4. Israel in Exile: Developing the Trends from Babylon
For the vast majority of the world’s Jews, the Land of Israel increasingly become an abstraction. Although the rabbinic leadership, based at this time in Babylon, developed a system by which Jews would remain connected to their historic homeland, these initiatives remained essentially spiritual, rather than concrete.
- The Rabbis soaked the developing liturgy and other aspects of Jewish life with mention of Eretz Yisrael - the Land of Israel.
- Similarly, Jewish ritual life was tailored to remind the Diaspora Jew that he or she was a stranger in a foreign land and should always remember that “home” was somewhere other than where they were living. This could not but have a great influence on the Jew. Constantly, s/he was forced to reflect on the situation in the Land and to lament the fact of their own absence.
An additional factor that contributed to the negation of practical efforts to return to Zion was the updating of the Jeremian paradigm, by which Jews were encouraged to be passive and await G-d’s appointed time to bring the people back from exile. Strictly speaking, there was no discouragement against individual Jews acting on the strength of their feelings and going to live out their life in “Zion.” The problem, from a theological point of view, was viewed in collective terms. The community as a whole, it was taught, was forbidden to take collective steps to return. To do so would be to rebel against G-d, whose sole decision it was, it will be remembered, to decide on the date of the deliverance and the return.
There were a number of ways that the “prohibition” against the return was explained. The most popular seems to be that invoked by the three oaths which Israel was said to have taken when they accepted the punishment of exile. The details (and the text most popularly quoted) are from the Babylonian Talmud.
What are these three oaths? One that Israel not “ascend the wall” [Rashi: together, by force]: one that the Holy One, Blessed be He, adjured Israel not to rebel against the nations of the world: and one that the Holy One, Blessed be He, adjured the nations of the world not to oppress Israel overmuch.
Bab. Talmud Ketubot 111a.
These oaths appear to have been invoked whenever there were large groups of Jews who were interested in leaving the lands of the Exile and settling in Eretz Yisrael. Although they never appear to have had the force of Halachah (Jewish law), they were clearly felt to have considerable moral force. Jews who went in large numbers were typically considered as having “ascended the wall.”
But there were those who disagreed. The great medieval Jewish scholar the Ramban, or Nachmanides, certainly took a different line arguing in a commentary on Maimonides that,
“It is incumbent upon every individual to go up to live [in Israel]”
and that this was no less than,
“a positive commandment incumbent upon every individual in every generation”.
He himself was one of a very large group of Jews who went up to the Land in the thirteenth century. Nevetheless, despite the moral authority of the Ramban and other Olim (immigrants to Israel), the majority appears to have felt very differently.
According to Aviezer Ravitzky, a Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University, the Three Oaths were widely accepted amongst traditional Jews during the 18th and 19th centuries as arguments against large scale Aliyah to the Land of Israel.