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The Three Oaths (Hebrew: שלוש השבועות‎) is the popular name for a Midrash found in the Talmud,[1] which relates that God adjured three oaths upon the world. Two of the oaths pertain to the Jewish people, and one of the oaths pertains to the nations of the world. The Jews for their part are sworn not to go up from Exile to the Land of Israel en masse and not to rebel against the other nations and the other nations in their turn are sworn not to subjugate the Jews excessively.

Amongst Orthodox Jews today there are primarily two different ways of viewing this Midrash. Many Haredim who are strongly anti-Zionist view this Midrash as absolutely binding (and thus akin to Halacha), whereas Religious Zionists understand it as a Divine decree that has expired. Both buttress their positions by citing historic rabbinic sources in favor of their view.

The Midrash and the text upon which it expounds

The context of the Talmudic dialogue containing the Three Oaths is a discussion in which attempts are made to defend Rav Zeira's desire to leave Babylon and go to the Land of Israel. It begins on Ketubot 110b and continues on 111a (where the Three Oaths are plainly conveyed). The Gemara quotes R. Yossi ben R. Chanina:

ג' שבועות הללו למה אחת שלא יעלו ישראל בחומה ואחת שהשביע הקדוש ברוך הוא את ישראל שלא ימרדו באומות העולם ואחת שהשביע הקדוש ברוך הוא את אומות העולם שלא ישתעבדו בהן בישראל יותר מדאי.

"What are these Three Oaths? One, that Israel should not storm the wall [RaShI interprets: forcefully]. Two, the Holy One made Israel take an oath not to rebel against the nations of the world. Three, the Holy One made the nations vow that they would not oppress Israel too much"."[1]

The Midrash is in large part an exegetical analysis of three separate verses in the Song of Songs, and naturally reflects the traditional interpretation, which sees the entire book as an allegory for the relationship between God and the Jewish people. The three verses are:

  • Songs 2:7: I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles, and by the hinds of the field, that ye awaken not, nor stir up love, until it please
  • Songs 3:5: I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles, and by the hinds of the field, that ye awaken not, nor stir up love, until it please
  • Songs 8:4: I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem: Why should ye awaken, or stir up love, until it please?[2]

Other midrashim concerning the Three Oaths

There are several other Midrashim that pertain to the Three Oaths and they are primarily recorded in Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah which is also known as Midrash Hazita:

  • R. Yossi bar Chanina said, “There are two oaths here, one for Israel and one for the nations. Israel swore not to rebel against the nations [R. Yossi bar Chanina views Israel’s two oaths in Ketuvot as just one], and the nations swore that they would not overly burden Israel, for by doing so they cause the end of days to come prematurely. [3]
  • Rabbi Chelbo says...And do not ascend like a wall from the Exile. If so, why is the King Messiah coming? To gather the exiles of Israel. [4]
  • When Reish Lakish would see Jews from the Exile gathering in the marketplace [in the Land of Israel] he would say to them, 'Scatter yourselves.' He said to them: 'When you ascended you did not do so as a wall, and here you have come to make a wall.' [5]

Viewpoint of the rishonim

Maimonides

Rambam cited the Three Oaths in his famous Epistle to the Jews of Yemen (Iggeret Teiman). It was written around 1172 in reply to an inquiry concerning the crisis through which Yemenite Jews were passing. A decree of forced conversion to Islam which had thrown the Jews into panic. Coupled with this crisis was the rise of a Messianic movement started by a native of Yemen who claimed he was the Messiah which served to further increase the confusion within the Jewish community. In the course of Maimonides attempt to strengthen the morale of the Yemenite Jews. In the Epistle he states:

ולפי שידע שלמה ע"ה ברוח הקדש שהאומה הזו כאשר תלכד בגלות תיזום להתעורר שלא בזמן הראוי ויאבדו בכך וישיגום הצרות הזהיר מכך והשביע עליו על דרך המשל ואמר השבעתי אתכם בנות ירושלים וכו [6]

