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During the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, we are called upon to reflect on the inner causes of our national destruction and exile. Our Sages teach that the spies in the wilderness returned with their negative report about the Land of Israel on Tisha B’Av, the same day the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed. “Since you wept in vain, I will establish it for you as a time of weeping for all generations” (Taanit 28b), Hashem told the Jewish people.

If you ask charedi Jews in America why they don’t move to Israel, they are likely to answer that one need not move to Israel until Moshiach comes; that Rav Moshe Feinstein paskened that aliyah was an optional mitzvah like tzitzit; that the Torah was given in the wilderness to teach us that the Torah can be kept anywhere; or that Rav Soloveitchik believed a person need not move to Israel if he believes he will accomplish more in the Diaspora.


Congregants of Young Israel synagogues – which promote aliyah and largely adhere to the Religious Zionist perspective that sees aliyah as a biblical mitzvah based on the opinion of the Ramban – will say they are still in America because they have to take care of their aging parents or because they don’t believe they will find a proper parnassa in Israel.

To better understand the debate surrounding aliyah, The Jewish Press recently spoke to several rabbis who moved to the Holy Land (mostly from America).


Rabbi Zev Leff

Rabbi Zev Leff gave up the spiritual leadership of the rapidly expanding Young Israel of North Miami Beach to bring his family to Israel. When I asked him if the Jewish leadership in America could do more to promote aliyah, he instructed me to quote from his article in To Dwell in the Palace. Among many noteworthy observations, he writes:

“Driving home through the largely uninhabited hills of Judea…I hear a question echoing, ‘Where is the religious aliyah from the Torah communities of the West?’

“The question is not of recent vintage, nor was it posed by a representative of the Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency. It was Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the leader of the Old Yishuv in Yerushalayim, who addressed these words, some sixty years ago, to Rav Yitzchok Breuer. The rav of Yerushalayim further told the Agudah leader, ‘Now I understand the words of musaf for yom tov: “Because of our sins we were exiled from our country” – by HaShem; “and we were distanced from our Land” – this we have done voluntarily.”’ (Moriah, p. 191)

“Another quote from Rav Sonnenfeld is perhaps even more pointed: ‘Many times have I directed that the religious Jews in the Diaspora be instructed to know that anyone who has the ability to come to Eretz Yisrael and doesn’t, will have to account for his failure in the future world.’ (HaIsh al HaChomah, vol. II, p. 149)”


Rabbi Shlomo Aviner

As a child in German-occupied Lyon, France, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, escaped deportation to Nazi death camps when his parents assumed false identities. Today, he heads the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva in Jerusalem. He told this reporter:

“People don’t make aliyah because they are in love with the exile and don’t want to give it up. Therefore, it isn’t enough that rabbis merely call upon people to make aliyah. Rather, the rabbis must make the mitzvah of aliyah a constant and central part of Jewish education. And, it goes without saying that they should make aliyah themselves.

“Concurrently, Israel must find practical solutions to the difficulties new olim encounter, such as finding a livelihood and educating their children, and arranging for klita in communities where the language of the oleh is spoken.”

A rabbi who comes on aliyah can’t always find work as a rabbi in Eretz Yisrael where Torah scholars abound.

That’s true, but it is preferable to be a simple Jew in Eretz Yisrael than a rabbi in the Diaspora, as is stated in the Yerushalmi, Tractate Nedarim, 6:3, “The Holy One Blessed Be He says: A small group in Eretz Yisrael is more beloved to me than the Sanhedrin outside of Israel.” There is no obligation to be a rabbi, but there is an obligation for a Jew to dwell in the Land of Israel.

HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and Maran HaRav Kook both held that a working person in Eretz Yisrael is preferable to a Torah scholar outside of Israel. In the book HaIsh al HaChomah (pp. 157-158), it is related that Rav Sonnenfeld’s grandson, like many yeshiva students, was in a difficult financial state but had a great desire to continue learning Torah. He received an offer from one of the famous cities in Czechoslovakia to become its rabbi, which would solve both of his problems.

He went to discuss the matter with his grandfather. HaRav Sonnenfeld lovingly looked at his grandson and said to him: “According to my opinion, it is preferable to be a working man in Eretz Yisrael than a rabbi outside of Eretz Yisrael.”

Similarly, it is told that a student of HaRav Kook asked him about traveling to America to become a rabbi. HaRav Kook discouraged him, saying, “It is better to start some business here in Yerushalayim than to embark on a rabbinical career in America.” (“Le- Shelosha B’Elul,” vol. II #32).

If all of the Diaspora rabbis would come on aliyah, there would be no Torah learning outside of Israel.

I once attended a Rabbinical Council of America conference. I happened to be in America, and they invited me to come as an observer. HaRav Herschel Schachter gave a class on whether it is preferable to make aliyah or be a community rabbi. After a long shiur, he concluded that it’s preferable to make aliyah. At the end, he humbly said, “I don’t know what I am doing here.”

I innocently noted, “If HaRav abandons his community, they won’t have a rabbi.” He said to me that for every rabbi in America, there is a line of rabbis waiting to take his place.

What about gedolei Yisrael?

