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Parashat Vayishlach: Conquest vs. Possession

Parashat Vayishlach: Conquest vs. Possession

About Yosef's Tomb and its unique characteristics; the difference between conquest and possession, and on the bond we need with the Land of Israel in light of this.

Yoel Yakoby


Yosef's Tomb is one of the sites that the nations of the world cannot have any claims against the Jewish People with regard to who it belongs to. What is the significance of these claims and why do we have to relate to them at all? Understanding the difference, with its tremendous halachic significance, between kibush (conquest), and chezka (possession) will clarify several points relating the type of bond we need to forge with the Land of Israel.


In this week's parasha, Yaakov purchases the plot in Shechem, where Yosef is later buried.

"R’ Yudan bar Simon said: this is one of the three places about which the nations of the world cannot defraud Israel and say ‘this is stolen property in your hands.’ They are – the cave of the Machpela, the Holy Temple and the grave of Yosef. " (Bereishit Raba 79:7)

Questions about the Midrash

This midrash is very strange. Obviously the claim of the nations of the world is baseless. Is a monetary transaction greater than a Divine promise to the Jewish People that we will receive all of the Land of Israel? Moreover, does the fact that these places were purchased from their previous owners, who possessed these areas at that time, make the monetary acquisition valid eternally? If someone were to prove that he was a descendent of a family that lived in a certain house in Spain prior to the Spanish Expulsion, would the property be returned to him? Of course not; at most he might receive a certain in the case of exceptional kindness, he might receive some compensation. Aside from this, what does it matter what the nations of the world say? Do we live our lives based on their opinions of us? We were commanded by G-d to inherit the Land promised to our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov! The biggest question, though, is: how is it that precisely these places, which the nations cannot make any false claims about our ownership, have become the main bone of contention in their attacks against us in the past few decades, and especially today?

Conquest vs. Possession

It seems clear that R' Yuden draws a distinction between military conquest and civilian settlement. We can find this distinction in a purely halachic context, in the Rambam's discussion on the sanctity of the Beit Hamikdash (Hilchot Beit Habechira 6:16). Here, the Rambam states that the sanctity of the Beit Hamikdash has not been nullified, despite its destruction. The Rambam goes on to raise the obvious question: what is the difference between the sanctity of the Beit Hamikdash and that of the Land of Israel? "And why is it that I say of the Temple and Jerusalem that they have primary sanctity, and are sacred for eternity, while the sanctity of the Land of Israel vis-à-vis the sabbatical year and tithes, etc., do not retain eternal sanctity?" The Rambam explains: "Since the sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem are due to the Divine Presence, and the Divine Presence is never nullified." In contrast, the sanctity of the Land of Israel, in the context of the Land-related mitzvot is only thanks to Yehoshua's conquest of the Land in a kibush rabim, a conquest by majority, and "when the Land was wrested from [Jewish] hands, the conquest was nullified and [the Land] became exempt from tithes and the Sabbatical year; the land was no longer considered the Land of Israel," since it was not considered an area defined politically as under the sovereignty of the Jewish People. That is to say, since the sanctity of the Beit Hamikdash is due to the Divine Presence, which is eternal, its sanctity is eternal as well; in contrast, the sanctity of the Land of Israel, in the context of the Land-related mitzvot is only thanks to sovereignty over the land; this sovereignty was nullified in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles.

However, upon the return of the Jewish People with Ezra, parts of the areas sanctified in the time of Yehoshua were sanctified a second time. Surprisingly, it is specifically this second sanctification, performed in a much weaker manner in both political and military terms, under the patronage of the Persian kings, remained even after these areas were no longer in Jewish possession, upon the exile following the destruction of the Second Temple. The reason being that while the initial sanctity was accomplished by means of conquest, the second sanctification was accomplished by ownership—that is, actual settlement of the land. "For this reason, every place possessed by those returnees from the Babylonian exile [i.e. olei Bavel], which was sanctified by this second sanctification by Ezra, is still sacred today, even though the land was taken from us. And it is still subject to the laws of the sabbatical year and tithes, as we have explained in the laws of tithes."

Settlement Forges a Strong and Natural Bond

The sanctity imparted to the land by force of conquest might be stronger at the time, but it does not forge a sufficiently strong bond to the soil. It is specifically the natural bond formed with the soil, without military support, that is much stronger. In this way, the military might actually hinder the formation of a bond, even it accompanies possession, since the bond to the soil is less natural (this is how we can clarify the question raised by the Kesef Mishne on the Rambam: why did the sanctity due to Yehoshua's conquest become void, since it included settlement as well as conquest). Today we see this clearly. When the Jewish settlement in Juda and Samaria was limited to houses in various settlements there, its bond to the soil was weak. The local Arabs would mock them and would say that the fate of the settlements would be like that of the Crusaders, a foreign entity that penetrated the Land, whose presence there was only thanks to military prowess and the citadels they cloistered themselves in.

Today, however, now that there is rural settlement on many hilltops, with developed agriculture, the bond to the soil has become natural and thus much stronger. The nations' claims to the Jewish People is also based on this bond: "You aren't really connected to the Land; you came here are conquerors, but the land isn't really yours," they say. This claim is problematic, not because of their opinion, but because it is partially true. A bond born out of military conquest alone is not whole. However, the fact that our forefathers bought real estate in the Land of Israel to settle it (to this end, burial areas are also part of the settlement, and in a certain sense, even a more stable aspect of it), forged a natural bond to the Land of Israel. Moreover, this also expresses that we have a deep, natural bond to everywhere else in the Holy Land. Deepening this bond will show our neighbors that their attempts to undermine our possession of the Land are bound to fail. And specifically these sites, the areas that highlight the extent of our bond to the Land of Israel and our connection to the heritage of our holy forefathers, to Yosef, and to the Beit Hamikdash, requires that we achieve yet a deeper level of natural bond to the Land. For this reason, it is precisely these sites that draw the fiercest battle.