Solomon, of blessed memory, foresaw with Divine inspiration, that the prolonged duration of the exile would incite some of our people to seek to terminate it before the appointed time, and as a consequence they would perish or meet with disaster. Therefore he admonished and adjured them in metaphorical language to desist, as we read, "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles and by the hinds of the field, that ye awaken not, nor stir up love, until it please." (Song of Songs 2:7, 8:4). Now, brethren and friends, abide by the oath, and stir not up love until it please (Ketubot 111a).[7]

Bahya ben Asher

The Mid Thirteenth Century commentator Rabbeinu Bachya, was one of the first to formulate a comprehensive Torah commentary based on the four principles denoted by the word "PaRDeS." In his commentary on Genesis 32:7 he wrote:

…and it is written “And Hezekiah prayed before God” (2Kings 19:15). So too we are required to follow in the way of the Patriarchs and to restore ourselves so that we may be graciously accepted and with our fine language and prayer before God, may He be exalted. However, to wage war is not possible (Song of Songs 2), “you have been adjured daughters of Jerusalem, etc.” You have been adjured not to engage in war with the nations.”[8]

Nachmanides

Ramban did not explicitly discuss the Three Oaths, however he did maintain that it is incumbent upon Jews in every generation as a positive commandment to attempt to conquer the Land of Israel. In his glosses (Hashmatot) to Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot on Positive Commandment #4 he wrote:

That we are commanded to take possession of the Land which the Almighty, Blessed Be He, gave to our forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov; and not to abandon it to other nations, or to leave it desolate, as He said to them, You shall dispossess the inhabitants of the Land and dwell in it, for I have given the Land to you to possess it, (Numbers, 33:53) and he said, further, To Inherit the Land which I swore to your forefathers, (to give them,) behold, we are commanded with the conquest of the land in every generation.[9]

Nachmanides position here is untenable if he maintains that the Three Oaths are Halachically binding. Accordingly it would appear that Nachmanides implicitly rejects the Three Oaths as Halachically binding, and that to treat it as such would be to effectively nullify a biblical commandment. Of note is that Rashbash who was himself a descendant of Nachmanides, understood this particular biblical obligation to be binding on the individual level but not on the collective:

In truth, this commandment is not a commandment which includes the entirety of Israel in the Exile which now exists, but it is a general principle as our Sages stated in the Talmud in Ketubot, that it stems from the Oaths which The Holy One, Blessed be He, made Israel swear not to rush the End, and not to ascend like a wall. [10]

Rabbi Chaim Zimmerman in his book, Torah And Existence explains his solution to the contradiction between Nachmanides's position and the Three Oaths. First, he makes a distinction between settling the land and conquering the land. The commandment is realized by settling the land, and conquering is merely a preparation for the core obligation of settlement. The obligation to settle the land does not necessarily violate the Three Oaths. Rabbi Zimmerman adds that the Three Oaths only apply to invading the land by force. He writes:

...the difficulty in the Ramban which says that the mitzva of kibush prevails in our time against the oath, dissolves. The oath, shelo yaalu bechoma means explicitly that we cannot storm eretz-Yisrael from chutz-laaretz. But when the Jews are in eretz-Yisrael, there is surely a hechsher mitzva of kibbush-haaretz.. How can the Jews be in eretz-Yisrael without the aliyah "bechoma?" The answer is very simple. If many Jews came to eretz-Yisrael individually, or by permission of the nations, then once they are there, there is a command of kibbush... There was never an oath upon the people who were in eretz-Yisrael.[11]

Viewpoint of the early Acharonim

Maharal

Maharal discussed the Three Oaths in two different locations, in his work Netzach Yisrael and in his commentary to Tractate Ketubot [12]. In his work Netzach Yisrael he wrote:

