Rabbi Abba used to kiss the rocks (kipei) of Akko. Rabbi Ḥanina used to repair its roads. Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Asi would stand (and move) from a sunny spot to a shaded one. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Gamda would roll in the dust (of the Land), as the verse states: “For Your servants take pleasure in her stones and love her dust.” [(Tehillim)Psalms 102:15)
[Gemara Ketubot 112a-b]
Prior to the Gemara’s comment cited above, it relates the story of the aliya of Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Zeira from Babylonia, and then relates the actions of various amoraim which express their love of Eretz Yisrael:
Rabbi Abba used to kiss the rocks of Akko;
Rabbi Ḥanina used to repair its roads – Rashi explains that this was so people would not complain about the roads of Eretz Yisrael;
Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Asi would stand (and move) from a sunny spot to a shaded one – during the course of the day, they would move their students from sun to shade and vice versa, so the students would not be uncomfortable and complain about Eretz Yisrael;
Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Gamda would roll in the dust (of the Land), to fulfill the verse “For Your servants take pleasure in her stones and love her dust” literally.
Immediately after relating the deeds of these Sages, the Gemara states:
Rabbi Zeira said that Rabbi Yirmeya bar Abba said: “In the generation in which the son of David (i.e., Mashiaḥ) comes there will be indictments (kateigorya) against Torah scholars …”
The Gemara then mentions two additional comments concerning the travails of the generation of Mashiaḥ before concluding with the statement that “In the future all barren trees in Eretz Yisrael will bear fruit,” which is the final comment of Ketubot.
Stories of the Amoraim Inserted At This Point in the Gemara
Why did the Gemara connect the stories of the amoraim’s expressions of love for Eretz Yisrael to the aliya of Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Zeira? Why are these stories followed by a discussion of the travails of the generation of Mashiacḥ? We may also ask: why does the Gemara switch topics, returning to its discussion, one page earlier, of the future fruits of Eretz Yisrael? (Indeed, Tosafot raised our last question and answered that the Gemara wished to end the tractate on a positive note.)
The stories themselves raise additional questions: Why did Rabbi Abba kiss specifically the stones of Akko, as opposed, say, to its trees? Why did Rabbi Chanina repair specifically the roads of Eretz Yisrael? Such behavior would be an appropriate concern for others even outside the Land.
The Common Denominator of These Amoraim: All Ascended to Eretz Yisrael from Babylonia
It seems that the common denominator of the amoraim whose stories are mentioned is that every one of them ascended to Eretz Yisrael from Babylonia. Rashi [Gemara Chulin 57a] notes that Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Abba each came to Israel from Babylonia, with Rabbi Zeira preceding Rabbi Abba. Thus the Gemara’s order of presentation is exact, first relating Rabbi Zeira’s aliya and then how Rabbi Abba kissed the stones of Akko. For this reason, Rabbi Abba’s story precedes those of the other amoraim.
Tosafot note an apparent contradiction: the Gemara [Gittin 2a] indicates that Akko is outside Eretz Yisrael, while the statement in Ketubot puts the city within the Land. Tosafot’s answer, based upon the Talmud Yerushalmi, is that Akko was half within Eretz Yisrael and half outside. This comment casts new light on Rabbi Abba’s action: immediately upon entering Eretz Yisrael, he knelt down and kissed its rocks, as many modern olim kiss the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport immediately after deplaning. Rashi offers an alternate translation of the word “kipei” as coral. We may suggest that the alternate translations simply refer to alternate means of arriving in Eretz Yisrael, since Akko is a port city. If Rabbi Abba arrived in Israel overland, he would have first kissed her stones; if he came by sea, he would have kissed its coral.
Concerning Rabbi Ḥanina, Tosafot quote a Midrash which states explicitly that he was an oleh. The Gemara [Moed Katan 25a] tells us that Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Asi were in Babylonia before ascending to Israel.
While there is no specific reference to Rabbi Chiyya bar Gamda as an oleh, the Gemara [Megilla 31a] tells us that he was a disciple of Rabbi Asi and from the discussion there it seems that he ascended to Israel with his teacher.
It is fascinating to note those whom the Gemara presents as the great lovers of Eretz Yisrael, were not “sabras” born in the Land, but sons who returned to her from afar, traversing significant distances under difficult conditions, to return to the Holy Land which was then desolate. It is specifically those from abroad who teach us practical expressions of love of Eretz Yisrael.
The Second Common Denominator: Stones and Soil of the Land
Maharsha raised one of the questions we cited above: Rabbi Chanina’s act of paving roads would be appropriate even outside the Land, so why did he do this only in Israel?
