16 November 2014

“Economic Difficulty” and Aliyah

23 Marcheshvan 5775

Guest post by...

Rav Ari Shvat (Chwat)
Rosh Midreshet Tal Orot
Michlelet Orot, Elkana


(Translated from Tchumin 22 (5762), pp. 355-368)

“Economic Difficulty”- A Halachic Examination and Definition of the Most Common Excuse for Not Making Aliya

After conclusively seeing that living in Israel is so central to Judaism, even “equated with the rest of the mitzvot combined”, what is the rationalization for the many religious Jews who still live in chutz la'Aretz? From my experience, the most popular justification is a financial one – because for most, aliya to Israel involves lowering their standard of living. Rabbi Yehuda HeLevi already mentions, regarding the aliya in the days of Ezra, "most of them, including the most important, stayed in Babylon, agreeing to exile and servitude just to avoid leaving their homes and professions." The question is, "how far does the obligation to live in Israel go"? How much does one need to lower their standard of living in order to fulfill the commandment of living in Israel?

A. The Decree of Usha

Three rabbis of our generation related to this question in the context of "The Decree of Usha". "In Usha they decreed that one who gives should not lavish more than a fifth (of his money)". The reason given in the b'raita is: "lest he become dependant on others (for their support)". The amoraim base this law on the words of Yaakov, "and all that You will give me, I will surely tithe to you". From Rashi's commentary here, it seems that this decree is only regarding the mitzvah of tzedaka, but from the phrasing of the Talmud Yerushalmi, it seems that this applies to all mitzvot: "In Usha they decided that a person should tithe a fifth of his possessions for a mitzva (or, in some versions "for mitzvot")".

This is inferred as well, from the cited source where Yaakov says "and all that You will give me I will surely tithe it to You", where there is no mention of charity whatsoever. Similarly, the reason for the decree, "lest he become dependant on others," applies equally to all mitzvot. Indeed, we find also in the Talmud Bavli, that the Decree of Usha is mentioned in relation to other mitzvot, as well.

Some of the rishonim, in fact, rule according to this broader (and more lenient) understanding of the Decree of Usha, among them, the Rambam, Tosafot and the Rosh. Rabbeinu Yerucham says that all positive mitzvot are like tzedaka regarding the minimal obligation of giving at least a tenth, as he says: "and the commentators learnt that a person is not obligated (to spend) a lot of money on a mitzvah like lulav, as it says ‘one who gives (money) should not lavish more than a fifth’. Nevertheless, in any case he is obligated to use a tenth of his money". However, according to the other aforementioned rishonim, the maximum that can be spent is indeed, a fifth of his possessions, but the minimum is whatever is necessary, to fulfill the mitzvah, up to 20%.

Many achronim mention the Decree of Usha in the context of buying an etrog – as mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries, and also regarding prayer (even though prayer, as opposed to charity, is considered by many to be a rabbinical commandment). In addition, there are those who hold like Rabbeinu Yerucham, that one is obligated to spend at least a tenth of his possessions to fulfill every positive mitzvah. Rav Moshe Dov Volner, former chief rabbi of Ashkelon, opines that the difference between the mitzvah of tzedaka and other mitzvot, is that the amount of 10% is only mentioned regarding tzedaka, whereas for all other mitzvot, it is permissible to spend up to a fifth.

The question is, if the maximum expenditure is specified for any individual mitzvah, accordingly, if one has the opportunity to do five mitzvot (according to the opinion that the maximum is 20%) or 10 (according to Rabbeinu Yerucham), he would have to spend every penny he owns in order to fulfill them! Rav Volner learns from the wording of the Talmud Yerushalmi which the Rambam cites as definitive, "one who spends money on mitzvot (plural!) shouldn’t lavish more than a fifth" that this amount applies to the total sum of his expenditures for mitzvot. Accordingly, he rules in our discussion that it is permissible for one to spend all of that one fifth of his possessions (alloted to fulfill all the positive mitzvot), on one mitzvah – settling the Land of Israel. However, in his opinion, one is not obligated to spend even 10% of his money on any specific mitzvah apart from charity.

In contrast, Rav Shaul Yisraeli, Rosh Yeshiva at Merkaz HaRav and former veteran dayan on the Beit Din Gavoha in Y’rushalayim, rules like Rabbeinu Yerucham regarding the Decree of Usha, that one is obligated to spend up to a tenth of his assets, or enough to cover expenses of food and clothing for one person for five years, in order to make aliya. However, in the opinion of Rav Moshe Shternbuch, sgan av Beit Din of the Eidah haCharedit in Yerushalim, due to the limitation of 20%, there cannot be an obligation forcing one to leave his home for any regular positive mitzvah, even if "he will fulfill a positive mitzvah every minute that he is in Israel". In other words, the physical and psychological effort involved in moving to Israel is worth more than a fifth of his possessions and he is therefore, according to R. Shternbuch, not obligated to do so.

The difficulty with this last opinion is evident. For according to R. Shternbuch, the mitzvah of moving to Israel is essentially cancelled, because every aliya to Israel involves great effort, not to mention self-sacrifice, usually equivelant in worth to more than a fifth of his possessions. Accordingly, the vast majority will not only always be exempt but even forbidden (!) to make aliya, chalila (see chapter E).

Curiously, the three aforementioned modern poskim all deal with the issue of the extent of monetary loss which need be incurred to make aliya, based on their respective understanding of the Decree of Usha, without mentioning the many poskim who explicitly discussed this topic in previous generations. Furthermore, and even more difficult, there is conspicuously no mention whatsoever in any of those many preceding sources of the Decree of Usha, regarding the mitzva of living in Israel? To the contrary, some thirty (!) previous poskim (including rishonim) hold that one is obligated to live in Israel, unless he must beg for a living (a significantly greater sacrifice than 20% of his possessions)! Why did all of those rishonim and achronim see this mitzva as dissimilar, having a unique and substantially different halachic definition regarding the obligation of monetary loss for a particular mitzva?

