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33. Land of Israel

February 10, 2015 | by

For 4,000 years, Israel has been the Jewish homeland, and the focus of world attention.

The glory of the world is the Land of Israel. – Nachmanides1

Why Israel is so Special

Israel is one of the smallest countries in the world, but the attention it attracts is totally disproportionate to its size or population. A study of the international press revealed that Israel is represented in the media 75 times more than proportional to its size.2 Massacres of tens of thousands of people in Congo and Sudan rarely make it to the front page of your newspaper, but Israel is there almost every day.

Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel? Perhaps because it is God's Holy Land, the birthplace of human ethics, and Israelis are expected to live up to a higher moral standard. This puts every incident under the microscope.

What is behind the Jewish connection to Israel?

The Almighty made a covenant with Abraham. His descendants would suffer many years of bondage in Egypt.3 Afterwards, they would be given the Land of Israel, as the birthright of the Jewish nation for all time.4 The Torah states that if the Jewish people transgress, we will be temporarily exiled from the land,5 but after we mend our ways, God will return us to the land.6 For the Jewish nation, the Land of Israel will always be home.

Settling the Land

Ancient Israel vs. Israel today

The Jewish people are instructed to live in the Land of Israel and to settle it.7 This is considered a mitzvah of fundamental importance. The Talmud tells us that it is preferable to live in a pagan city in Israel than in a Jewish city in the Diaspora.8 The mere walking of 4 amot (approx. 2 meters) in Israel is considered a mitzvah.9

Many prominent rabbis maintain that today the mitzvah to live in Israel is not an absolute obligation, but rather is a non-obligatory mitzvah which carries great reward.10

Speaking Positively about Israel

When Moses sent spies into Israel, they were supposed to come back with an objective report about the land. Yet the spies returned with a negative report. The people believed the negativity and it resulted in a great tragedy for the nation – 40 years of wandering in the desert, and residual effects that are felt until today.11

It is very important to speak positively about the Land of Israel and anything related to it. When living in or visiting Israel, try to make your stay as comfortable as possible. This way, you'll have only good things to say about the land.12 Moreover, if something does not go as planned, be sure to maintain a positive attitude. God maintains a special providence over this land,13 and there is surely a deeper message behind all events.

View a series of short videos on "How to Defend Israel," by Rabbi Elliot Matthias, director of the Hasbara Fellowships.

Special Agricultural Mitzvot

A land of such special spiritual significance must have special laws that relate to it, and indeed, a large percentage of the 613 mitzvot are applicable only in the Land of Israel. Moses yearned to enter Israel in order to perform its agricultural laws.14

Many of these mitzvot are related to the Holy Temple, and are unfortunately not applicable today.

Produce that grows in Israel is subject to a series of tithes (Trumah and Maaser), whereby a portion of the food is separated out, to be given to the Kohen and Levi. Untithed foods are called Tevel and are not kosher to be eaten. Every consumer in Israel has to know these laws, unless you purchase produce with a reliable rabbinic supervision. Even Israeli produce that is exported (e.g. Jaffa oranges) needs to be tithed properly. These laws are complex, so consult a rabbi with specific questions.

One of the special mitzvot of Israel is Shmita.15 The Torah tells us that every seventh year, "the land should be given a rest period, a Sabbath to God."16 By letting the land lie fallow, we express our trust in the Almighty that He alone provides our material needs.17

In Israel, even private gardens and yards must be tended in accordance with the Shmita laws. Further, for food grown in the seventh year of the agricultural cycle, there are conditions as to which foods can be eaten, when and how. Before you come to Israel or eat Israeli-grown produce, be aware of what Shmita issues may be currently relevant, as some laws are applicable for many months even before and after the Shmita year itself.

(There is another aspect of Shmita that applies even in the Diaspora. For particulars, see the essay Financial Laws: Part 2.)

Customs in Israel

Some religious customs are unique to Israel. For example, in the Diaspora, according to Ashkenazic tradition, the Priestly Blessing is performed only on holidays, while in Israel it is done daily.18 During the week of Passover and Sukkot, there is a Priestly Blessing attended by tens of thousands at the Western Wall, as this photo depicts:

Priestly blessing at the Western Wall

Also in Israel, we add a prayer for rain much earlier in the year – on the seventh day of the month of Cheshvan; elsewhere, this prayer begins in the first week of December.19

These differences between Israel and elsewhere are rather minor. But there is one very important distinction: the number of days that a holiday is celebrated.20

In earlier times, when the schedule of holidays was determined by the sanctification of the moon, the Sanhedrin would send messengers to all the Jewish communities Informing them when the holidays would be.21 The problem was these messengers could not reach the far-flung communities in time for the holidays. Therefore communities far from Jerusalem had to observe two days of the holiday, out of doubt over the real date.