Maharsha’s answer connects the verse the Gemara quotes from Tehillim to the actions of all the amoraim mentioned: Rabbi Chanina repaired the roads by removing stones from them; when Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Asi moved between sun and shade, they moved the stones they had been sitting on. Thus, our understanding of the stories is turned around. Based on Rashi’s exposition of the Gemara, we understood the stories of the amoraim to teach us our responsibility to demonstrate our love of the Land and make efforts to focus on the Land’s positive aspects, even when something is not to our liking and less than optimal. However, Maharsha’s exposition places not the road, but the stones of Eretz Yisrael at the center of the story; it is not Israel’s weather conditions which bring them to act, but the desire to fulfill the verse from Psalms by carrying the stones in their own hands, “For Your servants take pleasure in her stones.” This, according to Maharsha, is the heart of the Gemara’s story.
This is the second crimson thread which connects the stories: the actions of the amoraim revolve around the stones, rocks and sand of Eretz Yisrael, things which cannot grow anything nor produce any yield. There is a special emphasis: loving the barren stones reveals love of the Land. Love of the Land is manifest precisely in an area which we would not expect to find it.
Ẓadikim of the Future: Aliya
Based upon the above exposition, we can understand the flow of thought of the Gemara and the connection between the stories of the amoraim the comment that the days of Mashiacḥ will be accompanied by travail and the conclusion that the barren trees of Eretz Yisrael will bear fruit.
For hundreds of years Eretz Yisrael was desolate, as Mark Twain described in The Innocents Abroad (published 1869, describing his visit to Israel in 1867): “Jerusalem is mournful, and dreary, and lifeless. I would not desire to live here.”
Twain described the Galilee and Kineret, which includes some of the greenest areas of the Land today, as “unpeopled deserts, rusty mounds of barrenness.”
As we have seen, the actions of the amoraim focused on the barren rocks and stones of the Land, which apparently lack sanctity, and there they revealed the great sanctity of Eretz Yisrael. The lesson is that even when Eretz Yisrael is desolate we must ascend to her and cling to every grain of her sand. There is a risk that when the appointed time for the son of David to arrive, Torah scholars will be opposed to aliya, as we find that Rabbi Yehuda forbade Rabbi Zeira from ascending to Eretz Yisrael (on halachic grounds), and therefore Rabbi Zeira evaded him and ascended to Eretz Yisrael [Gemara Ketubot 110b]. Indeed, it is Rabbi Zeira (quoting Rabbi Yirmeya bar Abba) who asserts that “In the generation in which the son of David comes there will be indictments against Torah scholars,” the same Rabbi Zeira who evaded Rabbi Yehuda in order to ascend to Eretz Yisrael from Babylonia.
It is likely that the Gemara, after mentioning the aliya of the sages from Babylonia, explains the reason for their aliya: love of the Holy Land as she is, even in a state of desolation and destruction, a love which is expressed through kissing the stones of the Land and rolling in her dust. One might mistakenly think that in times of the Land’s desolation one is not obligated to ascend to her, therefore the Gemara adds a warning that even in such times one should ascend to the Land. The warning is accompanied by the promise that the barren trees of Eretz Yisrael will produce fruit; even those things which appear barren within the Land are saturated with sanctity.
We saw the actions of amoraim which indicated their love for Eretz Yisrael. Based upon Rashi’s comments, we explained that these actions teach the responsibility to act physically to demonstrate love of the Land. It is insufficient to merely love the Land, that love must be expressed in tangible ways, to invest in her and to focus on her positive side.
We then noted the common characteristics of the amoraim whose deeds the Gemara relates: they all ascended to Israel from Babylonia and they all dealt specifically with the rocks and sand of Eretz Yisrael. We saw that love of Eretz Yisrael was forcefully expressed by those from abroad who came to her. The devotion inherent in the very act of aliya indicates their love of Eretz Yisrael. The amoraim’s dealing with the stones of Eretz Yisrael indicates that the Land’s sanctity is revealed even in her simple stones, bringing Sages to literally roll in her dust. Even in places within Eretz Yisrael which apparently are devoid of special sanctity, stones and coral of the seashore, the Land’s sanctity is revealed.
The story is told of the “Imrei Emet” (Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, the fourth Gerer Rebbe, 1866-1948) that on one of his trips to Israel he quoted the Gemara’s statement that Rabbi Abba kissed the stones of Akko, noting that Rashi, in a most unusual way, cites the verse from Psalms in its entirety without adding any comment. The Rebbe asked what Rashi intended to teach by simply quoting the verse, and explained that Rashi deleted the words “as the verse states,” hinting that the amoraim kissed the stones of Israel not because “the verse states,” but because “Your servants take pleasure in her stones,” solely because of their personal need to express their love of the Land.