Must Diaspora Jews Make Aliyah? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


The upcoming celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut makes us Jews who choose to remain in Galut (exile) question this choice.  We are provoked to ponder whether we are obligated to follow the example of Avraham Avinu and millions of his descendents who have moved to Eretz Yisrael over the generations.  We will review this highly sensitive and emotionally charged issue from two different perspectives.  The first approach we will discuss will be that of Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe E.H. 1:102) and Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Teshuvot VeHanhagot 1:900).  The second will be the approach of Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 7:48:12) and Rav Hershel Schachter (presented in an essay published in the Fall 1984 issue of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society).

Rav Moshe Feinstein 

Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked whether one should move to Israel in accordance with the view of the Ramban (to BeMidbar 33:53 and Mitzvah 4 of the positive Mitzvot omitted by the Rambam in his enumeration of the 613 Mitzvot), who asserts that even in "our days," every Jew is required to live in Israel.  On the other hand, perhaps one should one follow the opinion of Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen (cited in Tosafot Ketubot 110b s.v. Hu Omeir and Mordechai Ketubot number 313) 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 HaTeluyot BaAretz (commandments associated with the land of Israel), there exists no Mitzvah to live in Israel “today” (in the thirteen century).

Rav Feinstein argues that even though most authorities agree with the Ramban that one fulfills a Mitzvah by living in Israel today, there is no obligation to move to Israel.  Rav Feinstein feels that the Ramban and those who agree with him believe that if one moves to Israel he has fulfilled a Mitzvah (Mitzvah Kiyumit) but that there exists no absolute obligation to do so (Mitzvah Chiyuvit).  Rav Moshe concludes that since no one rules that there is an absolute obligation of Aliyah, Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen's opinion should certainly be considered when contemplating moving to Israel.

Rav Feinstein seeks to prove this point from the fact that the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 5:9) writes that it is prohibited to leave Israel but does not state that one is prohibited to reside outside Israel.  If an obligation to move to Israel exists, writes Rav Feinstein, then the Rambam would have recorded a prohibition to live outside of Israel.  Rav Feinstein concludes that since there is no obligation to move to Israel even according to the Ramban, one must certainly consider Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen's concern that one will not fulfill the Mitzvot HaTeluyot BaAretz properly.  My Talmid Avi Levinson notes, though, that it is possible that the Ramban does not agree with the Rambam regarding this point and that it is difficult to draw conclusions regarding the Ramban from the writings of the Rambam. 

Rav Moshe Shternbuch

Rav Moshe Shternbuch adopts a similar approach to Rav Moshe.  He writes:

We must weigh each case individually [to see] if it is appropriate for him to move to Israel, since the impact of the Yeitzer HaRa (evil inclination) in the Holy Land, whose holiness is exceedingly great, is great and very seductive.  Therefore, if one has a great desire to move to Israel because his religious life outside of Israel is inadequate, it is advisable to first visit Israel and ascertain where he will live, where his sons and daughters will study, and how he will earn a livelihood, and only then he should make Aliyah, and he will be successful in his service of Hashem in His holy palace. 

Rav Eliezer Waldenberg

Interestingly, Rav Feinstein does not consider the impact of the recent establishment of the State of Israel (his responsum was written in 1952) in either a positive or negative direction.  By contrast, Rav Waldenberg very much considers Medinat Yisrael in an emotional and stirring responsum written shortly after the State was established.  He writes:

With the establishment of Medinat Yisrael, the obligation to make Aliyah has become magnified in two aspects.  First, the barrier and obstacles of the danger to make Aliyah have been removed, and the obstacle of the inability to earn a living in Israel to the extent of suffering to the point of starvation God forbid [has also been removed].  With the removal of these barriers, the Halachic exemptions that Poskim offer from the obligation to move to Israel are eliminated. Second, we can say the current state in which Medinat Yisrael finds itself – that it has now barely ‘gotten out of diapers’ and is surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction Heaven forefend - a special obligation devolves to ‘arm ourselves swiftly’ and quickly move to Israel and come to the aid of the Jewish people from the enemy that attacked them (see Rambam Hilchot Melachim 5:1)… Indeed, all groups that come to Israel, be they organized or not organized, obviously contribute in this effort, either directly or indirectly.

Interestingly, the nationalistic element does not merit any consideration in Rav Moshe’s Teshuvah.  Moreover, Rav Waldenberg speaks of moving to Aliyah as a “central and fundamental Mitzvah” and compares it to “children returning to their mother’s embrace.”  Rav Moshe seems to regard the Mitzvah of Aliyah to be no different than any other Mitzvah.     

Rav Hershel Schachter

Rav Hershel Schachter adopts the approach that is characteristic of Religious Zionist Halachic authorities in Israel today.  Rav Schachter cites a responsum from the Avnei Neizer (Y.D. 2:454; though see his addendum to this responsum), who 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 Neizer penned his responsum some ninety years ago, surely now they do not constitute an impediment to Aliyah." We may explain that traveling to Israel is far safer today than in the times of Rav Chaim Cohen, and, moreover, the observant Jewish community is far larger, better organized, and better equipped to deal with the challenges of observing the Mitzvot associated with Eretz Yisrael. 