B. Calculation of the One Fifth – From Past Savings or Future Income?

Today, with modern transportation and “lifts”, there is comparatively less direct exertion involved in the act of moving to Israel than there was before the invention of airplanes. Even financial expenses have been greatly reduced, due to significannot aid offered to new olim by the Ministry of Absorption, including the free flight to Israel. Yet, even in previous generations, and how much more so today, the major loss incurred when making aliya is leaving one's job and lowering his future wages and standard of living. These are losses of potential future income, and it is questionable, if we apply the guidelines of Usha, whether the amounts of 10 or 20% apply to this type of loss.

Rav Moshe Feinstein opines in several responsa, regarding the issue of Usha, that the loss of future income is included in the calculation of the one fifth in order to exempt one from the mitzvah at hand. His reasoning is based upon a kal vachomer from the Decree of Usha, because the sum of one's future wages, are usually worth significantly more than 20% of his possessions.

However, Rav Moshe's assumption is not as simple as it seems, for the question may be asked, how can a "kal v'chomer" be learnt from a decree of the sages, for perhaps they decreed specifically regarding possessions and not on a loss of revenue?

In addition, apparently, Rav Moshe defines “something that has come into the world", even from the time one joins the “job market” or local workforce. This definition is not simple at all.

Even more difficult, how does Rav Moshe learn a "kal v'chomer" regarding a loss of income, if we find that in other cases, the minimizing of future income is considered kal, in comparison with the loss of past income or effort, which is considered chamur?

For example, the Rama holds like the Ran that in a case of monetary loss, a son is permitted to prevent his father from wasting the son’s money, but he is not allowed to stop him from wasting his future wages. This is the reason for the explicit prohibition (!) of waking one's father when a precious stone or the keys to his shop are under his head, even at the cost of a business deal worth 60,000 golden dinars. From this precedent, Rav Shlomo Natan Kotler, Rosh Yeshiva in Slabodka, learns that that the limitation of spending 20% regarding positive commandments is only regarding the loss to his past savings. On the other hand, one is obligated to forego all of his future income in order not to miss any positive commandment. Even though the obligation of honoring parents is only "from the father's (money)", and not the son’s, nevertheless, the son is obligated to forego his future profit or income. If this is the case, how much more so regarding most other mitzvot where monetary loss is mandatory, that foregoing future profit or income is obligatory, as well.

Indeed, we find proof to Rav Kotler's opinion in many other cases as well (such as: mourning; chol ha'moed; erev Pesach; prayer with a minyan ) where a clear differentiation is made between monetary loss (considered significant-"chamur") as opposed to loss of future income (considered more negligible- "kal"). All of the above disprove the kal vachomer of R. Moshe Feinstein, showing that the loss of future income is less important than present losses. It isn’t a “kal vachomer” if the “given” heter may be only regarding something considered more important, not less important!

In addition to the aforementioned difficulties with the opinion of R. Moshe Feinstein, it is worthy to note Rav Moshe's own response elsewhere, allowing the exemption of a person with financial difficulties from having more children (through passively withholding from marital relations on the days that she is likely to conceive), but nevertheless, explicitly instructing them "to trust in Hashem that He will bring him income with ease… because there is obviously income prepared in Heaven for everyone who is born". Apparently this should hold in our case, as well: a person who makes aliya should trust in Hashem, just as Hashem takes care of the income of 5,200,000 Jews in Israel, it is unthinkable that He cannot provide income for one more family.

Until now, our discussion has been based upon the opinions that one is not obligated to spend more than a fifth (or a tenth) of his assets in order to fulfill a positive commandment. However, in the opinion of the Chafetz Chaim, one is obligated to spend more than a fifth to fulfill a positive commandment. He believes that the limit of 20% is only regarding his savings. However, "if he is a person who works regularly at a trade or business in order to make enough money for his food and a bit more, and his livelihood won’t be affecteded by an expenditure on a mitzvah, nor will his situation improve if he does not spend on that mitzvah, according to all opinions he is obligated to spend more than a fifth." The logic of the Chafetz Chaim is clear. For if the reason of the limitation of Usha is to prevent his becoming dependant on others, accordingly, if someone has a regular income, we needn’t worry, even if he spends more that 20% of his money.

As opposed to the Rambam, Tosafot and Rosh, the Chafetz Chaim apparently complies with (and helps explain) the view of the R’ma (R. Meir HaLevy), the Ra'aved and the Nimukei Yosef, that one has to spend all that he has (even more than a fifth) in order to fulfill a mitzvah. In their opinion, the obligation applies unless by doing so he will need to beg for a living.

Baruch Hashem, it is clear that today, noone who makes aliya needs to go begging, as he can surely find a minimum income. Even one hundred years ago, the Avnei Nezer, Y’shu’ot Malko and R. Chaim Falaggi (one of the most profilic sepharadic poskim from Izmir) all note that the financial situation in Israel has changed for the better, and consequently certainly today, according to the Chafetz Chaim, one is obligated to compel himself to make aliya.

C. Is a lowering of standard of life considered a loss of a fifth?

To the same extent that it seems that the loss of future profit may not be taken into account in the calculation of the 10-20%, similarly, it is problematic to include in that figure the lowering of one’s standard of living, which is one of the main problems encountered by people who make aliya from developed countries.

True, we find that if someone is accustomed to a high standard of living and loses his money, the laws of tzedaka obligate us to provide him with all that he is used to, "even if he was accustomed to riding on a horse with a servant running before him”. However, this instruction is addressed to the benefactor – that he is obligated to have pity on his unfortunate brother, even regarding commodities that are not vital. On the other hand, when addressing the recipient of charity, the rabbis alter their instructions: "even make your Shabbat like a weekday, but don’t be dependant on others”.

Similarly, in our discussion regarding one who’s standard of living has been lowered. Just as it’s not proper for the recipient not to compromise his previous stature at the expense of the benefactor, so too, he shouldn’t do so at the expense of fulfilling the mitzvah of living in Israel.

