The Borders: How Much is Ours?
Question #1: Exotic Island Fruit
“According to my grocer, this fruit grew on an island in the Mediterranean that is directly west of Israel. Is it prohibited because of orlah?”
Question #2: The Golan
Is the Golan part of Biblical Eretz Yisroel?
Question #3: Cairo
“Is Cairo in Israel?”
To answer these questions, we need to clarify what are the areas and boundaries of Eretz Yisroel. Many of the laws concerning the mitzvos hateluyos ba’aretz, the agricultural mitzvos, as well as some other halachos are affected by the sanctity of Eretz Yisroel, so it behooves us to know exactly which areas are holy and which are not. As we will soon learn, researching this topic requires not only a thorough knowledge of the Gemara passages involved, but also knowledge of Tanach, geography, topography and history. We will begin with some basic study of the relevant Chumash.
In several places in Chumash, the borders of the Promised Land are mentioned, including:
- Avraham Avinu is promised that his descendants will receive the land from the “River of Egypt” to the “great river, the Euphrates” (Bereishis 15:18).
- In Parshas Mishpatim (Shemos 23:31), the Torah tells us, I will set your boundaries from the Red Sea until the Sea of the Philistines and from the desert until the river.
- There is a very detailed description of the borders of the Promised Land in Parshas Masei, which we will discuss shortly.
- At the beginning of Parshas Devorim, the Torah describes the different areas of Eretz Yisroel: Travel for yourselves along the mountains of the Emori and its neighboring areas, in the Aravah, in the mountains, in the lowlands, in the Negev, along the seashore; the land of the Canaanites and Lebanon, until the great river, the Euphrates (Devorim 1:7).
- There is another brief description at the very end of Parshas Eikev, where it says: Every place upon which the sole of your foot will tread will be yours: from the desert and Lebanon, from the Euphrates River until the far sea will be your border.
In addition to these descriptions in the Torah, there are also references in Nach, notably in the books of Yehoshua (1:4; and the entire chapter 15) and Yechezkel (Chapter 47:15-22).
As I mentioned above, history actually affects, in a significant way, whether a particular area has kedushas Eretz Yisroel. Min hatorah, after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash by the Babylonians, the mitzvos hateluyos ba’aretz apply only to land that was part of the area settled by the Jews when they returned to Eretz Yisroel to build the second Beis Hamikdash in the days of Ezra. In other words, these laws no longer apply Min hatorah in the areas settled by Yehoshua, unless they were also part of the later Jewish settlement, referred to as the second Jewish commonwealth (Shevi’is 6:1).
The Gemara teaches that areas that were conquered at the time of Yehoshua lost their sanctity when the Jews were exiled by the Babylonians. The Rambam (Hilchos Terumos 1:5) explains that since these lands were obtained via conquest, subsequent invasion and defeat of the Jewish nation caused the sanctity to lapse.
However, those areas that became obligated in mitzvos in the days of Ezra retained their sanctity, even after the Roman conquest and destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, notwithstanding that the Jews had again lost sovereignty over the Holyland.
Regarding the laws of shevi’is, those areas conquered by Yehoshua but not settled in the days of Ezra may not be worked during shemittah year; but, Chazal were more lenient regarding some of the other applicable laws (Shevi’is 6:1).
Transjordan, the territory east of the Jordan River known in halachah as eiver hayarden, is not part of the Promised Land, yet it is usually included under the mitzvos hateluyos ba’aretz. We have the anomalous situation in which an area that was not promised to us is sanctified with kedushas ha’aretz, whereas much of the area promised to us is not.
Thus, when defining which areas are included under the mitzvos hateluyos ba’aretz, we take into consideration several factors:
Where is this land? Is it part of the Promised Land?
Is this part of the land that Moshe conquered?
Is this part of the land that Yehoshua conquered?
Is it within the area settled in the days of Ezra?
This week’s parshah
Let us now examine the most detailed of the descriptions provided by the Torah, the one in Parshas Masei.
This is the land that will fall to you as your possession – the Land of Canaan, according to its borders. And the southern edge begins from the Desert of Tzin near Edom. The easternmost point of your southern border shall be the edge of the Dead Sea. Then the border will turn southward to the Heights of Akrabim and then pass to Tzin, from where it will extend southward to Kadeish Barnea. It will then turn to Chazar Adar and pass to Atzmon. The border will then turn from Atzmon to the Stream of Egypt and extend towards the sea.
The western border will be the Great Sea and its “gevul,” its territory; that will be for you the western border.
And this will be your northern border: From the Great Sea, you should turn to Mount Hor. From Mount Hor, you should turn as you were going to Chamos, and the border extends then to Tzedad. The border then turns to Zifron and extends to Chatzar Einan; this will be for you the northern border.
