If you hear in one of your cities which the Lord, your God, is giving you to dwell therein, saying, “Unfaithful men have gone forth from among you and have led the inhabitants of their city astray, saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods, which you have not known.’ You shall inquire, investigate, and ask thoroughly, and, behold, it is true, the matter is certain, that such abomination has been committed in your midst: You shall surely strike down the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroy it with all that is in it and its livestock, with the edge of the sword. And you shall collect all its spoil into the midst of its open square and burn with fire the city and all its spoil, completely, for the Lord, your God; and it shall be a heap of destruction forever, never to be rebuilt.
The Torah presents the law of the Ir haNidacḥat, an Israelite city whose entire population worships idols. Following proper inquiry and confirmation “that such an abomination has been committed,” the Torah commands that the town be completely destroyed, never to be rebuilt.
This punishment is unique, since typically Torah punishment is individual, in accordance with personal sins, while in the case of Ir haNidaḥat, there is collective punishment of the entire community.
Despite the gravity of the punishment of Ir haNidacḥat, the Halacha presents a fascinating exception concerning border towns:
(A baraitha) was taught which is in agreement with Rabbi Yoḥanan: We cannot condemn three cities in Eretz Yisrael; but we may condemn two (if situated in two provinces e.g. one in Judea and one in Galilee; but two in Judea or two in Galilee may not be condemned; and near the border, even a single city cannot be condemned. Why? Lest the gentiles become aware of it and destroy the whole of Eretz Yisrael.
[Gemara Sanhedrin 16b]
The Halacha is that a border town cannot be judged an Ir haNidacḥat, even if all its residents are guilty of idolatry. The underlying reason is protection of Eretz Yisrael; if a border town were destroyed it would jeopardize the security of the entire Land. Border towns have always played a crucial role in protecting Eretz Yisrael and its integrity.
The importance of the integrity of Eretz Yisrael is so great that severe law of Ir haNidacḥat is suspended in the face of a threat to this integrity.
We may note that Rabbi Shimon (whose opinion is the basis for the Talmud’s statement concerning protecting Eretz Yisrael) considers fulfilling the law of Ir haNidaḥat as being equivalent to offering an olah sacrifice (which is entirely burnt on the altar, as the Ir haNidacḥat is to be completely burnt):
Rabbi Shimon said; The Holy One, blessed be He declared: “If you execute judgment against the Ir haNidacḥat, I will consider it as if you had offered a pure olah before Me. [Gemara Sanhedrin 111b]
Nonetheless, Rabbi Shimon argued for the exception of border towns, out of concern for the security of the Land.
This Dvar Torah will focus on the great importance of protecting the Land and the measures our Sages saw as appropriate to prevent any threat to the Land’s security.
The Importance of Border Towns in Protecting the Land
An additional source which mentions border towns concerns gentiles who come to steal from Israelites on Shabbat:
However (if gentiles attack) a town that was close to the frontier, even though they did not come with any intention of taking lives but merely to plunder straw or stubble, the people are permitted to go out against them with their weapons and to desecrate Shabbat on their account.
[Gemara Eruvin 45a]
Although the general rule is that Shabbat may be desecrated in order to save lives, the Gemara teaches that in a border town Shabbat may be desecrated even if there is no threat to life, but even to prevent plundering of straw and stubble, which are of little value.
Rashi explains the reason for the Gemara’s decision:
In a town which is on the border between Israel and the nations, they go out (on Shabbat) lest the gentiles capture the town and it will facilitate their conquest of the Land.
Rashi’s explanation is based upon Rabbi Shimon’s approach concerning Ir haNidacḥat. While maintaining the sanctity of Shabbat is a great mitzva, it is waived in the face of a threat to the borders of Eretz Yisrael. It is to be noted that Rashi explains the Gemara’s decision in terms of the integrity of the Land, not in terms of saving lives.
The Integrity of the Land – Direct Continuation of the Mitzva to Settle the Land
The Gemara in Sanhedrin states “Lest they destroy Eretz Yisrael.” Similarly, Rashi’s comment on the Gemara in Eruvin is “Lest it facilitate their conquest of the Land.” These points indicate that the importance of the integrity of the Land is so great that it supersedes the mitzva of Shabbat and the obligation to punish an idolatrous town.
It seems that the matter of protecting the integrity of Eretz Yisrael flows from Ramban’s definition of the mitzva to settle the Land:
We have been commanded to inherit the Land which the Lord gave to our fathers Abraham Isaac and Jacob, and we may not abandon it to any other nation nor leave it desolate. [Ramban on Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvot, positive mitzva #4]
Capturing the Land includes not only the obligation to live within her, but also to protect her, to guarantee that it is specifically Israel who live within her and not leave her desolate. Thus, the halachot discussed above convey the obligation to maintain the integrity of the Land and to prevent any threat that she be captured by gentiles, a threat which is most prominent in border areas.
Thus, we can say that the obligation to protect the Land’s integrity is a direct result of the basic mitzva to settle the Land, which Ramban presents.
We may add an additional level of the importance of protecting the borders of Eretz Yisrael, which stems from and elucidates the mitzva of settling the Land.
Integrity of the Land – Integrity of Torah and the Nation
The halachot we are discussing raise the great question of how it is that settling the Land supersedes Shabbat and the grave punishment of Ir haNidacḥat. As noted, as a general rule, the sole factor which supersedes mitzvot is saving lives. We shall now briefly explain the connection between saving lives and settling the Land.
In one of his poems of Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi writes that Eretz Yisrael is the “Land of the living,” it is the natural habitat for the Nation of Israel, as the verse states “Who is like Your nation Israel, a single nation in the Land” [Shamuel II 7:23]. Maintaining the Land is not simply a matter of fulfilling the mitzva, but a basic element of Jewish life. The phrase “mitzvot which are dependent upon the Land” is significant; perhaps it would be appropriate to say, “the Land is dependent upon mitzvot.” The phrase conveys the message that the Land is part of the foundations of Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) – Torah, the Nation, the Land. Since the Land is essential to the existence of Am Yisrael, it follows that as saving lives supersedes mitzvot, because its essence is to maintain the soul and strengthen life, so too, a threat to settlement in the Land supersedes mitzvot, since she is the Land of our lives.
We discussed the importance of settling Israel vis-a-vis other mitzvot. We began with the mitzva of Ir haNidacḥat, which does not apply to border towns, out of concern for the integrity of all Eretz Yisrael. We added the Gemara’s teaching that it is permissible to desecrate Shabbat in border towns not only to save lives, but even to prevent gentiles from stealing. We cited Rashi’s explanation, which applies Rabbi Shimon’s reasoning that it is imperative to protect border towns in order to prevent the destruction or conquest of the Land.
Our discussion brought us to the insight that there are two aspects to the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael, as Ramban states; the obligation to actively conquer the Land and to maintain Israel’s control over her. These are two sides of the same coin.
We concluded with an explanation of the fact that settling the Land supersedes mitzvot which normally are superseded only by the need to save lives. This is due to the fact that Eretz Yisrael is a necessary aspect of Jewish national life, and therefore, under certain conditions, guaranteeing its existence takes precedence over other mitzvot.