Of course there is no need to live a life of affliction and abstinence in Israel, something which in of itself is not seen positively by chazal. Nevertheless, we are warned in all of the mussar works against a life of luxury beyond basic needs, which are definitely available to most of the residents of Israel today. The fear of lowering the standard of living cannot be used as an excuse for not making aliya. It is inconceivable that a mitzva equated with all of the mitzvot combined, the only mitzva which allows requesting a gentile to do labor that is forbidden from the Torah for a Jew on Shabbat, supersedes domestic harmony, and sometimes even obligates us to sacrifice our life, does not supersede the luxuries of life, which in of themselves, aren’t even desirable! Subsequently, we understand why no posek in any generation mentioned this deliberation, despite the fact that usually fulfilling the mitzvah of living in Israel involves lowering one’s standard of living.

D. The Application of the Decree of Usha Regarding the Mitzvah of Living in Israel

One of the cardinal questions we must deal with, is why the Decree of Usha, not to lavish on the fulfillment of a mitzvah more than a fifth (or a tenth), isn’t mentioned at all in any of the rishonim and achronim regarding the topic of living in Israel. On the contrary, we find a totally different, and much more minimal financial condition necessary to exempt one from living in Israel, that is if he has to go begging.

For example, the Rashbash (rishon, d. 1467/שכ"ז) writes that if "in Israel he won’t have enough money for food, or he won’t have enough money to make aliya and he will have to beg from other people, the Torah and the Sages did not obligate him to make aliya".

Similarly, the Maharit rules that "anyone who will only be able to live there in poverty, this is considered אונס ("has no choice"), and the Ya'avetz, R. Ya’akov Emdin as well, "Every Jew has to make a permanent and definite decision in his heart to make aliya and live in Israel, at least when he will have enough money to cover the expenses and a bit of money to make a living, either through labor or through business to receive the required money to settle the Holy Land, which is desolate without her children". He continues to explain that the obligation to make aliya is conditional upon, "that he has the expenses for the journey and to make "some form of minimal income". Even Rav Kook, who rules leniently like Rabbeinu Yerucham regarding most positive mitzvot, and does not obligate expenditure of more than a tenth and forbids spending more than a fifth, nevertheless does not take the Decree of Usha into consideration regarding the obligation to make aliya. 

It is even harder to understand the law allowing a person to leave Israel at a time of famine, in the words of the Rambam, "if the fruit is inexpensive but he does not have money (to buy them) and he has no work, not even a penny in his pocket". Why was this leniency not limited to a case where he loses a fifth or a tenth of his possessions? Especially, according to the Rambam's own view that the restrictions of the Decree of Usha apply to every positive mitzvah! The only amount mentioned exempting from living in Israel is that he does not have “even a penny in his pocket” nor any way to make money – significantly more than a fifth or even a tenth!

In summary, we see that according to all of the earlier rishonim and achronim who dealt with the topic, the “economical justification” not to live in Israel is not defined by the Decree of Usha. Even if one must permanently lower his standard of living considerably, he is obligated to live in Israel. So maintain the modern poskim, from the different streams as well, including the Chazon Ish, R. Herzog, R. Uziel, R. Goren, R. Ovadia Yosef, R. Yitzchak Ya'akov Weiss, R. Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, R. Eliezer Waldenberg, and others. Nevertheless, we must try to understand why the mitzva of aliya demands a much higher monetary sacrifice than most other mitzvot.

E. Mitzvot Exempt from the Decree of Usha

1. Mitzvot which obligate spending all of his money

Indeed, the mitzvah of living in Israel is not alone, in this regard. The g’mara states that one is obligated to redeem his son even if those five sla'im is all that he owns, and that the same applies to "aliya la'regel", the holiday pilgrimage to Yerushalayim. The Chafetz Chaim asks, why are they not exempted by the Decree of Usha (that one is not allowed to spend more than 20% of his money on a mitzva)? Similarly, R. Ya’akov Emdin asks on the Decree of Usha from the obligation of a pauper to beg (!), if necessary, in order to have four cups of wine on Pesach, Chanukah candles and Shabbat candles. He also questions how the halacha regarding his money can be more strict than that regarding his life? For if non-observance of a positive mitzvah one is lashed "until his soul leaves him", how much more so should he need to spend more than 20% of his possessions in order to keep that same mitzva!

Similarly, we find that Rabban Gamliel acquired an etrog for 1,000 zuz, ostensibly, a violation of the Decree of Usha. Likewise, no one is exempt from the mitzvah of having children, despite the fact that this often involves an expenditure of more than a fifth or a tenth of his possessions. We don’t even find that the Decree of Usha exempts one from the rabbinical mitzva of having more children (even after he already fulfilled the mitzvah of pru ur’vu by having a son and a daughter).

In addition, we don’t say that it is forbidden to provide a Jewish education for your children, even when by doing so, it often uses up a large percentage of his wages (especially in America, where annual Jewish tuition often costs $15,000 for each child). On the contrary, we are explicitly instructed that poverty is davka the way of Torah, "you shall eat (even only) bread and salt, and drink water", and "the words of Torah are only upheld by those who kill themselves over them". This halacha is also phrased in monetary terms, "one is obligated to pay all of his money (if necessary) for his Torah learning, and for that of his sons", and "one should always sell everything he owns in order to marry the daughter of a talmid chacham... and one should always sell everything he owns in order to marry his daughter to a talmid chacham". This is not just philosophy, as it is cited as halacha in the Rif , the Rosh and the Rambam.

Despite the opinions of the Rambam, Tosafot, Rosh and Rabbeinu Yerucham that we brought at the beginning of this article, who hold that the Decree of Usha provides the financial framework for every positive mitzva, from the many aforementioned sources, it appears that there is not only no prohibition, but often even an obligation to spend more than 20%, if necessary.

The Talmud Yerushalmi learns from the pasuk “honor Hashem from your wealth”, that one is obligated to honor Him with everything that he owns. “From what He has given you tithe leket, shikcha and peah, tithe t’rumah and ma’aser rishon, ma’aser sheni, ma’aser ani and challah, and make a succah, shofar, lulav, tefillin and tzitzit, and feed the hungry and poor and give drink to the thirsty. If you have, you are obligated in all of them, and if you don’t have, you are not obligated in any of them”. The obligation has no set amount and no limitation.