And demarcate for yourselves the eastern border from Chatzar Einan to Shefam. The border will then run down from Shefam in the direction of Rivlah to the east of Ayin. The border will then run down and extend to the eastern shoulder of the Kineret Sea. From there, the border will run down the Jordan and extend to the Dead Sea. This will be for you the land with all its borders all around (Bamidbar 34:2-12).
There is a vast literature attempting to identify the various place names mentioned here, which includes explaining the distinction in nuance among the different terms (“run down,” “extend,” “going to,” “turn,” etc.), and attempting to correlate this description with the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel as they are mentioned in other places in Tanach. It is well beyond the scope of this article to provide an exhaustive study of all the works written on the subject. We should note that many great historical figures who were talmidei chachamim have endeavored to identify the borders of Eretz Yisroel and the descriptions of the pesukim, and that the discussion continues in the contemporary world. For the purpose of this article, we will be content with a few relatively sparce observations.
The southern border
In Parshas Masei, the Torah describes the easternmost point of the southern border to be the Dead Sea and its westernmost point to be the Stream of Egypt. Note that Avraham Avinu was promised from the River (in Hebrew, nahar) of Egypt, whereas in Parshas Masei, we are promised from the Stream (in Hebrew, nachal) of Egypt. Are these the same body of water? If they are not, what was Avraham promised, and why did we not receive it?
According to most interpretations, they are not the same — the Stream of Egypt is the Wadi El Arish in the northern part of the Sinai Desert, whereas the River of Egypt is the Nile. According to this approach, Avraham Avinu was promised that one day in the future, his descendants would have much more extensive holdings to the south and southwest than they have ever controlled in history, even after Ariel Sharon crossed the Suez Canal, thereby capturing the Egyptian Third Army to end the Yom Kippur war. As Rashi explains, Avraham Avinu was promised the land of ten nations, including Keini, Kenizi and Kadmoni, which Rashi equates with Edom, Moav and Amon, but these are not the borders the Bnei Yisrael will or did possess upon entering the Land in the days of Yehoshua. The Malbim (in his commentary to Bamidbar 34) explains that the borders promised at the end of Parshas Eikev (Devorim 11:24) also reflect a promise in our distant future, when the Jewish people will acquire much more territory than what was possessed in the days of Yehoshua. According to this approach, no part of Egypt is yet part of Eretz Yisroel.
The Ramban (Devorim 11:24), however, explains this verse differently, understanding that the borders of Parshas Eikev describe the area that we are commanded to conquer. This is consistent with his opinion that one of the taryag mitzvos requires that we conquer Eretz Yisroel, a topic that we will leave for a different time.
A river or a stream?
On the other hand, some major commentaries interpret the Stream of Egypt of Parshas Masei to be the Nile, not the Wadi el Arish, making the Eretz Yisroel promised to Yehoshua far more expansive in the south and southwest. Since Cairo is on the eastern bank of the Nile, this approach considers Cairo to be located in Eretz Yisroel! Thus, the third of our opening questions “Is Cairo in Israel?” is actually a serious question, and technically is the subject of a dispute among halachic authorities.
We will return to our discussion of the southern border; but first, let us complete our reading of the other three borders.
The western border
In Parshas Masei, the Torah describes the western border of Eretz Yisroel:
The western border will be the Great Sea, and its territory [“ugevul”]; that will be for you the western border. (I have followed the translation of Rav Hirsch that the word gevul means its territory.) According to the Gemara (Gittin 8a), the word ugevul teaches that there are islands in the Mediterranean that are halachically considered part of Eretz Yisroel. There, the Gemara quotes a dispute between tanna’im regarding which islands located in the Mediterranean, the “Great Sea” of the pasuk, are halachically part of Eretz Yisroel and which are not. Rabbi Yehudah contends that the word ugevul means that any island in the Mediterranean that is directly west of Eretz Yisroel is imbued with the sanctity of the Holyland, whereas the Rabbonon’s understanding includes a more limited area. They draw an imaginary line from the northwesternmost point of Eretz Yisroel to its southwesternmost point and include only islands that are east of this imaginary line. In practice, there are very few islands in this small corridor of the eastern Mediterranean that are directly west of Eretz Yisroel.
Orlah in chutz la’aretz
Although the mitzvah of orlah, the prohibition of benefiting from fruit grown on a tree during its first three years, applies to fruit grown outside of Eretz Yisroel, its law is far stricter on produce that grows in Eretz Yisroel. In Eretz Yisroel, one may not use a fruit without first determining that the fruit is very unlikely to be orlah. In chutz la’aretz, the fruit is prohibited only when one is certain that it is orlah.
Islands in the Mediterranean
This allows us to discuss the first of our opening questions: “According to my grocer, this fruit grew on an island in the Mediterranean that is directly west of Israel. Is it prohibited because of orlah?”
