A very strange assessment of the Torah


When Mordecai told Ether that Haman planned to murder all Judeans, Esther requested that Mordecai arrange that all Judeans fast for three days. The book of Esther does not reveal when the fast began. However there is an opinion in the Babylonian Talmud[1] that the fast started on 13 Nisan, which meant that the Judeans violated a biblical law to eat matzah on15 Nisan. How could Esther instruct her coreligionists to violate Torah law?

Curiously, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-c. 1167) writes that even if this Talmudic opinion on dating is correct, the Judeans would not have violated the Torah command, for the Torah command to eat matzah on the 15th only applies in Israel; Jews eat matzah outside Israel only to remember the biblical law.[2]

Ibn Ezra was not alone in maintaining this unusual view. Close to a century after his death, Nachmanides (1194-1270) also claimed that all Torah commandments are only divinely obligated upon those who are dwelling in Israel. He called this “a profound secret.”[3] Outside of the land, Jews observe Torah laws only so that they will not be “new to us” when we return to the land of Israel.[4]

Why did ibn Ezra and Nachmanides contend that biblical laws were only instituted to be observed in Israel and Jewish observance outside of Israel is only a rabbinical decree? What did Nachmanides say are the sources for his radical idea?

Deuteronomy 4:14 reports Moses stating: “And the Lord commanded me at that time [when the Decalogue was revealed at Mount Sinai] to teach you statutes and ordinances, that you might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it.”[5] Moses could be saying that the Israelites will “continue” to observe God’s laws in Canaan and elsewhere; and when he mentions “that you might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it,” he did not mean this in a restrictive sense but he included the phrase simply because the Israelites were about to enter Canaan. However, the word “continue” is not in the verse, there is no indication in the Torah that the Israelites observed the laws in the desert, and certain laws that were promulgated for the desert period were changed for when the Israelites entered Canaan. Thus the verse could be read, as ibn Ezra and Nachmanides understood it, that Torah laws pertain when and only when the Israelites are dwelling in Canaan.

In his commentary on Leviticus 18:25, Nachmanides offers an extensive discussion on this subject and quotes rabbinical sources that he feels support his view.[6] Briefly stated, Nachmanides felt that Israel has a unique holiness and because of its holiness it is unable to contain sinners. Jacob’s wife Rachel, according to Nachmanides, died because although outside of Canaan Jacob did not need to observe Torah law, he could not dwell in the land married to two sisters since this is a violation of Torah law.[7] The Samaritans, he states, were not punished when they worshipped idols outside of Israel, but as soon as they entered Israel and settled in the holy land and continued to worship idols, God caused lions to come and kill them until they converted to Judaism.[8] “Whoever lives outside of the Land, it is as if he had no God”[9] for God tells the Israelites that he brought them out of Egypt and “gave you the land of Canaan, to be your God.” David laments that Saul drove him from Israel saying “Go serve other gods.”[10] Jacob states that although he is now leaving Canaan to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, when he returns “the Lord will be my God.”[11] Nachmanides explains: “When you are in the land of Canaan I am your God. When you are not in the land of Canaan, I am not your God.”

On the basis of these and other sources, Nachmanides reads his unusual interpretation into Midrash Sifrei’s comment on Deuteronomy 11:17.[12] God tells the Israelites that if they act improperly, God will banish them “off the good land.” Sifrei understands God saying “Although I banish you from the land to outside the land, make yourself distinctive by the commandments, so that when you return they shall not be novelties to you.” In other words, the divine commandments are not obligatory outside of Israel, but the rabbis in Sifrei explained that Jews should still observe the non-obligatory commands “so that they shall not be novelties to us when we return to the land, for the main [fulfillment] of the commandments is [to be kept] when dwelling in the land of God.”[13]


[1] Megillah 15a.

[2] Ibn Ezra’s view is problematical because he takes the opposite view that eating matzah outside of Israel is a biblical command in his commentary to Exodus 12:15, 23:15, and his book Sod Moreh 4.

[3] In his commentary on Deuteronomy 11:18.

[4] Nachmanides expressed his view that all biblical laws were mandated only for Israel; outside of Israel Jews obey these laws only by rabbinical decree in his commentaries to Genesis 24:3, 26:5, Deuteronomy 11:18 and in his Sermon on the Words of Kohelet, and especially his commentary on Leviticus 18:25.

[5] Translation by Jewish Publication Society’s The Holy Scripture.

[6] He does not mention ibn Ezra.

[7] Genesis 35:16-19. Nachmanides believed that the patriarchs observed the Torah before it was given to the Israelites.

[8] He quotes II Kings17:26 and Midrash Sifra Kiddushin 11:14.

[9] A quote from the Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 11b.

[10] I Samuel 26:19.

[11] Genesis 28:21, commented upon by Tosephta Avodah Zara 5:5.

[12] Eikev 43. I want to thank Professor Shamma Friedman, the recent winner of the Israel Prize for scholarship. Professor Friedman is considered by many to be the foremost living authority on the Talmud. Whenever I speak with him, which is often, he is able to quote biblical, Talmudic, and Midrashic sources to me. He has that kind of unusual memory. He reminded me of the Midrash Eikev source, which is a primary source for Nachmanides, a source showing that at least in Nachmanides mind, his understanding of the Torah is quite old, the idea is in the Bible itself as Sifrei informs us, and Sifrei was finally edited around 400 CE.

[13] The quote, including the brackets, is from Charles B. Chavel’s translation, Ramban.