Even in the Talmud Bavli, according to the initial understanding of Rav Huna, who says “for mitzvot, up to a third”, meaning a third of his ownings, the only question raised there is, “if he has the opportunity to do three mitzvot does he have to give up all of his ownings?” On the other hand, there is no mention in this sugya of 20% or 10% or of the Decree of Usha. To the contrary, if one is obligated to add a third in order to beautify a mitzva, “how much more so for the mitzva itself”. Moreover, according to the g'mara’s question, it is impossible to calculate any percentage of one’s money that he is obligated to spend on a positive mitzva, as a similar question can be asked about the sum of 20% (as indeed the Yerushalmi asks, what if he encounters five mitzvot?). The Ra’avad writes that one is obligated in order to keep a positive mitzva, to spend as much as is needed “as long as he won’t become impoverished and be dependant on people”. Likewise, the Ran writes “each and every one of us is obligated to give according to his financial capability, in order to observe a positive mitzva, like Rabban Gamliel who acquired an etrog for 1,000 zuz.”

The Mahari Weill, also holds that the Decree of Usha does not apply to every positive mitzva, but he goes to the opposite, extremely lenient direction. That for every positive mitzva there is no need to spend 20%, or even 10%. Only regarding several exceptional mitzvot, a specific cost is explicitly noted (such as “with all that you have”).

We find that, according to these opinions, the Decree of Usha applies only to the mitzva of tzedaka. Their case is strengthened by the words of Rashi, who writes, “one who lavishes on poor people, should not lavish more than 20%”. It is true, that the reason given in the g'mara applies equally to all the mitzvot - “lest he become dependant on others”. Yet it is particularly necessary to consider this factor regarding helping the poor, about which is written “and your brother shall live with you” - and how will it help if by giving your money to a pauper, you yourself become a pauper?!?" And indeed, in just about all of the examples in both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi where they apply the Decree of Usha, they are dealing with the mitzva of tzedaka.

On the other hand, the sugya in Baba Kama, proves that there is a limitation on expenditure in order to fulfill a positive mitzva, but not that of Usha! On the contrary, that one should not spend more than 33% of his possessions. This is opposed to the opinion that one should spend everything that he has to keep a positive mitzva. Apparently, there is a disagreement between the different sugyot in the g'mara, because we have already seen that there are mitzvot, even rabbinical ones, for which one is obligated to spend all of his money.

2. The warning that he may become impoverished applies equally to all mitzvot

As we have seen, the Chafetz Chaim brings the opinion of the Ra’avad, and the Bach cites the Ran, who maintain that in order to keep other positive mitzvot, one is obligated to spend all of his money. It is hard to understand how they say this, as both the Ra’avad and the Ran cite the g'mara that “one who gives money shouldn’t lavish more than a fifth”, with regard to other mitzvot, not just tzedaka.

We can understand the apparent contradiction by explaining that in citing that g'mara, they are not saying that they hold by the Decree of Usha, but rather to its rationale, that one must be careful not to become poverty-stricken. As we saw in the Chafetz Chaim, if a person holds a steady job, even if he spends a large percentage on mitzvot, he should not have to resort to begging. This rationale applies to equally to all mitzvot - “that he shouldn’t become a pauper and become dependent on the community” (as the Rashba writes in Baba Kama, where he quotes the Ra’avad in greater elaboration). It is clear that the Ra’avad didn’t intend to compare all the mitzvot to tzedaka regarding the amount of the limitation (20%) for he obligates spending all of one’s money, up until poverty, and he adds “for poverty is like death - but in any case, not like actual death”. From here we learn that the Ra’avad and the Rashba are of the opinion that not only is it permissable, but it’s even obligitary, to spend more than 20% on other positive mitzvot.

According to this understanding of the Rashba and the Ra’avad, we can explain the apparent confusion regarding the decision of the Shulchan Aruch. On one hand, he rules according to the Decree of Usha only regarding tzedaka, while in the Beit Yosef, in connection to buying an etrog, he brings the saying “one who gives etc.” in the name of the Rashba and the Ra’avad, something which he did not include in the Shulchan Aruch. In the Beit Yosef he continues by explaining that the Ra’avad and the Rashba are more stringent than the Rosh. He also cites the opinion of Rabbeinu Yerucham, but questions on what basis he connects the mitzva of tzedaka to other positive mitzvot, applying the Decree of Usha to them, as well. Apparently, the Beit Yosef is strict and rules that the amount of 20% does not limit other positive mitzvot like it does for tzedaka, nevertheless, he quotes the rationale of Usha as a warning not to spend too much and risk poverty. In contrast, the Rama rules regarding the laws of etrog, according to the lenient opinion of the Rambam, Tosafot and the Rosh, that one should not spend more than 20% on a positive mitzva, even if it will pass him by.

3. Summary of the opinions regarding other positive mitzvot

We can summarize the three approaches to the Decree of Usha as follows:

a. Those holding that the Decree applies only to the mitzva of tzedaka, and not to all of the positive mitzvot, for which one should spend even more than 20%, until the point that his life becomes difficult. This is the opinion of the rishonim of Spain (the R’ma, Ra’avad, Rashba, Ran and Nimukei Yosef), Beit Yosef, Bach, Chavot Yair, Ya’avetz (R. Ya’akov Emdin), Maharitz Chayut (up to a third of his assets) and the Mishnah Brurah (in most cases, where he has a regular job).

b. Those of the opinion that the Decree was only regarding tzedaka, but regarding other positive mitzvot there is no minimum given, not even 10%. So maintain Rashi and the Mahari Weill. R. Moshe Feinstein considers this option, but apparently does not accept it.

c. Those who apply the Decree of Usha to all positive mitzvot, and say that just as by charity, one may (and should) spend up to 20% regarding other mitzvot, and they are: the Rambam, Tosafot, Rosh, Rama, Magen Avraham and the Vilna Gaon.

Despite these differing opinions, we have already seen that unanimously, regarding certain mitzvot, there is explicitly no maximum expenditure whatsoever. Apparently, even opinions b and c, agree that certain mitzvot are simply above the regular limitations. If so, we must search for additional conditions and definitions in order to complete the puzzle.