We now know that if this island is imbued with the sanctity of Eretz Yisroel, then we may not use the fruit unless we are fairly certain that it is not orlah. However, if the island is outside Eretz Yisroel we may consume the fruit, as long as we are uncertain that it is orlah. According to Rabbi Yehudah, any Mediterranean island directly west of Eretz Yisroel is imbued with the sanctity of the Holyland, and fruit grown on this island needs to be treated with the same stringency as fruit growing on the mainland. According to the Rabbonon, which is the normative halachah, only islands that are very near Eretz Yisroel are halachically part of the Holyland, because they are east of the “line” that runs from the northwest corner of Eretz Yisroel to its southwest corner. Since there are very few islands in this small corridor of the eastern Mediterranean, from a practical perspective, one may assume that the fruit in the grocery does not have kedushas Eretz Yisroel.
The northern border
Parshas Masei’s description of the northern border begins at the Mediterranean (The Great Sea) at Mount Hor and then passes through Chamos, Tzedad, Zifron and Chatzar Einan. There are widely variant opinions as to where these places are. Some contend that Mount Hor is as far north as southern Turkey, others placing it north of Latakia, in contemporary Syria, whereas others peg it much further south, not far from Beirut. All opinions have it considerably further north than any of the borders of the contemporary State of Israel.
The eastern border
Parshas Masei’s description of the eastern border has it beginning in the north at Chatzar Einan and then running through Shefam, Rivlah, east of Ayin to the eastern shoulder of the Kineret, down the Jordan River and into the Dead Sea. We should note that, according to most, if not all, opinions, the northeastern area of Eretz Yisroel extends much further east than the Jordan. According to all of the Torah’s descriptions, the Jordan is the eastern border of the central plain of Eretz Yisroel. Thus, the area northeast of the central plain, what we call today the area of the Golan and further north, is much wider than the central part of Eretz Yisroel, which extends only until the Jordan.
In addition, Transjordan, or the area east of the Jordan River, which had previously been controlled by Sichon and Og, came under Jewish rule as the eiver hayarden prior to the entry into Eretz Yisroel proper, notwithstanding the fact that it was not part of the Promised Land. This was the area settled by the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe.
At this point, let us examine a very difficult, albeit brief, passage of the Torah. The Torah, in Parshas Mishpatim, describes the borders of Eretz Yisroel as extending from the Yam Suf until the Sea of the Philistines and from the desert until the river? There are several questions here: First, when did Eretz Yisroel ever extend to the Red Sea (the Yam Suf), which is in Egypt? Certainly, at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, the Bnei Yisroel, did not immediately arrive in the Promised Land when they crossed the Yam Suf! (However, see Tosafos, Arachin 15a s.v. Kesheim.)
Second, the Mediterranean, which is the Sea of the Philistines, is the western border of Eretz Yisroel. How then could Eretz Yisroel be described as stretching from the Yam Suf, on its west, to the Mediterranean, also to its west?
The Rashbam explains that the Torah means that the Yam Suf is the eastern border of Eretz Yisroel and that from the Yam Suf until the Sea of the Philistines means from east to west. This follows the approach of the Rashbam’s grandfather, Rashi (Shemos 10:19), who explains the Torah to mean from the Yam Suf on the east, meaning, presumably, from the Gulf of Eilat (also called the Gulf of Aqaba), which is an inlet of the Red Sea, to the Mediterranean Sea on the west. According to this approach, from the desert until the river means from the desert on the south to the Euphrates on the north. A result of this calculation is that the entire Negev is within the southern borders of Eretz Yisroel.
The Netziv rejects the approach of Rashi and the Rashbam. The obvious reason for his criticism is that the Gulf of Eilat is not, by far, the easternmost point of Eretz Yisroel, so why would this be used as a promise of the expansion of the land? The Netziv contends that the Yam Suf, the Red Sea, is meant to be the southern border, and that from the Yam Suf until the Sea of the Philistines means from south to west, notwithstanding, as he notes, the fact that one usually describes an expanse from opposite sides; here, it is not the case. The Netziv, therefore, explains that from the desert until the river refers not to the desert of the southern border of Eretz Yisroel, but the eastern border. This means that the border referred to is neither the Sinai desert nor the Negev, but the Jordanian desert, and it is including Transjordan, after it was conquered from Sichon and Og.
Many generations had to be content with reading about Eretz Yisroel and imagining what the descriptions of its borders mean. We are fortunate to live in a time when visiting and even living in Eretz Yisroel is a reality. We should be filled with hakoras hatov that we can traverse the land that was promised to our forefathers. Inhabiting our native land reminds us that it is a land of elevated kedushah, and therefore requires special laws that apply within the halachic borders of this special land. Furthermore, living in Eretz Yisroel provides us with a direct relationship to Hashem, for which we should all strive.