Shechem of the Samaritans

Said R' Abahu "There are towns of Samaritans (Kutim) that were exempted [from the Land-related mitzvot] from the times of Yehoshua b. Nun, therefore they are exempt today as well. R' Yose asks: If this is so, the kohanim should not be concerned about their challot, but we see that the Sages are concerned! Said R' Yuda b. Pazi: It is not for the reason you stated, rather due to the fact that the rule of Israel is not upon them."

(Talmud Yerushalmi, Shevi'it 16b)

The Samaritan Towns vis-à-vis Ma'aserot and Challah

Shechem is considered one of the important cities in the Tanach, and several significant biblical events—mostly negative—took place there. In contrast, during the Second Temple times, we barely hear about it or the entire agriculturally rich area it is situated in. The reason for this is since the exile from Samaria during end of the First Temple period, the area was settled by the Samaritans (Kutim or Cutheans), who were, most of the time, enemies of the Jewish People.  They claimed that they were the true Jews, while the Jewish People viewed them as non-genuine converts to Judaism. Indeed, at the closing of the redaction of the Mishna, it was decided that their conversion was null and void, since they did not truly reject idol worship. The area of Shechem, during this time, was outside of the Jewish settlement. This raised the question as to the halachic status of this region. It seems to be in Central Israel—situated between the two major Jewish centers at the time, Juda and the Galilee. On the other hand, however, it was an enclave with scarcely any Jewish presence, if any at all.

In the quote above, R' Abahu says that there are towns of Samaritans that were not captured by Yehoshua bin Nun and certainly not during the Second Temple times, so these areas are considered to be outside the Land of Israel vis-à-vis the Land-related mitzvot. R' Yose challenges this statement, saying that if so—and these areas should be treated like outside the Land of Israel—the laws pertaining to challah from these areas should be the same as outside of Israel, which can be eaten by kohanim even in state of impurity. Why, then, R' Yose asks, do we see that the Sages are careful not to eat challah from these areas when they are impure? R' Yuda ben Pazi counters that the laws pertaining to these areas are not like those applying outside of Israel for all intents and purposes; R' Yuda's reason for the stringency regarding challah is explained in various ways.

R' Shlomo Sirilio (1485-1554) explains that the reason for an exemption from terumot and ma'aserot versus the stringency regarding the laws of challah is linked to the fact that these lands were seized by a king (it seems he is referring to the Caesar); even if he allows the original owners to work the fields, they are no longer the owners, rather the king is, so it is not called a Jewishly owned-field. However, with regard to challah, it does not matter who the owner is of the field where the wheat grew; the dough is subject to challah when a Jew is the one forming it. In conclusion (according to this explanation), it seems that the Samaritan towns would be subject to Land-related mitzvot on the same level as olei Mitzrayim, but not as olei Bavel.

Rambam, however, only states the outer limits of olei Bavel territory, since he holds that whatever is within these areas has the higher level of olei Bavel sanctity. We see from here that Rambam does not learn the halacha from this Yerushalmi, or perhaps has an alternate explanation for it. So in practice, the entire Shechem region, previously settled by the Samaritans, is subject to the Land-related mitzvot in their entirety.

Shechem: A History

Shechem is a city with a rich past, so much so that it would be impossible to review it in a few sentences. After it no longer served as the capital of the Israelite kingdom, it nevertheless remained an important city. After the destruction of Samaria, the area was settled by Samaritans. Following a massacre of the city's Jews, the Hasmonean king Yochanan (John) Hyrcanus attacked the city and killed most of its residents, covered the city with dust, and destroyed the Samarian temple on Mt. Gerizim, above the city.

From this time on, in place of the city was a rural settlement called Platanos; the Arabic name for ancient Shechem, Balata, was preserved by the city's Arab residents. Following the destruction of the Second Temple, Titus established a new city approximately two kilometers west of Shechem: Neapolis (Nea=new, polis=city), from which the current Arabic name for the city is derived: Nablus. The theory goes that the city was established with a salient Roman character (featuring a hippodrome for horse races, a theater, and more) is linked with the compensation made to the soldiers who participated in the battles during the destruction of the Second Temple. As a result of the Samaritan revolt against the Byzantine empire in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, the Samaritans were massacred to such an extent that they nearly disappeared from the stage of history.

At various times Jews settled Shechem, either temporarily or permanently. However, the area was so dangerous that Rabbi Yosef Karo issued a ban against anyone who would try to reinstate Jewish settlement in this dangerous place (the Tzitz Eliezer discusses this ban, and rules that today it is not relevant). In any case, we hear about a small Jewish community living there, whose population dwindled down. Attempts to renew the Jewish presence there were made by various people and groups—from Rabbi Moshe Menachem Mendel Werner (a disciple of the Avnei Nezer) in 1884 to a cadre from Shomer HaTzair (!). These attempts failed.

During the Six Day War, Shechem was captured without a fight, since the local residents thought that the IDF tanks were from Iraq. The first tenacious attempts at settling the area were made thereafter. Initially the Elon Moreh cadre settled in what is now Kedumim, west of Shechem. An additional attempt led to the establishment of Elon Moreh on Mt. Kabir, east of Shechem. In 5742 (1982), the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva was established at Yosef's tomb.

Following the Oslo Accords, the city was transferred over to the Palestinians, while Israel still had control over Yosef's tomb. However, as a result of the Yusuf Dawiqat affair (5761, 2010), the tomb was abandoned. Today organized visits to the tomb are held at night, once a month, under heavy IDF security.

(See History of Shechem, based on the survey of Yoel Neuman at the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva website [Hebrew], here).