If you keep kosher and live in the Diaspora, especially in an area without many observant Jews, coming to Israel is a big thrill. Suddenly there is kosher food everywhere – restaurants, supermarkets, even stands on the street! But there is one thing that kosher observers have to worry about here that they never think about outside of Israel – fruits and vegetables. When you are in New York, Paris or Singapore you can freely go into any store and buy raw fruits and vegetables. However, in Israel you need to think twice – were trumot and maaserot taken? Are these fruits from the Shmitta – Sabbatical – year? None of these issues arise outside of Israel because most of the agricultural laws only apply inside the Land.
But why should this be so – shouldn’t all commandments be kept equally, wherever a Jew may live? Our Mishnah and Gemara deal exactly with that question:
“MISHNA: Any mitzva that is dependent on the land applies only in Eretz Yisrael, and any mitzva that is not dependent on the land applies both in Eretz Yisrael and outside of Eretz Yisrael.” (Kiddushin 36b)
The Gemara (Kiddushin 37a) naturally goes on to ask what does “dependent on the land” תלויה בארץ means. After suggesting several answers the Gemara mentions two extremes: perhaps all mitzvot should be kept only in the land or perhaps all mitzvot should be kept everywhere. This idea is rejected and the final formulation is Rav Yehuda’s statement: anything that is connected to the person חובת הגוף, applies everywhere, and anything that is connected to the land חובת הקרקע, applies only in the land (with exceptions of course because this is the Gemara after all).
But what if this were not the case? What if mitzvot only applied in the Land of Israel and a Jew could only live a complete religious life there? This is a radical statement if we consider that there have been Jews living outside of the Land of Israel for over 2700 years. Are all those Diaspora Jews not really living a Jewish life? There are Zionists today who might say this but centuries before Theodor Herzl there was another figure who was perhaps more “Zionist” than he was and he does say (almost) that. Meet the Ramban.
Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, also known as Nahmanides and more fondly known by Jews as the Ramban, was born in Girona Spain in 1194. A brilliant scholar, he was also a Renaissance man long before the Renaissance. He was a physician, a Jewish community leader, a philosopher and a Kabbalist. He was also skilled at compromise and although he held very different views from the towering figure of the previous century, Maimonides, he was quick to defend his honor in the internecine Jewish dispute called the Maimonidean controversy.
Girona Jewish Quarter
Aylaross, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
As a prominent Jewish leader in a Christian country, he was eventually forced by the church and the king to take part in a public religious disputation against a Jewish apostate named Pablo Christiani. Although the Ramban won handily, life became uncomfortable for him in Spain and he left for the Land of Israel. He arrived in Jerusalem in 1267 and found that there were almost no Jews living there and no synagogue at all. As he wrote in a letter to his son:
“Great is the neglect and vast is the destruction… The entire Temple is utterly ruined, Jerusalem is thoroughly destroyed… And we found a house in ruins built with marble columns and a beautiful dome and we took it to be the synagogue because the city is abandoned and anyone who wishes to take from the ruins can help himself,”
Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City
Ido Winter, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
After reestablishing Jewish life in Jerusalem, the Ramban moved to Akko and built up the community there. He spent only three years of his life in Israel (d.1270) but had a great impact. However, would he have come at all if he had not been essentially forced out of Spain?
It is clear from the Ramban’s writings that he would have returned to Zion as soon as the opportunity presented itself. He repeatedly proclaims the great importance of the Land of Israel. In a commentary on Maimonides’ list of the commandments, he tells us that the great rabbi “forgot” to include an important mitzva:
“that we are commanded to inherit the land that God gave to our forefathers . . . and not to leave it in the hands of others . . . since living in the Land of Israel is equivalent to all the other commandments” (Mitzvot that Maimonides forgot, #4)
However, the Ramban goes further than that. In his commentary to the book of VaYikra, he explains that living in the Land of Israel requires higher standards than in other places. All other places on earth have angels appointed to do God’s bidding but the Land of Israel is directly administered by God. Therefore, while sinning and impurity might be tolerated by God in other places, in Israel the sinners must be exiled.
However, continues the Ramban, do not think that this means that when you are in exile you are not obligated in the commandments. Rather you need to keep them if only to remind yourself of how to behave for when you return. The Ramban borrows from the midrash the idea that keeping mitzvot outside the land is a reminder to help you keep them when you return, but he goes even further than the midrash:
“Although I banish you from the land, make yourselves distinctive by the commandments so that when you return they shall not be novelties to you. This can be compared to a master who was angry with his wife and sent her back to her father’s house and told her, adorn yourself with precious things so that when you come back they will not be novelties to you. And so did the prophet Jeremiah say “set yourself signposts,” these are the commandments by which Israel is made distinctive.. . For the main fulfillment of the commandments is to be kept when dwelling in the land of God. (Ramban commentary to VaYikra 18:25)
The Ramban stops short of saying that mitzvot are not obligatory outside the land, but he gets pretty close. There is logic to his words. Only in their own land can Jews fulfill their unique mission to serve God to its fullest extent.
Many have argued with the Ramban but he ultimately lived by his own words. He chose to live out his days in Israel, helping to reestablish the Jewish communities of Jerusalem and of Akko. We have concrete evidence of his presence in the form of a seal, found not far from Akko, that bears his name: Moshe ben Rabbi Nahman Girondi.
Museu d’Història dels Jueus – Girona, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
In his wake, many came to the land and helped rebuild it. His vision of Jewish life in the Land of Israel sustained those reading his commentary in faraway lands for many generations, until we were fortunate enough to return and live a full Jewish life in Israel.
Chesdovi, Public domain, Wikipedia