Strange ideas of Nachmanides

                                   His notion concerning the Sanctity of Israel[1]



The biblical portion Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8, mentions laws that Israelites were expected to observe when they entered Canaan, later called Israel. This affords us an opportunity to discuss the sanctity of the land of Israel.


Many people have heard of the Spanish Jewish sage Nachmanides (1194–1270), but do not know that he had highly unusual ideas, including his thoughts about Israel.


Nachmanides had a profound love of the land of Israel, which he considered sacred ground, and contrary to the great philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) he insisted that settlement in Israel is a divine commandment.[2] His feeling that Israel is holy was so intense that he remarkably stated that God killed Jacob’s beloved second wife Rachel just prior to the family entering the land of Israel[3] so that the patriarch Jacob, who was allowed to marry two sisters outside of Israel, would not violate the Torah’s command forbidding matrimony with two sisters in Israel, and thereby desecrate the holy earth of Israel.[4]


Nachmanides was also convinced that God only exercises divine power in Israel, for only Israel is a holy land.[5] God set other divine–like powers over the other lands. “There is in this matter a secret relating to that which the rabbis have said: ‘He who dwells outside of the land of Israel is like one who has no God.’”[6] He understood that the Talmud is stating that people who live outside of Israel are under the influence and power of these other supernatural beings and even if they try to worship God it is as if they have no God.


This love of the land of Israel also led Nachmanides to another unusual doctrine that all the Torah commandments are only divinely obligated upon those who are dwelling in Israel. Outside of the land, Jews observe the laws only because of rabbinical mandates and only so that they will not be “new to us” when we return to the land of Israel.[7]


Maimonides rejected this notion of the holiness of Israel out of hand. When he escaped the persecution of Jews in Spain and Morocco and came to Israel and saw the terrible conditions facing Jews in the land, he had no problem leaving and settling in Egypt where he was a fully practicing Jew.


Why did Nachmanides argue that biblical laws were only instituted to be observed in Israel and Jewish observance outside of Israel is only a rabbinical decree? I suggest that it is possible, but this is only conjecture, that he recognized that all, or virtually all, biblical commandments were modified in significant ways by the rabbis. He may have asked himself: Under what authority could the rabbis change what God commanded? His reply may have been: the rabbis did not change biblical law at all. Biblical law only applied in Israel. Jewish law outside of Israel is rabbinical, and the rabbis have authority to change what they instituted.[8]


Nachmanides’ view that the Bible requires Jews even today to conquer the land of Israel and dwell in it is also problematic. He derived this command from Numbers 33:53, which states: “You should take the land as a possession and dwell in it, because I gave it to you as a possession.” In his glosses to Maimonides’s Sefer HaMitzvot, he cites the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 44b, which calls Joshua’s war against the Canaanite nations an “obligatory war.” He wrote: “Do not assume erroneously that the obligatory war applies only to the seven [Canaanite] nations. This is untrue. We will not abandon this land to idolatrous nations throughout the [subsequent] generations. Even if these nations will run from us and leave the land, we are still commanded [today] to come to the land, conquer it and settle it with our people. Hence, this is a command for all generations and is an obligation for every individual.”


This gloss places an obligation on Jews to conquer Israel, but his comments seem to be contradictory: he also states that God, not human beings, will give Jews the land of Israel. He cites Psalms 44:4, “For not by their sword will they inherit the land, nor through their strength will they be helped, but by your right arm, your strength.”[9]


Furthermore, his reliance on Numbers 33:53 to support his view that Jews have a perpetual obligation to conquer Israel whenever it is not in Jewish possession is problematic. Verses 50–56 concern Joshua’s entry into Canaan.[10] God gave directions to the Israelites as they stood near Jericho, ready to cross the Jordan and conquer Canaan. The verses state explicitly that what is mentioned is what the Israelites should do when they cross the Jordan. The verses speak of the Israelite duty to also destroy the Canaanite idols and altars as they enter the land. The passages also tell how the conquered land is to be divided among the tribes. There is no command in Numbers or anywhere else in the Bible, requiring Jews to conquer and settle the land in future years, as Nachmanides contends.


Curiously, although Nachmanides stressed the importance of settlement in Israel and his unique belief that one does not observe biblical mitzvot outside Israel, he did not leave Spain to settle in Israel until his old age, several years before his death, and then only to escape the threat of assassination due to his involvement in a religious debate of 1263.


Nachmanides’ student’s student Bachya ben Asher held a similar view about the sanctity and power of Israel. In his commentary to Genesis 11:30, he writes that when Abraham and Sarah saw that she was barren, they “decided to leave their home and move to Canaan in the hope that with the merit of the holy land they would be able to have children.” In his commentary to 12:6, Bachya writes that in addition to holiness, Canaan has the perfect climate, which is better than any other land.


[1] This is a chapter from my book “Unusual Bible Interpretations: The Five Books of Moses,” which will be published on October 1, 2014.

[2] C. Chavel, Sefer HaMitzvot l’haRamban im hasagot haRamban (Mossad HaRav Kook, 1981).

[3] After living with his father-in-law Laban outside of Canaan for some twenty years.

[4] Torah commands were not delivered to Israel until centuries after Jacob died. However, Nachmanides maintained that (1) the patriarchs learned the Torah by divine inspiration and (2) the observance of the Torah commands applied only in the land of Israel. Commentary to Genesis 26:5 and Leviticus 18:25. See J. Bonfils, Zofnat Pane’ach, ed. D. Herzog, vol. 2 (Heidelberg, 1930); and ibn Shaprut, Żafnat Pane’ach (same title as Bonfils), Ms. Oxford-Bodley Opp. Add. 40–107 (Neubauer 2350), beginning on 53b. It seems that Nachmanides thought that God felt it was proper to murder a woman (the matriarch Rachel) to save Jacob from committing a wrong that would not be prohibited until centuries after Jacob’s death.

[5] Commentary to Genesis 28:21.

[6] Chavel, translation of Ramban: Commentary on the Torah, vol. 1, p. 359.

[7] Commentary to Leviticus 18:25, Deuteronomy 11:18, and Sermon on the Words of Kohelet.

[8] If this was Nachmanides’ view, it is problematic. It would require Jews who return to live in Israel today must abandon all the rabbinical enactments and observe only Torah law.

[9] Commentary to Genesis 48:22. See also Genesis 15:18.

[10] As noted in the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 44b.