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Jewish Practices & Rituals: Living in Israel - Mitzvah or Custom?

Most Jews have always felt a strong attraction and devotion to the Land of Israel. This is traceable to the covenant made between G-d and Abraham in which the Land of Israel was promised to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12). To live on the Land became a requirement of Jewish law. “A person who dwells in the Diaspora is like one who has no G-d,” says the Talmud. In the same Talmudic tractate there is a complementary statement,: "Whoever lives outside of Israel may be regarded as one who worships Idols" (Ketubot 110a, 111b).

The great thirteenth century Spanish scholar Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides) supported the talmudic position when he affirmed that settling in Israel is a positive Torah commandment. He himself spent the last three years of his life in Palestine.

Throughout the centuries individuals, and occassionally small groups, have taken the talmudic caveat seriously and have returned to the Holy Land. Nevertheless, this activity, known as aliya, meaning "going up to Israel", did not take on great significance until 1948, after the formation of the State of Israel.

However, even as far back as talmudic times, many have opposed the concept of aliya on grounds that it interferes with the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Jeremiah said, “They [Israel, the defeated nation] shall be carried to Babylon and shall remain there [in the Diaspora] until the day I [G-d] remember them” (Jeremiah 27:22). To Rabbi Judah this meant, “Whoever goes up [returns] from Babylon [the Diaspora] to Israel transgresses the positive commandment of the Torah” (Ketubot 111a). G-d must be the instrument through which Jews will return to Israel.

Today, a considerable number of ultra-Orthodox Jews continue to accept the view of Rabbi Judah, believing, as Jeremiah implied, that only through divine intervention can the Children of Israel be returned to Israel. Typical of those who support this position are members of the Satmar Chassidic sect, which originated in Hungary. In 1953 Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1888-1979) became the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta community in Jerusalem, but he spent little time there. Although he visited the community every few years, he spent most of his time in his Brooklyn headquarters.

Sources: Kolatch, Alfred J. Kolatch, Alfred J. The Jewish Book of Why/The Second Jewish Book of Why. NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1989.