Israel were not a hindrance to Aliyah when the Avnei Nezer penned his responsum some ninety years ago, surely now they do not constitute an impediment to Aliyah."

            Rav Schachter assumes that Ramban believes that moving to Israel is a מצוה חיובית, an obligation, not merely a מצוה קיומית.  Indeed, when the Ramban writes, "in my opinion this is a positive command to live in Israel and to inherit it because it is given to us," he clearly indicates that this assumption is correct. 

            Rav Schachter proceeds to summarize the many opinions regarding the celebrated omission of the Rambam of the Mitzvah of living in Israel from his list of the six hundred thirteen Mitzvot.  He cites opinions (שדי חמד מערכת ארץ ישראל) which state that Rambam believes that living in Israel is Rabbinic in nature and is therefore not listed as one of the 316 Mitzvot.  Then he cites Avnei Nezer (aforementioned responsum) who asserts that once the Rambam counted the Mitzvah of conquering the seven nations who lived in Israel prior to the conquest of Yehoshua (דברים כ:יז, החרם תחרימם), he did not find it necessary to count the actual conquest and settlement as a separate Mitzvah.

            Rav Schachter, however, appropriately dismisses the approach of the Megillat Esther (defending Rambam's ספר המצוות from the critiques of the רמב"ן) who asserts that the Rambam does not list this mitzvah because it applies only in Biblical and Messianic times, but not at present.  Rav Schachter cites the Avnei Nezer's disproof of the Megillat Esther - that the Rambam counts the מעשה קרבנות in the מנין המצות despite the fact that it applies only when there exists a בית המקדש.  Rav Schachter further notes that the Megillat Esther's assertion even smacks of heresy, because his approach essentially states that in Messianic times a new mitzvah will be added to the Torah, a mitzvah to live in Israel.  This borders on heresy because the Rambam lists as one of the thirteen principles of faith the immutability of Jewish law, that no new mitzvot can ever be added.

            Rav Schachter therefore concludes that most Acharonim are of the opinion that living in Israel constitutes  an obligatory mitzvah according to both the Rambam and the Ramban, even today.  Indeed, the language of the Rambam )הל' מלכים ה:יב( לעולם ידור אדם בארץ ישראל - "an individual should always live in Israel," lends credence to that opinion.

            It should be noted that an entire ספר was written in rebuttal to Rabbi Feinstein's responsum.  It is named מעפר קומי and it was written by Zvi Glatt (ה' יקום דמיו) (a student at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav who moved to Israel from Brooklyn at age sixteen and was tragically murdered by Arab terrorists in חברון in 0891.)  Glatt reviews the many Rishonim and Acharonim (earlier and later authorities) who comment on the mitzvah of living in Israel and concludes that the overwhelming majority of opinions reject Rabbi Feinstein's approach to this question.  (Incidentally, Rabbi Feinstein wrote a letter of approbation to this book.  That alone is a demonstration of his sterling character, which was too beautiful to be sullied by partisan Orthodox politics).  Zvi Glatt mentions that he spoke to many of the great authorities in Eretz Yisrael, including Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, and Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Weisz, and they all agreed that there is an obligation to move to Israel even today, unlike Rabbi Feinstein.

            Indeed, the Pitchei Teshuva (אבן העזר עה:ו) writes that all Rishonim and Acharonim agree that this mitzvah applies at all times. However, he cites authorities who rule that one is not obligated to move to Israel if he is able to earn a living outside of Israel but is not able to do so in Israel.  They cite the Talmud's rule - עשה שבתך חול ואל תצטרך לבריות, it is better not to make special meals for Shabbat than to be reliant on charity (שבת קיח.), as support for this assertion.

            We can never afford to be complacent regarding our decisions vis a vis this mitzvah.  Indeed, Chazal (at the conclusion of מסכת כתובות and elsewhere) greatly extol the mitzvah of living in Israel.  Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein summarized the issue succinctly: just as a Jew would find it painful to live without קדושת הזמן, holiness of time (Shabbat and Yom Tov), a Jew should find it painful to live without קדושת המקום, holiness of space - the land of Israel.

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