F. Important Mitzvot Oblige More Expenditure

As opposed to positive mitzvot, where there are limitations on the expenditure (either 20% or until it makes his life difficult), one is obligated to spend all of his money in order not to transgress even one negative mitzva. The Rivash explains that this is because negative mitzvot are more severe than positive ones. Accordingly, if there are positive mitzvot that are especially important, one should also be obligated to spend more on them than on regular positive mitzvot.

We have previously seen that among these especially “important mitzvot”, there are even some rabbinical decrees where one is obligated to go begging in order to observe, even selling his clothes, if necessary, for publicizing a miracle (Chanukah candles and the 4 cups of wine on Pesach) and for shalom bayit (Shabbat candles).

Consequently, we can understand how even the Rambam and the Rosh , who are both of the opinion that the limitations of Usha apply to other positive mitzvot as well as tzedaka, nevertheless, cite the aforementioned g'mara in P'sachim that "one should always sell everything he owns in order to marry the daughter of a talmid chacham… and he should always sell everything that owns in order to marry his daughter to a talmid chacham".

Similarly, Rav Moshe Feinstein, who rules against giving more than 20% to tzedaka, permits spending more than this amount for the sake of those who learn Torah, as does the Chafetz Chaim. Chazal teach us that "one should exile himself to a place of Torah". Should one ask: “isn’t exile more costly than 20% of his possessions? Not only should it not be obligatory, but based on the Decree of Usha, it should be forbidden?” The answer is, similar to negative mitzvot, because of the importance of the mitzvah of learning Torah (equated with the other mitzvot combined ), the rabbis did not apply the limitations of Usha.

The Lvush offers a different reason for the limitation on expenditure for positive mitzvot, "one is not commanded to give all of his money in order to observe (a positive mitzvah) and thus, bringing himself to be dependent upon the community. It is better to be passive and not do the mitzvah, even if it is a mitzvah which will pass. Thus, although this mitzvah will be cancelled, nevertheless, he will be able to keep many more, other mitzvot". Accordingly, we understand why the mitzvah of learning Torah is different, because it in itself brings the person to fulfill many other positive mitzvot. Therefore, in order to observe it, one has to push himself that much more, as we have seen, even to the point of "you should eat bread and salt".

Both reasons, that of the Rivash and L’vush respectively, explaining why Usha does not apply to the mitzvah of learning Torah, apply also to the mitzvah of living in Israel, which is also "considered equal to all the other mitzvot combined", "the nail upon which the entire Torah hangs", and is "a mitzvah which includes all of the Torah", and many of the mitzvot depend on it. So much so that Hashem says, "The Land of Israel is more beloved to me than anything else".

If a mitzvah which is intended to increase shalom bayit (Shabbat candles) has no limitation of expenditure, then how much more so regarding the mitzvah of living in Israel, which supercedes shalom bayit. According to many, the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael is the only mitzvah which, in order to observe, one is allowed to ask a non-Jew to do a torah (d'oraita) prohibition on Shabbat. It is also singled out from among the mitzvot as the only mitzvah that one must actively endanger his life "milechatchila", in order to observe (to conquer Eretz Yisrael). One explanation cited by some rishonim, is that its unique status, in comparison with other mitzvoth, stems from the fact that it helps all of Israel, even the future generations.

When we say that many mitzvot depend on fulfilling the mitzvah of living in Israel, that does not only refer to the 58 agricultural mitzvot that can only be observed in Israel. Rather we see that in Israel it is easier to keep mitzvot such as Shabbat, kashrut, and even "easy miztvot" like counting the days of the week in connection to Shabbat ("remember the Shabbat day"), use of the Jewish date, and speaking Hebrew. Even the daily meeting with many other Jews provides the opportunity to keep many other mitzvot between man and his fellow man, which one doesn’t have the opportunity to keep with such frequency and intensity in chutz la'Aretz. In addition, living in Israel enables and obligates all of the national and communal mitzvot, such as serving in the army in a milchemet mitzva, milu’im, etc. as well as the many social mitzvot like tzedaka which are fulfilled on a totally different level when done on a national or governmental basis.

The mitzvah of living in Israel is special both quantatively and qualitatively. Quantatively – it is fulfilled every second, every minute, no matter what you are doing, and qualitatively – for the main fulfillment of all of the mitzvot, even those which are an obligation upon the individual, is only in Israel. So much so, that the Rashba uses this rationale to explain the saying of chazal "one who lives outside Israel is considered as one who does not have a G-d". Fulfilling this mitzvah also brings about the ingathering of the exiles and hastening of the ge’ula.

Apparently, one of the reasons explaining why all of the rishonim and achronim did not apply the limits of Usha regarding aliya is due to the special importance of the mitzvah of living in Israel and/or the fact that it enables an incredible number of additional mitzvot. Moreover, there are even poskim who go so far as to oblige a person to go begging (!) in order to keep this mitzvah, for, in the words of the Avnei Nezer, "I don’t know if the prohibition of not becoming dependant on others, applies to (this) continuous mitzvah which is considered equal to all the other mitzvoth (=aliya)".

Although it seems that most poskim disagree with the Avnei Nezer, it should be noted that the many people throughout the generations who lived off of the "chaluka" charity sent from Europe, apparently acted in accordance with his opinion.

G. The hardship of moving is not considered in the 10-20%

Moving to Israel apparently obligates a person to leave his home. Rav Moshe Shternbuch, who is of the opinion that obligation of expenditure for a positive mitzvah is only up to 20%, is also of the opinion that "kal vachomer, one is not obligated to leave his place of dwelling in order to fulfill a positive mitzvah". On the other hand, this basic premise, is not so simple, for we are taught that when there are "two cities, and the shofar is only blown in one of them… one goes to the place where they blow the shofar". Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch rules regarding hearing parshat zachor, "residents of villages who don’t have a minyan must go to a place where there is a minyan".

In these cases, the traveling may be considered a significant physical effort, which can be considered an expenditure of 20% of his possessions, and nevertheless, one is commanded to leave his home! On the other hand, R. Shternbuch can claim that regarding aliya, the real hardship is not the traveling, but rather the physical effort involved in moving a household, which may exempt him. Maybe there is a differentiation between a relatively simple “one time” trip to hear the shofar or parshat zachor, as opposed to the difficulty in permanently moving an entire household?

