Do the Mitzvot Count Outside of Israel?

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.

Shabbat Shalom!

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.


Filed under Miscellaneous

6 responses to “Do the Mitzvot Count Outside of Israel?

  1. Eytan

    A few points/questions.
    According the Sifri’s second statement – “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,” how is that saying that Jews are commanded to keep mitzvot outside of Israel. Interpreting good as Torah just means that “You will be exiled from a land of Torah to a land without Torah.” Or am I missing something.

    Assuming we read the Sifri’s statement with your interpretation, and for the Mishnah in Kiddushin – yes people are commanded to perform Mitzvot outside of Israel, but that is not what we are talking about here. We are not arguing if Jews are commanded to perform mitzvot in exile, rather if they COUNT or not. So you can simply say that while Jews are commanded to keep mitzvot outside of Israel, Hashem did so only for practice, as you stated above, so they it should not be new to them. Why is it so farfetched to say the first generation were given mitzvot only for practice? It is actually logical – how would their children to learn the mitzvot if their parents wouldn’t teach it to them?

    As an answer to your wife’s question, the reason that Jews in exile are not commanded to perform mitzvot pertaining to Israel, even though it would be good practice, is simple. They can’t and are not deserving. What do I mean? Why do Jews in exile only do Birkat Kohanin on the holidays, while in Israel we do it every day? It is because you have to be happy to do the priestly blessing and our Rabbi’s held that you are only truly happy on holidays or in Israel. So no matter how good it would be for Jews in exile to practice this mitzvah of the priestly blessing in exile, they can’t because the atmosphere does not allow them to – and likewise with all other mitzvot. On a side note – maybe it is a punishment as well for Jews in exile, meaning that Hashem specifically told them not to perform the mitzvot regarding Israel in exile so that they would feel that something is missing in their Judaism, something that clearly went over all their heads.

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      Hey eytan, thanks for reading!
      You ask some tough questions, so i will do my best to answer them. but i want to be honest that i think the gaps between our views will probably mean that i’ll answer these questions according to how i see things, and you’ll probably still think i’m wrong. to answer it for you might turn into another conversation (which i’d be very happy to have!), and i don’t really know enough of what you think anyway.

      1)my understanding of R. Judah should be agreed to by both of us, even if you think he’s wrong. here’s why: while the pasuk could be interpreted the way you want to, R. Judah’s words ” 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.” show he does not agree with you.

      good,especially “good doctrine” refers to the torah here, not to the land, which is what you seem to be implying. so he’s not saying israel has torah and the rest of the world does not. he says the good/torah was given in israel (which he does not mean literally) and that we must not forsake that “good”, ie: torah, when we leave. Furthermore, the talmud’s discussion should confirm this for us since it is a discussion of his opinion. mitzvot are split into “body” and “land”. all of it is ‘good”. we must not forsake the “good” when we leave, even though we can’t keep all of it.

      between the fact that the word good as in “good doctrine” should refer most simply only to the torah, and the talmud, i think we should understand it as i wrote, but i understand if you disagree.

      2)I said i don’t think it’s pshat that the first generation of Jews were given the mitzvot to practice, but i agree your understanding is possible.
      Again, what you’re saying -that the Jews are commanded to practice the mitzvot outside of israel- does not seem to me to be pshat, but i’m not sure it would be impossible to say that R. Judah’s “another interpretation” could be interpreted to fit with the first explanation.

      also, if i’m correct that “good doctrine” means torah, without a complete connection to the land, then you would not say these two opinions agree. if they did, why should Sifre list them both?

      3) your answer seems to assume some deep knowledge of how God runs the world that is simply above my head. you don’t seem to be saying anything that is logically impossible, but you’re suggesting things i would wait for a prophet to tell me.

      also, even according to you the first generation of Jews were commanded to practice not as a punishment, but merely because they were not in israel yet. this should imply that there’s not “not deserving” aspect involved in practicing the mitzvot outside of israel.

      i also don’t think this is the opinion in the Sifre, as i don’t understand how you read the analogy of the castle/king as saying “not deserving.” it’s saying the mitzvot were intended for inside israel, but don’t forget how to keep them. yes, exile itself is considered a punishment, but not this aspect of it. it is more a metaphysical statement of how mitzvot are and how they are integrally related to israel according to the first opinion in the sifre.

      also, it really doesn’t seem to be the pshat in the gemara or those other sifres to me, but maybe you’re right and i’m wrong.

      what do you think?

      • Eytan

        To be honest, I don’t really understand your point about R. Judah. The whole point of “I give you good doctrine, forsake ye not my Torah,” is just a way for R. Judah to show how the word good = Torah. Now that we have established that, you want to add the end of the verse in proverbs, “forsake ye not my Torah,” to the end of the verse of “to a land that is not like it in goodness” – “forsake ye not my Torah.” I just don’t see the connection. Granted you used that verse to prove the meaning of the word good, but that does mean you can just take parts of the verse and add it somewhere else?
        Assuming I didn’t understand R. Judah (which is probably the case), that verse “forsake ye not my Torah” can still be up for interpretation. One can easily argue that it means keep LEARNING my Torah (which would jive with the Sifri), as opposed to keep doing the mitzvot of the Torah.”
        All that aside, even saying that R. Judah says one is commanded to do mitzvot outside of Israel, it still does not prove that mitzvot count – he can simply be saying like I said before, that Jews are obligated to do mitzvot so it shall not be new to them.