Although we no longer utilize this method of determining the dates of the holidays, Diaspora communities still observe the extra days of holidays – not out of doubt, but rather out of tradition. This means that Passover, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret and Shavuot are each celebrated for an extra day in the Diaspora. Rosh Hashana is an exception, as it is observed for two days everywhere in the world.

Jewish Holidays

One's permanent residence determines how many days of the holidays to observe. For example, a resident of the United States who visits Israel for the holidays still observes two days, because he lives in the Diaspora. But if someone actually moves to Israel, he should observe only one day of the holidays once he arrives.22

[By contrast, an Israeli resident visiting the Diaspora keeps one day of the holiday, but on the second day is still required to observe any restrictions that are being kept by other Diaspora residents on that day.23]

The Significance of Jerusalem24

Few things are as fundamental to Jewish life as the concept of Jerusalem. Jewish prayers are filled with references to the Holy City and entreaties for its immediate restoration. We conclude both the Yom Kippur services and the Passover Seder with a declaration of hope: "Next year in Jerusalem."

Aerial view of large rock in Dome of the Rock

The Sages teach that the creation of the universe began with a formation of a rock, known as the even shatiyah, from which the rest of the world was drawn. The even shatiyah was the central stone on the Temple Mount.25 (Many scholars claim this is the large rock found today in the Dome of the Rock.)26 It was from this area that Adam was created27 and it was there that God forged a covenant with Noah.28

Shortly afterward, an academy was established in Jerusalem where God's wisdom was taught to the world.29 The penultimate event was the binding of Isaac which took place on Mount Moriah, the exact location of the future Temple Mount.30 It was Abraham's sacrifice that concretized the relationship between God and the Jewish people, making us the eternal Chosen Nation.

God instructed King David to prepare the foundation of the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah.31 The first Temple stood there for 410 years. After a 70-year exile, the second Temple was in operation for 420 years.32

During the era of the Temple, Jerusalem served as the spiritual hub of the Jewish people and the world. Miracles occurred in the Temple on a daily basis.33 These phenomena encouraged people from all over the world, Jews and non-Jews alike, to spend time in Jerusalem studying God's word with prophets and sages. It was here that the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court, convened and guided the nation's religious and ethical responsibilities.34 Zion was the place of Jewish royalty and a city of prophets and thinkers. During the holidays, the entire nation made pilgrimage to Jerusalem,35 where they basked in holiness and became spiritually refreshed and invigorated.36

Even though the Jewish people were again forced into exile, Jerusalem remained at its heart. For millennia, we have continued to pray in the direction of Jerusalem. Virtually all of our prayers contain entreaties for the restoration of Zion. We spend three weeks out of every year in a state of mourning over Jerusalem, culminating with the fast of the Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple.

Even at the height of our joy – a Jewish wedding ceremony – we break a glass to recall the destruction of Zion.37

It is also customary to leave one piece of wall unplastered in a Jewish home, as a reminder that the redemption is not complete. The unplastered area should be opposite the front door, so that it is seen as one enters the home. If possible, it should also be seen as the owner eats at the table.38

Viewing the Temple Mount

Although the Temple is no longer standing and the Temple Mount contains a foreign house of worship, the area still retains intense sanctity.39 It is forbidden to enter the Temple Mount while in a state of ritual impurity, and everyone today has that halachic status.40 Therefore when visiting Old Jerusalem, one should refrain from entering the Temple Mount, as this may well be forbidden ground.

One of the retaining walls of the Temple Mount – the Western Wall – continues to be a source of hope to Jews everywhere. The Sages tell us that the Divine Spirit never left the Western Wall.41 Its existence reminds us that not all is lost, for if this ancient wall could survive all these centuries, God is just waiting for the right time to rebuild the Holy Temple.

Since the Temple was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago, it is an obligation upon every Jew to rend his garments (in Hebrew, kriyah) upon seeing the Temple Mount42 or the Western Wall.43 This expression of mourning is to be performed every time one visits this holy site, if 30 days have passed since one's previous visit.44

The laws of kriyah are as follows:

  • The tearing must be done while standing.45
  • The prevalent custom is to tear one's shirt.46
  • The custom is to tear the garment on the left side, over the location of the heart.
  • One makes a small cut with a scissors – horizontally at the lapel, approx. one inch into the body of the garment.
  • Then, using the hand, a tear is made downward over the heart. A horizontal rip does not fulfill this obligation.47
  • About 8 cm. or 3 inches of material should be torn.48
  • When rending the garment, one should pray for the rebuilding of the Temple.49

Appreciating Israel while in the Diaspora

One of the best ways to demonstrate an appreciation of the Land of Israel is to consider making aliyah. For thousands of years, Jews were willing to do anything to come to Israel and it has never been easier than today.50 Various organizations have been established to provide financial and social support to those wishing to make aliyah.

