The Missing Mitsvah: Rambam’s Omission of Yishuv Erets Yisrael

Rambam is famous for his love for the land of Israel, but his omission of the mitsvah of yishuv erets yisrael from one of his most important works is glaring. In his Sefer ha-Mitsvot, where he lists the 613 commandments, Rambam leaves out the mitsvah of yishuv erets yisrael, a mitsvah we would expect to be included as one of the 613[i] mitsvot considering the importance of the Land of Israel in Jewish tradition. This is a question many commentators have grappled with since the publication of the Sefer ha-Mitsvot. Commentators such as the Avnei Nezer (R. Avraham Borenstein)  and Megillat Esther (R. Isaac De Leon)  explore various explanations, such as the notion that Rambam felt settling the land was not a commandment, or that he felt the commandment was included or juxtaposed to one already enumerated in his list. Further confusion is added when comparing Rambam’s list of mitsvot to other lists, such as Ramban’s, which do include the commandment of yishuv eretz yisrael. If Rambam came up short searching for a Torah source for this mitsvah, Ramban had no trouble finding one, citing as proof the pasuk in Bamidbar, “And ye shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein; for unto you have I given the land to possess it.” [ii]

Numerous commentators jump to defend Rambam’s position. The Megillat Esther and the Avnei Nezer are among those who offer rationales for the famous omission of Rambam. The Megillat Esther says Rambam did not list this mitsvah because it is not a mitsvah that applies to all generations. In his criteria of how to count mitsvot, Rambam says he does not cite mitsvot he believes are not historically permanent, meaning mitsvot that are generation specific. The command in the pasuk from Bamidbar quoted by Ramban is in fact generation specific, meant only for the generation that entered the land of Israel with Yehoshua. According to the Megillat Esther, we have no commandment to settle the land of Israel nowadays.[iii] This explanation stands in contradiction to other rulings of Rambam, such as in Hilkhot Melakhim where he rules that one may not leave Israel to live in other lands. [iv] Additionally, Rambam does sometimes include mitsvot even when they are also applicable to specific generations only, such as the mitsvah of korbanot, which is only applicable to generations living during the time of the Beit ha-Mikdash[v].

The Avnei Nezer also attempts to explain the reasoning behind Rambam’s glaring omission via an analysis of the different philosophies behind Rambam’s and Ramban’s listing of mitsvot. According to Rambam, if there are two commandments and one mitsvah enables the other (meaning through the performance of one mitsvah, another mitsvah will occur), only the enabling mitsvah is listed as a commandment. In the case of yishuv erets yisrael, Rambam felt that kivush erets yisrael is the enabler of all other mitsvot regarding conquering and settling the land, and therefore only kivush is listed. For Ramban, however, if one commandment enables the other, if they are both of value, then they are both listed[vi]. Similarly, the Tashbetz (R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran) says that Rambam did not count yishuv as a commandment because it is a general mitsvah that enables many other mitsvot to be performed, rather than a separate command in its own right.[vii]

Later commentators were also clearly quite bothered by this omission of the Rambam, and struggled to understand it. A main reason for the plethora of justifications is the apparent paradox between Rambam’s omission of the mitsvah in his halakhic code, the Mishneh Torah, and his celebration of living in the land seen in his other written texts. R. Kook offers various textual proofs for the Rambam’s love for Erets Yisrael. In Hilkhot Melakhim, Rambam writes of the value the land of Israel had to scholars of his time, and quotes a promise recorded in the Gemara that a person’s sins will be forgiven if he settles in the land of Israel. Rambam takes this notion even further by stating that a person should sooner live in Israel, surrounded by non-Jews, than outside the land in a Jewish community. [viii] Rambam clearly acknowledges the value of yishuv ha-arets, without enumerating it as a mistvah itself. R. Kook also attempts to prove that for Rambam, yishuv erets yisrael is an all-encompassing mitsvah, following the rationale of the Sifri in Devarim[ix] that living in Israel is akin to keeping all the mitsvot of the Torah.[x]

Rambam was blessed to visit Israel during his life even though most others living in his time period were not as lucky. He made the tough pilgrimage to Israel in the year 1168. He established the days he spent in the land as days of holiday for himself, filled with simkha, special food and clothing,[xi] and refraining from his normal activities. Although his time in Erets Yisrael was short lived, Rambam commanded his family to bury him in the Holy Land as his final dwelling place, a wish many believe his family fulfilled by burying him on the western shore of the Kinneret in Tiveria.[xii]

The real importance of this debate lies not necessarily in understanding why Rambam chose to omit this mitsvah, but rather in why halakhic commentators are so quick to jump in and try to explain the exclusion of this mitsvah. The fact that the commentators were so troubled as to why Rambam did not include the mitsvah sheds light onto the importance of the mitsvah in and of itself. Instead of causing this mitsvah to be overlooked, Rambam’s exclusion of yishuv erets yisrael instead led to discussions over many generations which highlight the significance of the mitsvah.

It is with these stories and this image of Rambam in mind that many Rishonim and Aharonim struggle to find an explanation for Rambam’s exclusion of the mitsvah of settling in Israel from his list. Their struggle is not necessarily meant to justify the exclusion merely in halakhic terms, but to reconcile this omission with the importance of settling the land of Israel seen throughout Jewish thought. They could not fathom how Rambam would “ignore” the mitsvah, so they attempted to find a rationale for his actions. Paradoxically, it is Rambam’s exclusion of the mistvah that led to centuries of discussion highlighting its importance. The shock which poskim express at Rambam’s exclusion of the mitsvah illuminates the importance of the Land of Israel in not only Jewish thought, but in halakhah as well. Whether or not there is a biblical requirement to settle the land, returning to and living in the land of Israel is a desire that should be prominent in the hearts of every Jew. “Ki mi-Tsion teitsei torah”-For from Zion the Torah will come forth[xiii] Living in Israel may not be a commandment, but fulfilling the mandate of yishuv ha-arets, living in this land which is the source of Torah, certainly reflects an ardent love of Torah and the mitsvot.

Miriam Khukashvili is a senior majoring in English Literature at SCW, and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.



[i] Rambam prefaces his Sefer Hamitsvot with 14 premises of criteria as to how mitsvot came to be included in his list. Many commentators on Rambam wonder why the mitsvah of yishuv erets yisrael does not meet those criteria.

[ii] 33:53, JPS translation.

[iii] Megillat Esther to Sefer ha-Mitsvot; mitsvot aseh, mitsvah 4.

[iv] 5:9-12.

[v] It is important to note that Rambam may have believed the mitsvah of yishuv erets yisrael really only did apply to the original settlers in the times of Yehoshua, whereas korbanot are not necessarily generation specific because the mitsvah will return with the rebuilding of the beit ha-Mikdash. 

[vi]  In his commentary to Yoreh Deah 2:454.

[vii] Teshuvot Tashbetz 3: 288.

[viii] Rambam, Hilkhot Melakhim¸5:10-12.

[ix] 11:17.

[x] Shut Tzitz Eliezer 7:48 in Kuntres Orchot ha-Mishpatim chap. 12 – in the name of Maran Ha-Rav Kook.

[xi] Iggerot ha-Rambam, Shilat Edition, p. 225.

[xii] “The Life of Maimonides,” The Great Eagle at the JNUL exhibit, available at: www.jnul.huji.ac.il.

[xiii] Yeshayahu 2:3, Artscroll translation.