Nevertheless, the poskim apparently liken the mitzvah of aliya to the obligation of the רוצח בשוגג, the accidental murderer, exiled to a city of refuge, which also involves permanently moving an entire household. In this mitzvah, not only is the physical effort part of the essence of the mitzvah, but the refugee is also obliged to give up his land, shop, customers, and all of his sources of income. It should be noted, as we mentioned above, this obligation applies to loss of his future income, as well! All this is defined as "the exile atones". If this is true about a city of refuge, how much more so regarding the mitzvah of living in Israel, where one fulfills a mitzvah every second, and not just by moving.

Moreover, it seems that the physical effort involved in observing a mitzvah is not considered part of the 20%. For example, even regarding honoring one’s father/mother, where we are told that it is meant to be observed "from the father's (and not the son’s money)", if it is possible to honor him with physical effort instead of expense, he is obligated to do so. For example: if the son needs to travel a significant distance in order to honor them, theoretically, the son is not obligated to pay the airfare, yet he is not exempted from walking by foot! In other words, apparently, physical effort is not considered an exemption. Accordingly, we have yet another reason, why the poskim did not apply the lenient limitations of Usha regarding aliya.

H. Mitzvot which in their essence involve expenditure and effort

In addition, there is another major distinction between the mitzva of aliya to Israel, in that the physical effort is an integral part of the mitzvah of moving to Israel. The Decree of Usha applies to mitzvot which may involve physical effort and large expenditures on a circumstantial basis. Not so regarding mitzvot whose very essence includes expenses and difficulty. Rav Moshe Feinstein applies this principle to explain why one is obligated to spend even all the money he owns in order to redeem his firstborn son, "for the Torah obligates him to give a specific sum of money, obviously, even a pauper is obligated in the same manner…because the sum of money is the integral part of the mitzvah". His explanation apples also to the mitzvah of aliya laregel, the second example cited by the g’mara as a mitzvah that involves expenditure and physical effort.

This principle applies to many mitzvot, where the limitations are not specified because the essence of the mitzvah does not allow for this limitation. For example, Rav Kook explains similarly why the positive mitzvah of the death penalties of the Sanhedrin, and the positive mitzvah of "and you shall destroy the evil from your midst", aren’t cancelled by פיקוח נפש, the mitzvah to save a life. He explains quite simply, that the essence of the mitzvah in this case, is the putting to death. Likewise, if Re’uven lent someone more than 20% of his possessions before the sabbatical year, or if a Beit Din rules that Re’uven owes someone more than 20% of his possessions, he is obviously obligated to deal with the loss that will be brought about through observing the mitzvah of shmitat ksafim or the mitzvah to obey a Beit Din.

Likewise, regarding a positive mitzvah where the physical effort involved is more than the value of 20% of his possessions, such as the suffering of circumcision, or sacrificing one’s life for the sanctification of Hashem's name, or in an obligatory war – where the physical effort and suffering are an integral part of the mitzvah. It is obvious that there is no logic to apply the limitations of Usha in these cases, because, in effect, it would permanently nullify the mitzvah, making it totally obsolete.

We have assumed that the essence of the mitzvah of living in Israel (and also the mitzvah of moving to the city of refuge) is the physical effort and having to leave one's home. However, seemingly this is true only if the act of moving to Israel is part of the mitzvah and not just a preparation for fulfilling it, as it seems from the Ramban, that the mitzvah "and you should conquer the land and dwell in it", is phrased explicitly to those who live outside Israel. The Ramban cites the commandment to the generation who were in the desert, "go up and conquer it (the land of Israel)" – and when they didn’t go up as commanded, it is considered ‘and they rebelled against Hashem’." However, even according to those who disagree with the Ramban, and consider the moving to Israel as only a preparation for the mitzvah (dwelling here), inevitably, a loss of income and possessions are a direct result of the essence of the mitzvah (and not of the preparation for the mitzvah). The loss of income and possessions are certainly more than 20%, just like he who must run and relocate to a city of refuge, and nevertheless, the Torah commands him to do so.

It is possible that even according to those poskim who see the act of making aliya as just a preparation, the mitzvah of living in Israel itself inevitably involves great effort even for one who is born here. In the words of chazal, "the Land of Israel is only acquired through hardships". Also war, which is part of this mitzvah – "and you shall inherit the Land" – can only be fulfilled through trial, tribulation, and sacrifice. Life in Israel naturally involves difficulty, as found in many midrashim: "’It is better to eat a dry morsel’, – this refers to living in Israel, even if one eats bread and salt every day and lives in Israel he merits the world to come". “It is better to sleep in the deserts of Israel than to live in the palaces of chutz la'Aretz". "Even if I will only have dry carobs to eat in Israel I chose to be in Israel". Similarly, the mitzvah of settling the Land involves a special obligation to settle those difficult places that were desolate (as the Ramban says: “and we will not leave her in the hands of other nations nor desolate”). These hardships are an essential part of the mitzva, applying even to one who was born in Israel, irregardless of the hardships of moving.

This instruction is not just agadah, as the halacha states, "a husband (or wife, A.C.) can force his wife (or husband, A.C.) to move from chutz la'aretz to Israel, and he can even force her to move from a nice place (there), to a unpleasant place (in Eretz Yisrael)". The financial difficulties are taken into account regarding every person who makes aliya, as the g’mara cites regarding a person who sold all of his possessions with the intention of moving to Israel. Upon his arrival, his absorption was not successful. Nevertheless, according to the conclusion of the g’mara, even though one might have thought that the sale of his possessions was conditional, the sale is kosher and not annulled. Many poskim explain, because when one makes aliya to Israel, he should (and does) intend to make do with the most minimal housing and livelihood, and considers (or should consider!) his move as final and unconditional.

