A friend of mine once taught me a song some campers and counselors used to sing in Camp Moshava of Ennismore, which has the following line in it:
“Everybody make Aliyah;
Mitzvot don’t count in Canada!”
Intuitively, we would say that not only is this opinion incorrect, but that it has no place in Orthodox Judaism. How could mitzvot not count somewhere? Is there a source for this assertion? Furthermore, what exactly do they mean when they say the mitzvot “do not count”?
I came across what i assume is the source for this in a book I’m researching for a paper, which is pretty exciting, since now we should be able to answer all of these questions. Of course, for all I know this could be in 35 midrashei halakha (unlikely as that seems to me), since I’m just not familiar with them. Having the opportunity to look at some now, I highly recommend it to everyone.
Anyway, in piska 43 of Sifre on Dvarim, it explains the following quote from Deut. 11:16-18:
הִשָּֽׁמְר֣וּ לָכֶ֔ם פֶּ֥ן יִפְתֶּ֖ה לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְסַרְתֶּ֗ם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶ֖ם לָהֶֽם׃
וְחָרָ֨ה אַף־יְהוָ֜ה בָּכֶ֗ם וְעָצַ֤ר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֣ה מָטָ֔ר וְהָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן אֶת־יְבוּלָ֑הּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּ֣ם מְהֵרָ֗ה מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃
…וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל־נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם
16:Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and you turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them:
17:and then the Lord’s anger be inflamed against you, and he shut up the heavens, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not its fruit; and you perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord gives you.
18: And you shall lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul…1
In the Sifre2, the Sages explain that God is saying the following to the Jewish people:
“Even though I am about to exile you from the Land (of Israel) to a foreign land, you must continue to be marked there by the commandments, so that when you return they will not be new to you.”
So basically, according to this source, for someone who lives outside of Israel, the mitzvot are just for practice, so that we know what we’re doing when we live in Israel again.
The Sifre continues:
A parable: A king of flesh and blood grew angry with his wife and sent her back to her father’s house, saying to her, “Be sure to continue wearing your jewelry, so that whenever you return, it will not be new to you.” Thus also the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, “My children, you must continue to be marked by the commandments, so that when you return, they will not be new to you.”
Well, I think that pretty much confirms our reading that according to this opinion, we are commanded to perform the mitzvot for practice outside of Israel, which I assume is what campers at Ennismore mean when they say (or sing) mitzvot “don’t count in Canada”. Still, I think saying mitzvot don’t “count” is very misleading, and that is not the intention of the Sages here.
Anyway, the opinion of the Sifre here is also famously quoted by Ramban in his commentary on Levitcus 18:25 and he takes it very seriously, and personally I have come across many people in Israel who take this to be the normative opinion.
However, we should not forget that the Sifre lists another opinion just after this, which goes as follows:
Another interpretation: And ye perish quickly from off the good land (11:17): You will be exiled from the good land to a land that is not like it in goodness. R. Judah says: Good refers to Torah, as it is said, For I give you good doctrine-(In the Land of Israel)-forsake ye not my Torah (Prov. 4:2)- outside the Land.
This seems to imply that God is commanding us to keep the mitzvot even though we have been exiled, and implies no connection to their practice in Israel in the way the first opinion does.
While the first opinion assumes the mitzvot are really supposed to be performed in Israel, so that when we are outside of it they are only performed for practice, the second opinion says the verse is a warning/commandment to remember to keep the mitzvot no matter where we are, because it makes no difference; we are always commanded to keep the mitzvot.
This opinion is the simple understanding of the Mishnah in Kiddushin (36b) that “Any commandment that is not dependent on the Land (of Israel) must be performed outside of the Land, and any of them that is dependent on the Land is not performed except for in the Land.”
The gemara takes R. Judah’s opinion (which we listed earlier) as the normative one, so that mitzvot “(incumbent on) the body” apply anywhere in the world, while commandments that can only be performed in Israel due to their dependence on the Land-such as shmittah- do not. Of course, being that so many of the commandments have to do with the Temple, we should not forget how big this number is.
This seems also to be the opinion in Sifre 59, which appears to be cited by the gemara here as well, and of Sifre 613 as well. So, the mitzvot can be categorized into those that only apply in Israel, and the ones that apply everywhere, including every “Lo Taaseh” (prohibitive commandments), and I think this is also the opinion of the Talmud in Sotah 14A, where we are told Moses wanted to enter Israel so that he could practice the mitzvot specific to it.
Keep in mind, if the opinion that mitzvot are just for practice outside of Israel is correct, it seems likely that the entire first generation of Jews given the mitzvot practiced for nothing, or only so that their children would be familiar with the mitzvot when they would go into Israel 40 years later. This interpretation does not seem to be the simple reading of the giving of the Torah to me, but I’m not qualified to make that call.
Going further, my wife pointed out an even stronger question on this opinion to me: If the mitzvot are performed for practice outside of Israel, then we should practice all of the mitzvot- including those that pertain to the land- so that we are familiar with them.
Since we see that only mitzvot “of the body” are performed outside of Israel, while no practice is required for those of the land, we see the halakha presumes that mitzvot are actually commanded upon us no matter where we are, and some only apply to the Land of Israel.
Anyway, it seems from the sources we have just listed that the mitzvot do “count” in Canada, the U.S., etc. This being the case, the song should be edited a bit. Since it encourages children to make aliyah, I will try and leave the spirit of the song intact.
The new lyrics will say “Everybody make aliyah; Mitzvot still count in Canada!”. This will imply that it is a mitzva to make aliyah no matter where you live, which I think the Moshava people will approve of. This is of course despite the fact that Rambam famously does not codify living in Israel as a commandment.
I feel we have righted the wrongs of this song, and I can get back to my paper now.
1Tanslation from the Koren Jerusalem Bible.
2I’ve taken the translation from the Yale Judaica Series, Volume XXIV, “Sifre on Deuteronomy”, which is translated, introduced, and annotated with notes by Reuven Hammer. (Yale University Press 1986)
3Both on parshat Re’eh, entitled “These are the laws” and “You should shatter” respectively.