But for those who can't move to Israel, there is much that can be done from the Diaspora. Israel is regularly the victim of international anti-Semitism. It is important to take a stand. Battle anti-Israel propaganda on campus. Fight media bias.51 Vote for pro-Israel politicians. By letting your voice be heard, you can make a big difference.

Perhaps the best thing one can do is to come and visit. Enjoy the wonders of Israel, both the ancient and the modern. Come and offer support to those who are living in the Jewish homeland. Come and be inspired! Israel is where the Jewish soul is nurtured. Just as certain plants grow better in a particular climate, so too the Jewish people "grow better" in Israel.52

The Era of Redemption

The Sages offer certain signs to indicate when the Messianic Age is at hand. Many of these signs indicate that we are now on the brink of such a time. Every Jew is obligated to yearn for the redemption, when God will return the Jewish people to the Land of Israel in a state of peace and serenity.53 If we properly yearn for the redemption and pray for it, we will merit it, speedily in our days.

  1. commentary to Genesis 27:28, based on Ezekiel 20:6
  3. Genesis 15:13
  4. Genesis 17:8
  5. Deut. 28:63-64
  6. Deut. 30:1-5
  7. Numbers 33:53 and Ramban
  8. Ketubot 110b; Rambam (Melachim 5:12)
  9. Ketubot 111a
  10. Shu”t Igros Moshe (Even Ha’Ezer 1:102)
  11. Numbers ch. 13-14
  12. Ben Yehoyada (Ketubot 112b)
  13. Deut. 11:12
  14. Talmud – Sotah 14a
  15. For more information, see Rabbi Dovid Marchant’s Understanding Shmittoh [Feldheim] and Dinei Shvi’is Hasholem [Jerusalem, 1993]
  16. Leviticus 25:21
  17. Sefer HaChinuch 84
  18. Mishnah Berurah 128:164
  19. Orach Chaim 117:1
  20. More information on this subject can be found in Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried’s Yom Tov Sheini K’Hilchato [Feldheim].
  21. Rambam (Kiddush HaChodesh 3:11, 5:4)
  22. Mishnah Berurah 496:13. See Yom Tov Sheini K’Hilchato.
  23. Talmud – Pesachim 52a
  24. More information on this subject can be found in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s essay, “Jerusalem: the Eye of the Universe” (NCSY).
  25. Midrash Tanchuma (Kedoshim 10)
  26. Shu”t Radvaz 2:791. But there are dissenting opinions – see Rabbi Steinberg’s Beit Hamikdash HaShlishi.
  27. Rashi (Genesis 2:7)
  28. See Bereishit Rabbah 34:9
  29. Kaplan, pp. 46-50
  30. Genesis 22:2
  31. 2-Chronicles 3:1
  32. Kaplan, pg. 68
  33. Talmud – Avot 5:5
  34. Rambam (Beit HaBechirah 5:17)
  35. Deut. 16:16
  36. Kaplan, pg. 14
  37. Rema – Orach Chaim 560:2
  38. Orach Chaim 560:1 with Mishnah Berurah
  39. Magen Avraham 561:2
  40. Shu”t Yabia Omer (Yoreh De’ah 5:26)
  41. Midrash – Shmot Rabba #2; Midrash Rabba, Shir HaShirim 2:4; Midrash Rabba, Eicha 1:31
  42. Orach Chaim 561:2
  43. Shu”t Igros Moshe (Orach Chaim 4:70:11)
  44. Orach Chaim 561:5
  45. Orach Chaim 561:4
  46. Shu”t Minchat Shlomo 1:76. Women should tear an inner garment if it would otherwise involve a breach of dignity (Shu”t Ginat Veradim 14:5:8).
  47. Chochmat Adam 152:2
  48. Orach Chaim 561:2
  49. Orach Chaim 561:2
  50. Readers who would like to explore this subject more in depth are encouraged to read To Dwell in the Palace [Feldheim].
  51. For more information, see
  52. Kuzari 2:8-14
  53. Isaiah 2:2-4
Daily Living
A 43-part series

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