כי פירוש 'בדורו של שמד' היינו במדה שהיה לדורו של שמד, שהיו דביקים בה דורו של שמד, ובאותה מדה השביע אותם שלא ישנו בענין הגלות. כי דורו של שמד, אף על גב שהגיע להם המיתה בגלות, לא היו משנים. ועוד פירוש 'בדורו של שמד', רוצה לומר אף אם יהיו רוצים להמית אותם בעינוי קשה, לא יהיו יוצאים ולא יהיו משנים בזה. וכן הפירוש אצל כל אחד ואחד, ויש להבין זה

Another explanation of the Midrash’s statement (he is speaking of Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 2:20 that begins “ורבנן אמרי השביען בדורו של שמד”) that God adjured the Jewish people in a generation of Shmad (religious persecution Jews, or decrees against Jews): that even if they will threaten to kill them with difficult torture, they will not leave [the Exile] nor will they change their behavior in this manner[13]

Rabbi Chaim Vital

The 16th Century Kabbalist, Rabbi Chaim Vital has expressed the view that the Three Oaths were only binding for the first thousand years of Exile. He wrote:

‘I made you swear, daughters of Jerusalem...’ this great oath to God was that they should not arouse the Redemption until that love will be desired and with good will, as it is written ‘until I desire,’ and our Sages already said that the time of this oath is a thousand years, as it is written in the Baraita of Rabbi Yishmael in Pirkei Heichalot (in a comment on Daniel 7:25)..., and similarly in the Zohar II:17a...that it is one day of the Exile of the Community of Israel...[14]

Modern era

Debate on the appropriate understanding of Maimonides

Religious Zionists suggest that in Maimonides’ Epistle to Yemen, he explicitly interprets the oaths metaphorically, and not literally. As it states there “Therefore he admonished and adjured them in metaphorical language (דרך המשל, lit. by way of metaphor) to desist.” Therefore, they maintain, that Maimonides did not consider them to be Halachically binding.[15]

A member of the Haredi community, Rabbi Chaim Walkin points out in his book, Da'at Chaim, that Maimonides discussed the Three Oaths only in the Epistle to Yemen, but not in his Halachic work, the Mishne Torah. R. Walkin postulates that this is due to the fact that while Maimonides saw these oaths as important, he did not consider them to be legally binding as Halacha, only that they serve as “warnings that these actions would be unsuccessful.” [16]

Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (the Satmar Rebbe) however, in his book Vayoel Moshe notes that the Rambam cites the Three Oaths in Iggeret Teiman, in a way that makes it appear that he is discussing binding Halachah. In using the description “metaphorical,” Maimonides is referring to the nature of the text of the Song of Songs, and not to the Three Oaths themselves.[17] The Satmar Rebbe however does not consider the breaking of the oaths a halachic issue, but rather a form of heresy. He has stated that “the oath was not given to heretics but to all Jewry; and even if the whole Government were pious like men of old, any attempt to take their freedom prematurely would be to deny the Holy Law and our faith.” [18]

Debate on the appropriate understanding of Maharal

Religious Zionists argue that Maharal considered the oaths to be a Divine decree (which has thus subsequently expired). They rely upon his commentary to Ketubot which more explicitly indicates that he understood the Oaths to be binding insofar as it is up to God to permit the circumstances wherein Jews can engage in said activities, but it is not binding insofar as Jews are not actually prohibited from engaging in the acts the Oaths are concerned with. They maintain that there is a certain degree of ambiguity in what he has written in Netzach Yisrael and therefore his position must be seen in such a manner, for “anything to the contrary yields a contradiction within the Maharal’s own writings,”[19] which would clearly be undesirable.

However Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum’s (the Satmar Rebbe) position in respect to whether Maharal understood the Oaths as prohibitively binding upon Jews is based primarily upon what was written in Netzach Yisrael. It is uncertain whether he considered and factored in Maharal’s position in his commentary on Ketubot. (Whether this is due to his not having had access to it, not having been aware of it, or having viewed the text as a forgery is unknown.) However, according to his understanding of the Maharal any violation of the Oaths is absolutely prohibited, even on pain of death.