Since the mitzvah of living in Israel inevitably involves physical hardships, Rav Kook declares that "of course the mitzvah of living in Israel isn’t cancelled because of physical hardships… and Hashem gave three great gifts to the Jewish people (Torah , the World- to- come, and the Land of Israel), and all of them were only given through hardships". This idea may also help us understand the seemingly strict words of the aforementioned Avnei Nezer, one of the most respected poskim of the past century, "I don’t know if the prohibition of not becoming dependant on others applies to a continuous mitzvah which is considered equal to all the other mitzvot (=aliya)". For despite the fact that the hardships of living in Israel are inevitable, nevertheless (and apparently, even davka), Hashem commands us do so.

I. Changing profession

A lack of income is considered by the poskim as close to pikuach nefesh and the Trumat HaDeshen even wonders "who would be able to stand all of this!" However, today everyone has the opportunity to change profession and if he does not manage to make a living from working in his field of expertise, he can find employment in a different area. However, for many people it is difficult to change profession. Does this hardship justify not moving to Israel?

Indeed, chazal do not treat the hardship involved in a change of profession lightly, because Hashem makes everyone's profession attractive to them. They even explicitly instruct "one should not change his profession and his father's profession". This approach is strengthened in light of Rav Moshe Feinstein's question, why one who has yet to fulfill the mitzvah of having children and is therefore obligated to have marital relations at all the set times, is not obligated to find a different job that will allow him to have relations more often?

[Interestingly, Rav Feinstein himself does not explain that changing professions is a loss which is equal to 20% and that he is therefore exempt, as he does in somewhat similar circumstances! ]

However, as we said above, the limitations of Usha do not apply to mitzvot which essentially involve physical effort and expenditure. To the same extent, it would not be applicable to mitzvot which require a change of profession in order to observe. It is logical that a mitzvah which requires a change of place, such as moving to a city of refuge, usually requires a change of profession (he leaves his orchards, clients, partners, etc.). Especially in the agricultural society described in the Tanach, the move to the city of refuge undoubtedly forced the average person to change his profession.

In connection to the mitzvah of aliya, Moshe Rabbenu already alluded to the need to change professions, as the midrash explains: "When Am Yisrael was in the desert for 40 years, the manna fell, the well went up, the pheasant was available for them, the clouds of glory surrounded them and the pillar of fire traveled before them. When the Jews entered the land of Israel Moshe said to them, ‘Every single one (!) of you, take a hoe and plant saplings for yourselves’.”

We are not so naïve as to think that it is easy to change professions. Our rabbis teach that the motive of the m'raglim, the righteous spies who, nevertheless, did not wish to enter Eretz Yisrael, was because they did not want to lose their respectable jobs. Even if their actions are understandable, they are clearly not acceptable, as they were severely punished. R. Yisachar Teichtel, one of the revered leaders of anti-Zionist Hasidic Jewry in pre-war Europe, castigates his rabbinic friends for not willing to make that same sacrifice, thus repeating the sin of the m'raglim.

Contrarily, many important rabbanim saw a great merit in the act of changing one’s profession upon arrival in Israel to be "farmers and cattle herders like their forefathers before them". It is important to remember that considerations of avodat Hashem are more important than considerations of avoda (work). "Even peel hides in the marketplace, and don’t say it is beneath my honor".

J. Begging

If we ask in the birkat hamazon that G-d not bring us to be dependant upon others, apparently this is something negative? Making aliya seemingly involves the dependence of the new immigrant upon "the gifts of flesh and blood". Benefit from the absorption basket which is given by the Israeli government, unemployment benefits given to one who is unable to work in his profession, and much more. Can all this be considered begging and relying on other people?

Indeed, some poskim also considered this factor and said that one’s aliya should not be at the expense of others. However, the support that the community gives to help with immigrant absorption is not just for the sake of the olim, rather it is for the good of the entire nation. Successful absorption of new immigrants will, at the end of the day, help the financial stability of the country (through the children of the olim); an increase in the number of residents will strengthen the security forces; boost the connection between the Jews in Israel and those in the Diaspora- enabling fundraising and more olim; provide a solution to the demographic problem which threatens the State of Israel; and mainly, actualize the vision of the State of Israel and of Zionism as a whole – to gather all of the Jewish people. Accordingly, these benefits are more worthwhile for the State than for the immigrants, and "the mother wishes to nurse even more than the calf wants to eat".

There are those who claim that while living off of others, during the time that the immigrant will not be able to work he is not even fulfilling the mitzvah of settling the land of Israel. Indeed, the Avnei Nezer writes "it is clear that the main way of fulfilling the mitzvah in its entirety, is by those who live in Israel and are financed from the bounty of Israel". Living in Israel without working and having an income does not fulfill the halachic definition of the Ramban "do not to leave (the Land)… desolate". However, even the Avnei Nezer admits that "if one receives money as a present from chutz la'Aretz… this is not the main point of the mitzvah of living in Israel in its complete form, but in any case he does fulfill the mitzvah of living in Israel". In addition, as stated above, this is a temporary situation. In the long term, the entire country benefits, even from the aliya of the unemployed.

There were poskim in past generations, who opposed the aliya of the poor for this comes at the expense of the despondent already in Israel. However, today, when the state distributes unemployment benefits and welfare to each family according to their needs, there is no longer any validity to this consideration.

Similarly, there is no need to worry today about the former fear that the dependence upon others will cause the receiver to deteriorate and habituate parasitism and spiritual decline. Many different sectors of the country benefit from various benefits and stipends, kollel students, university students, large families and many more – and this does not affect their spiritual levels. On the contrary, the spiritual danger of living in the Diaspora is a dire consideration.

We find that all of the financial justifications for not making Aliya do not apply today, and, as the Tzitz Eliezer summarizes "with the declaration of the State of Israel, the obligation to make aliya increased… the financial difficulties due to the inability to make a living have been removed and accordingly, the halachic claims for exemption from the mitzvah of living in Israel have also been removed". It is should be noted that this was written more than 50 (!) years ago, in the relatively dire financial conditions that existed then.

K. Despising the Beloved Land

In addition to the obligation to make Aliya, there is a prohibition for one who is able to make Aliya and does not do so, as the Ramban writes, "and you should not despise the inheritance of Hashem". According to R. Eliezer Waldenberg, the Ramban means "that the essence of setting up residence in another place is considered "despising Hashem's inheritance". The Ramban writes elsewhere, that this was the sin of the spies "when they didn’t want to go up (to Israel)… it is described as "and you rebelled against Hashem's command". It seems that this is "the sin of Chutz La'Aretz", referred to by Rashi.