We are not speaking about the Torah leaders of the generation who have weighed aliyah and decided to remain in the Exile. For example, Maran HaRav Kook offered to help HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski set up a rabbinate in Eretz Yisrael, but he wrote that it was difficult for him to abandon the orphaned generation in his area and the yeshivot.

The Responsa Maharam Shick (Yoreh De’ah, 225, 227) notes that many places in the exile are like a sinking ship and the captain must stay aboard to save the passengers. Similarly, HaRav Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher writes that HaGaon HaRav Akiva Eiger wanted to make aliyah at the end of his life, but his students told him that if he abandoned the country, the generation would be lost, and this is indeed what happened after his death.

And we have heard that HaRav Schachter himself once met the chief rabbi of Israel, HaRav Avraham Shapira, and related to him all of his different responsibilities, and HaRav Shapira told him that he was obligated to remain in America.

Many charedi Jews say that they will come on aliyah when Moshiach comes.

That’s a mistake. The Rambam explains that the very sign that Moshiach is on the way is Jews from all over the Diaspora making aliyah! (Laws of Kings 11:1).


Rabbi Chanan Morrison

Rabbi Chanan Morrison says he “escaped” New York during his last year at Yeshiva University. Today, he lives in Maale Adumim and is the author of several books on the life and teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. He related the following:

During a 1924 fundraising mission in America on behalf of the yeshivot of Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Kook tried to convince an influential Jew to immigrate to the Holy Land. The man gave various reasons why he could not yet leave America, but concluded, “G-d willing, I will soon make aliyah to Israel.”

Rav Kook responded: “G-d is certainly willing. After all, dwelling in Eretz Yisrael is one of His commandments. But you must also be willing…. Before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel in the time of Moshe, they first needed to kill Sichon, the king of Cheshbon. The Hebrew word cheshbon means accounting. This teaches us that one should come to the Land of Israel bli cheshbon – without making calculations. You have to put all calculations aside and come.”


Rabbi David Samson

At the young age of 16, Rabbi David Samson, disillusioned with the Jewish establishment in America, moved to Israel on his own. After studying under HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook for 12 years, he taught Gemara at the Mercaz HaRav High School Yeshiva for over two decades. More recently, he established four religious high schools for youth who don’t fit in regular schools.

He told me, “The Rambam writes: The great Torah scholars would kiss the borders of Eretz Yisrael, and embrace her stones, and roll in her dust, as the verse says, ‘For your servants hold her stones dear, and cherish her very dust’ (Laws of Kings and Their Wars 5:10). We learn from this that it is incumbent upon the Torah leaders of the generation to teach the Jewish people to cherish the Land of Israel. Obviously, this cannot be done by kissing the stones in New York or New Jersey.”

Some yeshivot teach that the Torah was given to the Jewish people in the wilderness to emphasize that the Torah can be kept anywhere – not only in Eretz Yisrael.

When I began learning at Mercaz HaRav, I mentioned this notion to the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook, of blessed memory. He replied in wonder:

“Where do people get such ideas? Aren’t they familiar with the words of the Ramban? It is well known that the Torah giant, the Ramban, established a fundamental halachic ruling that living in the Land of Israel and conquering the Land are commandments of the Torah which apply in every age [Supplement to the Sefer HaMitzvot of the Rambam, Positive Command #4].

“Among the supporting Torah verses he cites is ‘Rise up and possess the Land.’ The Ramban emphasizes that this is a command. In contrast to this, the rejection of the precept is a rebellion against Hashem, as the Torah itself states: ‘And when the L-rd sent you from Kadesh Barnea saying, Go up and possess the Land which I gave you, and you rebelled against the L-rd your G-d, and you did not believe in me, and did not listen to My voice’ (Devarim 9:3).

“The Jews who followed the evil advice of the spies didn’t listen to Hashem to conquer and settle the Land. Settling the land is a mitzvah, and the opposite is a rebellion against Hashem.”

Did you ask him about the Three Oaths?

Yes. He said that the argument of the Three Oaths is a matter without substance. “The principal oath is not to rebel against the nations of the world in our coming back to Israel,” he said. “In fact, we returned with their permission, in the Balfour Proclamation, and in the decisions of the League of Nations, and the United Nations before the establishment of the State. The nations of the world agreed that the Land of Israel belongs to us.”

What about the often-cited Tosafot, citing Rabbi Chaim Cohen, which states that there is no commandment to live in Eretz Yisrael today because not all the mitzvot and halachot relevant to the land apply?

HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook said that there was no justification for that statement. “If a person is unable to perform the precepts dependent on the land by reasons beyond his control [because a majority of the Jewish people are not yet living in the Land], the Torah exempts him; however the sanctity of the Land, and the obligation to dwell here, continue unabated.

“Furthermore, the Maharit, in his responsa (28), proved that this Tosafot does not express the opinion of Rabbi Chaim Cohen, but rather of a mistaken student.” (See also chidushim on Ketubot 110b and Pitchei Teshuva, Even HaEzer 75:6.)

(To be continued)

(This is the second of a four-part series on aliyah.)


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Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" The DVD of the movie is available online.