Zionist arguments that consider the Three Oaths

An overview of some of the primary claims made by Religious Zionists concerning the Three Oaths:

  • The Three Oaths are an Aggadic Midrash, and therefore they are not Halakhically obligatory (Aggadic Midrashim, as opposed to Halachic Midrashim are not traditionally understood as a valid source for Halacha).
  • The Three Oaths simply meant that God had decreed an exile for the Jewish people. The fact that the Jewish people have successfully returned to the Land of Israel is evidence that the oath is void and the decree has ended.
  • The wording of Maimonides in his Epistle to Yemen specifically states that the Oaths are “metaphorical” (see Maimonides above), furthermore in his Halachic work he places great value upon living in the Land of Israel, and forbids leaving it.[20]
  • Although the Three Oaths were obligatory in the past, the gentiles violated their vow by excessively persecuting the Jewish people. Therefore the validity of the two other vows has been nullified. The ban on mass-immigration to the Land of Israel is void, due to the nations failure to uphold their end of the Oaths.[21] Those who hold this position often rely on the Shulchan Aruch which states: "two [persons] who have taken an oath to do a thing, and one of them violates the oath, the other is exempt [from it] and does not require permission."[22]
  • Rabbi Meir Blumenfeld (in a position shared by various other Rabbis) maintains that the Oaths are in fact binding upon the Jewish people despite the nations of the world having violated it. The Zionists however have not violated the Oaths in his opinion, because firstly there was no rebellion against the nations of the world (as they have consented to it), and furthermore “ascending as a wall” refers to the immigration of the majority of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel at once (which has not occurred). Rabbi Blumenfeld bolsters his position by pointing towards a comment made by Rashi (on BT Yoma 9b) that defines the differentiation between the phrase “like a door” and “like a wall.” The former refers to part, or half of the population and the latter to the majority of it[23]. (The Satmar Rebbe himself suggests that Maimonides understands “ascending as a wall” to refer to a majority rather than any large gathering [24])

Anti-Zionist arguments that consider the Three Oaths

An overview of some of the primary claims made by anti-Zionists concerning the Three Oaths:

  • The oaths are between the Jewish people and God, and the gentiles and God respectively. The fact that the gentiles violated their oath does not tacitly mean that the Jewish people are free to do so as well. Historically, atrocities prior to the Holocaust have generally not prompted rabbinic encouragement of mass immigration to Israel, though there have been some notable exceptions.[25]
  • Living in Eretz Yisroel is not a general mitzvah for the Jews collectively, only individuals (see discussion of Rashbash (Solomon ben Simon Duran) in Nachmanides section above).
  • The Balfour Declaration never covered the Oaths and the British White Paper of 1939 certainly voided the declaration.
  • The State of Israel has expanded its borders beyond the areas mandated by the UN and have thus expanded the borders without the permission of the nations.
  • The United Nations approval of the establishment of the State of Israel does not constitute permission from the nations of the world. The Halacha attaches no significant value to the United Nations. The relevant approval should be that of some of the other people who live in the land (in this instance, Arabs including Palestinians).[26]

Many Haredim who subscribe to the anti-Zionist view still immigrate to the Land of Israel. Their rationalization is that they do so only as individuals and families, but not as members of the organized mass-immigration, and that they come to the Land solely to live there, not in order to conquer it or rule over it. Such Haredim accordingly do not believe themselves to be in violation of the Three Oaths.