The Yerushalmi quotes Rabba bar Kriyah, who sees the coffins of people who died in chutz la'Aretz, being brought for burial in Israel and said "What use are these people? I apply to you the pasuk: ‘You have made my inheritance an abomination’ in your lifetimes, and ‘you came and defiled my land’, in your death". The Pnei Moshe explains that the abomination is "that they were able to make aliya in their lifetime and they didn’t". According to Rav Yehoshua Trunk of Kutna, one who is able to make aliya and does not do so, loses his portion in the Land of Israel. It is of no avail to claim that he was forced, as R. Chaim Falaggi writes, "One who does not make aliya, because he loves his location (in exile), is punished, even though he truly was unable to make aliya, because he is ‘willingly’ compelled".

Similarly, R. Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, testifies that the spiritual Maggid admonishes him and his colleagues, for placing the desire of money above the desire of the Land. "One should push aside his idols of silver and worldly pleasures, his idols of his gold and desire of money and make aliya to Israel, because you can do it, just you are drowning in the mud of worldly desires and its nonsense.

L. Summary

In this article, we attempted to clarify the justification of the “financial excuse” for not making aliya to Israel. The fear is that by making aliya one lowers his standard of living and also lowers his monthly salary. We summarized the opinions as to when the Decree of Usha applies, not to spend more than 20% of his assets on all other positive mitzvoth, apart from tzedaka.

We found that the unanimous definition of the many rishonim and achronim who allow Jews to live in chutz laAretz for financial reasons, is that this is only if one needs to turn to begging (aside from the Avnei Nezer who holds that even in such a case, there is no exemption from aliya). Although they do not cite their rationale, we saw several reasons why, both then and today, this is the halachic definition:

1. The topic under discussion regards the loss of future income, which does not justify exempting from a mitzvah. The monetary limitations of Usha apply only to expenditure of past savings.

2. Lowering one’s standard of living is not considered a loss of 20%.

3. The Decree of Usha does not apply to mitzvot with special importance, including the mitzvah of living in Israel. This is especially true regarding mitzvot which enable fulfillment of many other mitzvot, as well. Moreover, not fulfilling the mitzvah of living in Israel is considered “despising the beloved Land”.

4. There is no monetary exemption for mitzvot which inevitably involve, by definition, significant expenditure or effort.

5. Changing profession is not considered a loss of assets.

6. The only financial predicament which exempts from aliya, as defined by the rishonim and achronim, is if one must beg for a living.

7. Benefiting from the rights granted by the State of Israel for new olim or unemployment, is not considered begging.

See my article, “The Centrality of the Land of Israel to Judaism”.
Sifre, Dvarim 12.
Rav Moshe Feinstein’s surprising, yet oft-quoted opinion, that it is a mitzva mid’oraita (see Resp. Igrot Moshe Y. D. 3, 122) yet not mandatory (ibid, E. H. 1, 102), is based upon one possible understanding of one rishon (the Rambam), but contradicts more than 30 rishonim and achronim who explicitly use the word “obligation”, “mandatory”, or “sin” regarding the mitzva of aliya to live in Israel and the subsequent prohibition to live in chutz laAretz. This formidable list includes Rashi, Ramban, Ra'avad, Rivash, R. Yosef Karo, Vilna Gaon, Nodah BiYehuda, Chatam Sofer, R. Ya’akov Emdin (see footnote 51), Avnei Nezer (now that we have a State, see footnote 158), Chazon Ish (see footnote 151), and many more, as summarized in the Sdeh Chemed, vol. 5, p.11 in the 5727 edition, Pitchei Tshuva E. H. 75, 6 and Z. Glatt HY"D, MeAfar Kumi, pp. 71-90 for a very efficient summary of the issue. See especially R. Ovadiah Yosef, Torah SheBa'al Peh 11 (5729), pp. 35-42; R. E. Waldenberg, Resp. Tzitz Eliezer 7, p. 223; R. Avraham Shapira, Me’afar Kumi p. 108, who all convincingly disprove R.Moshe’s surprising leniancy regarding such an important mitzvah, which contradicts so many preceding sources. The central points of disagreement are as follows:
1. The Sifre (Midrash Halacha) Dvarim 11, 10, writes explicitly, “Coming to Eretz Yisrael is an obligation”. How can R. Moshe contradict chazal?
2. If the mitzva was optional, why is it the only one, according to most rishonim, that allows one to ask a gentile to transgress a Torah prohibition on Shabbat (Gitin 8b)? Why should we break up a happy marriage for an optional mitzva (Ktuvot 110b)? If it is merely optional, why is it not only allowed, but even obligatory to risk one’s life to conquer? In all of the above cases, why don’t we simply say, “stay home and don’t ‘opt’ for that mitzvah”, thus saving marriages, lives and Shabbat?!
3. It seems difficult to imagine that the Torah would leave such a basic and central, all-encompassing mitzva for us to decide.
4. Even if there is such an opinion, regarding safek m’d’oraita, we accept the stricter opinion.
5. No commentary on the Rambam ever understood his opinion that way before, including those who explicitly use the term “obligation” regarding aliya.
6. Many say there is no such thing as an optional mitzvat aseh, see MIchilta on Shmot 23, 13, and Rashba, Rosh HaShana 16a.
7. Many ask why the rishonim did not make aliya? They suggest various reasons, but omit the most obvious, if it were, in fact, optional.
8. If it is just an option, why does the Yerushalmi Ktuvot 12, 3, refer to those who don’t make aliya as “they despised my inheritance”?
9. Why were the spies and their generation, called “rebels” if it is not mandatory?
10. The Rambam himself (Hil. M’lachim 5, 9) explains that Machlon and Chilyon, the sons of Naomi, who were allowed to leave Eretz Yisrael at the time of famine, nonetheless, were killed as punishment for leaving. He clearly does not see it merely as a preferable option!