        2) Whether the first generation Jews were given mitzvot to practice, I guess we will have to agree to disagree.
        You are absolutely right – “good doctrine” = torah without a connection to the land, but that is the meaning of the word alone. True, if the verse just said “good” or “good doctrine” then it would be just Torah, but you are forgetting that in the verse, the word after good is land! It says “You will be exiled from the good land to a land that is not like it in goodness.”
        While the word “good” alone means Torah, the word after “land” clearly states that it IS in fact talking about the land. You are focusing on the translation of one word but leaving out the rest of the verse that clarifies it.

        3) My answer does not assume some deep knowledge of how God runs the world, I am simply saying what the Rabbis said. They said the reason that we do not do the priestly blessing outside of Israel is because one cannot be truly happy outside of Israel. Clearly, there is some special atmosphere about Israel that allowed one to only to the mitzvot while in Israel.
        With the first generation, there was no “not deserving” aspect, because it was not their fault. They were one their way to make the first so called Aliyah, so the fact they couldn’t do the mitzvot regarding Israel was because of the “atmosphere explanation,” which I explained before. Now a days, when people can make Aliyah, there may be more of the “not deserving” aspect – of course that’s my own little theory. But the pshat so to speak, is because Jews can’t perform the holy mitzvot of Israel in the unholy atmosphere of exile.

        3) You are mixing up the 2 points of the Sifri and the “atmosphere/not deserving.” The first point of the Sifri is that Jews should keep doing regular mitzvot so that they won’t forget. The second point is the answer to your wife’s question. If someone were to just read the Sifri, they would think that they Jews in exile should perform every single mitzva, even the ones regarding Israel – but that is the novelty, that even though it makes sense to do them, they can’t because you can’t perform the holy mitzvot of Israel in the unholy atmosphere of exile. That answer isn’t clashing with the Sifri, it is explaining it.

  2. Yitzchak Sprung

    We may have reached loggerheads on these points.

    1) R. Judah’s opinion should not be considered the same as the one before it, nor should it be considered as explaining it. it is “another interpretation.”

    Given that his explanation is the one offered in the gemara, and the gemara does not touch on the points of “practice”, it seems unlikely they are related. rather there is a disagreement here.

    This is especially so in light of the fact that you say he is coming to explain the “practice” point. how then, could the gemara leave this out?

    Also, in light of the gemara and sifre 59, he must be referring to the mitzvot, and not learning. sifre 59 discusses how the commandment to destory idols is the example that teaches us the idea that some mitzvot only apply in the land, while mitzvot of the body/lo taaseh are everywhere.

    Furthermore, in Sifre 59, the rule of which mitzvot to keep in chutz laaretz is explained as chazal learned it, again without any reference to the idea of practice.

    It is not logically impossible to conflate the two opinions, but it is not the simplest reading in my opinion.

    as for the “land” after good, you’re right. it is there because it refers to the time after the jews leave it…i believe this is the context. now that you’ve left the land, do not forsake the torah you kept in it.

    I don’t think you’re understanding R. Judah in the simplest way, the idea of “another interpretation” in the simplest way, nor the gemara in the simplest way, and finally, not sifre 59 in the simplest way. this being said, i may be wrong.

    2) if all rabbis agreed there was a special atmosphere to israel, it does not mean they would agree no one can be happy outside of it. Further, not all rabbis agree that the atmosphere is holy or inherently spiritually different than the rest of the world anyway (eg. Rambam. see menachem kellner’s ‘maimonides confrontation with mysticism’ for this point.).

    3) again, we’ll agree to disagree on pshat of the torah and practice. it is interesting that it is not mentioned in the torah, however, nor do the later prophets make mention of this in the many places they could have before the jews became exiled.

    rather, there are philosophical perspectives which lead to this belief, and R. Judah at the very least disagrees with the conclusion.

    anyway, your theory is interesting, but i don’t really see why i should accept it…

    4) I think #1 explains why i disagree with your point here.

  3. Eytan

    Regardless of R.Judah’s opinion, the fact that he did not talk about mitzvot counting outside of Israel still leaves this topic up in the air. Yes Jews are commanded to do mitzvot in exile, but what is the level of their worth? It seems that there is some inherint difference between the two.
    You can also make the argument that the Sifri clearly writes how mitzvot are for practice in exile, but does not CLEARLY write the opposing opinion, rather it alludes to it through R.Judah, meaning that it may give more pull to the practice idea.
    There may be a debate whether the atmosphere of Israel is holy, but the consensus of the rabbis is that it is, so although the Rambam may say it isnt, I am going like the majority.
    As for no prophet every mentioning it – that is a good point. I know Rashi in Dvarim somewhere makes this point of mitzvot are for practice in exile, but as for why did anyone not mention it? I don’t know. Did the prophets mention anywhere about Jews not doing any mitzvot regarding Israel in exile? I don’t think so – I think later on the rabbis did. So it is possible they didn’t mention it for the same reason they didnt mention the other point – which is I don’t know.

    You make great points, and I guess we will just have to agree to disagree – keep the articles coming they are very interesting!

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