References and notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 111a
  2. Translations: Jewish Publication Society 1917
  3. Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah, 2:[7]1
  4. Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:18
  5. Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 8:11
  6. Iggeret Teiman Ch. 4, Kafach Edition, P. 55
  7. Maimonides. Epistle to Yemen. Ch. XX. 1952 English translation by Boaz Cohen, published in New York by American Academy for Jewish Research.
  8. Midrash Rabbeinu Bachya on Genesis 32:7
  9. Hashmatot HaRaMBaN al Sefer Hamitzvot. Translation from Torat Eretz Yisrael by David Samson Pg. 112
  10. Responsa Rashbash, 2
  11. Zimmerman, Chaim. Torah And Existence.(c) A.A.E. Inc. U.S.A 1986. Page 72
  12. First published from original manuscripts in 1960. See Religious Zionism Debate by R. Gil Student Pg. 16
  13. Netzach Yisrael, Ch. 24
  14. R. Chaim Vital’s Introduction to Sefer Eitz Chayim
  15. The Religious Zionism Debate by R. Gil Student Pg. 18
  16. Zionism by Rebbetzin Dev orah Fastag
  17. Va-Yoel Moshe, Ma’amar Gimmel Shevu’os, ch. 36, p. 47
  18. Holy Land, Holy Language: A Study of an Ultraorthodox Jewish Ideology Author(s): Lewis Glinert and Yosseph Shilhav Source: Language in Society, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 67 Published by: Cambridge University Press.
  19. The Religious Zionism Debate by R. Gil Student Pg. 18
  20. Hilchos Melachim 5:9 "It is forbidden to leave Eretz Yisrael for the Diaspora at all times except: to study Torah; to marry; or to save [one's property] from the gentiles. [After accomplishing these objectives,] one must return to Eretz Yisrael."
  21. This position was maintained by Shlomo Kluger in his Maasei Yedei Yotzer, it was also maintained by Rabbi Meir Kahane in Or Hara’ayon
  22. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 236:6
  23. “There is no comparison between oaths between two individual and the oaths adjured by God. .. The [Three] Oaths were unconditional obligations between Israel and the nations. If there is a possibility that we may ascend to the Land of Israel, it would only be because we wouldn't be ascending like a wall... and wouldn't be rebelling against the nations, because the nations of the world themselves have agreed that this portion of land shall belong to the Jews. ...The intent [of the phrase "ascend like a wall"] is the ascent of the people all at once, or certainly more than half [the people], as is explained in Yoma 9... and explained by Rashi.” See Ohr HaTorah (1962), and "Concerning the Oath That They Not Ascend as a Wall" (in Hebrew) in Shana be-shana (Jerusalem 1974), pp. 148-53.
  24. VaYoel Moshe. Chapter 80 ( Here the Satmar Rebbe offers an explanation why Maimonides didn't include the Three Oaths in his code. Maimonides in Laws Of Repentance 7:5 states that "Israel shall only be redeemed through repentence." The Satmar Rebbe explains that denial of this statement of Maimonides is heresy. Hence, any redemptive action taken before Israel repents is considered heretical. Immigration of a large, but minority group wouldn't be considered a redemptive attempt and would not be a heretical action. Such immigration would not violate Laws Of Repentance, and if forbidden would have to mentioned elsewhere in Maimonides' code. Immigration of the majority of Jews, however, would be a redemptive attempt. Without repentance, such immigration would be heretical and forbidden by the Laws Of Repentance. Since, by implication, it has already been forbidden by Laws Of Repentance, there would be no need for Maimonides to mention it explicitly elsewhere in his code.)
  25. Historically there have been some instances where persecution served as the impetus for Jewish migration to the Land of Israel, even prior to WWII. Due to a wave of pogroms “the students of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, the Gaon of Vilna, left Lithuania and immigrated to Safed and Jerusalem in Eretz Israel. The available evidence strongly indicates that the Gaon not only condoned their aliya; he actually decreed it, because he was convinced that the year 1840 was to be the year of "atchalta degeulah," "the beginning of the redemption." Messianism, Zionism, and the State of Israel Author(s): Chaim I. Waxman Source: Modern Judaism, Vol. 7, No. 2 (May, 1987), pp. 176 Published by: Oxford University Press.
  26. The Satmar Rebbe viewed the UN as imbued with strength and actual power, regardless of whether he saw it as a Halachically recognized organization. He states that: “Even according to the natural order, were they to yield their government and Zionist State, there is no doubt that the United Nations could make arrangements to prevent war and bloodshed.” Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, Al Ha-Geulah ve-al Ha-Temurah, pp. 85-86.

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