Rav Schachter assumes that the Ramban believes that moving to Israel is an obligation, not merely a Mitzvah one can choose to fulfill.  Indeed, the Ramban’s words - "In my opinion, this is a positive command to live in Israel and to inherit it, because it is given to us" - seem to indicate that this assumption is correct.  The Pitchei Teshuvah (E.H. 75:6) and Sedei Chemed (Maarechet Eretz Yisrael number 9), which state, “The Ramban counted [it] as of the 613 Mitzvot… and it applies in all times… And such is the opinion of all the earlier and later Poskim” seem to corroborate Rav Schachter’s approach.  For further discussion of this point, see Rav Avraham Shapira’s discussion that appears as an addendum to Reb Tzvi Glatt’s work “MeiAfar Kumi.”

Rav Schachter summarizes the many opinions regarding the Rambam’s celebrated omission of the Mitzvah of living in Israel from his list of the 613 Mitzvot.  He cites opinions (cited in Sedei Chemed Maarechet Eretz Yisrael number 2) to the effect that the Rambam believes that living in Israel is rabbinic in nature and therefore is not listed as one of the 613 Mitzvot.  He then cites the Avnei Neizer’s aforementioned responsum, which indicates that once the Rambam counted the Mitzvah of conquering the seven nations who lived in Israel prior to the conquest of Yehoshua (Devarim 20:17), he did not find it necessary to count the actual conquest and settlement as a separate Mitzvah.

Rav Schachter, however, questions the approach of the Megillat Ester (defending Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot from the critiques of the Ramban), who asserts that the Rambam does not list this Mitzvah because it applies only in biblical and Messianic times but not at present due to the oath imposed on the Jewish People not to take Eretz Yisrael by force (Ketubot 111a).  Rav Schachter cites the Avnei Neizer's disproof of the Megillat Ester - that the Rambam counts the offering of Korbanot in his count of the 613 Mitzvot despite the fact that it applies only when the Beit HaMikdash exists. 

Rav Schachter concludes, “In view of the difficulties inherent in the approach of the Megillat Ester, most Acharonim conclude that Yishuv Eretz Yisrael constitutes a Mitzvah according to both Ramban and Rambam.”  We may add that this is especially true in light of Rav Meir Simchah of Dvinsk’s statement (cited in the Encyclopedia Talmudit 25:669 footnote 58, but rejected by the Satmar Rebbe) that the oath does not apply after the time that the League of Nations endorsed the Balfour Declaration.  Because the nations of the world recognized the right of the Jewish people to establish a homeland in Eretz Yisrael, it is not considered taking it by force. 

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 (ad. loc.) - "An individual should always live in Israel" - supports this approach.  Rav Schachter concludes his essay, “Every period of Jewish history has its own Mitzvot of the hour.  Today when every Jew settling in Israel contributes measurably to the security and economy of the State, and to the Jews in it, Yishuv Eretz Yisrael may indeed be called a Mitzvah of the hour.” 

Reb Tzvi Glatt’s MeiAfar Kumi

It should be noted that Reb Tzvi Glatt, may Hashem avenge his blood, wrote a very special Sefer entitled MeiAfar Kumi in response to Rav Feinstein's Teshuvah.  Reb Tzvi was a student at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav who moved to Israel from Brooklyn at age sixteen and was murdered by Arab terrorists in Chevron in 1980.  Reb Tzvi reviews the many Rishonim and Acharonim who comment on the Mitzvah of living in Israel and concludes that the overwhelming majority rejects Rav Feinstein's approach to this question.  (Incidentally, Rav Feinstein wrote a letter of approbation to this book, although he notes that he maintains his ruling and that he believes Reb Tzvi “exaggerates.”)  Reb Tzvi mentions that he spoke to many of the great authorities in Eretz Yisrael, including Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (as indicated in Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 3:158:3), Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (see, though, Kovetz Teshuvot 2:14), and Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Weisz (I have not found a responsum in Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak corroborating Reb Tzvi’s report), and they all agreed that there is an obligation for a person to move to Israel even today if he can make a living, thereby rejecting Rav Feinstein’s approach.  Indeed, Rav Ovadia Yosef (in his letter of approbation to MeiAfar Kumi) approves Reb Tzvi’s approach (consistent with his ruling in Teshuvot Yechaveh Daat 4:49). 


The question of whether one should make Aliyah is a complex one and depends to some extent on one’s Hashkafah (perspective) regarding Medinat Yisrael specifically and Jewish nationalism in general.  There are special circumstances to be considered, as even the Pitchei Teshuvah and Sedei Chemed cite 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 (Shabbat 118a), “Aseih Shabatecha Chol VeAl Yitztareich LaBeriyot” (it is better to eat weekday food on Shabbat than to be reliant on charity) as support for this assertion.   

Nonetheless, we cannot be complacent regarding our decisions concerning the Mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael.  Indeed, Chazal (Ketubot 110b-112b) greatly extol the Mitzvah of living in Israel.  Moreover, Chazal (Ketubot 110b, codified by the Shulchan Aruch E.H. 75:1) view one spouse’s refusal to perform this Mitzvah as potential grounds for divorce and even permit asking a non-Jew to write on Shabbat to facilitate fulfillment of this Mitzvah (Gittin 8b, quoted by the Rambam Hilchot Shabbat 6:11).  Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (in a personal conversation) frames the issue succinctly: Just as a Jew would find it painful to live without Kedushat HaZeman, holiness of time (such as Shabbat and Yom Tov), a Jew should find it painful to live without Kedushat Makom, holiness of space - the land of Israel.

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