This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Borderlne Cases *

For more than a generation, the most acerbic and persistent controversies in Israeli politics and religion have focused on the question of national borders. At the conclusion of the 1967 Six Day War, Israel found itself in possession of the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, so that territorial issues that had previously been of a purely theoretical nature were now resounding in the public arena as matters of national security and foreign policy.

At the height of this process of territorial reorientation, archaeologists excavating in the Jordan valley made a discovery that echoed the public concerns with the mapping of the boundaries of the land of Israel. In 1974, in the fields of a kibbutz near Beth-Shean, were discovered the remains of a synagogue from the village of Rehov dating from the Byzantine era. Its mosaic floor contained an extensive Hebrew inscription devoted largely to mapping out the borders of the holy land as defined by Jewish religious law. The inscription is compiled from passages known to us from talmudic literature, and it constitutes the oldest surviving instance of a "written" rabbinic text.

It was not a nationalist ideology or a messianic aspiration that impelled the synagogue's designers to give this geographical text such prominence in their house of worship. There was an eminently practical purpose to it, in that the identification of whether or not a particular locality falls within the borders of Israel will determine the permissibility of produce with regards to the laws of sabbatical years, tithing and similar matters.

A basic premise of Jewish law maintained that agricultural regulations apply (at least by the authority of the Torah) only within the official borders of the land of Israel. Actual observance of the law was severely complicated by the fact that people did not always limit their consumption to locally grown produce. Consequently, even if you were living in a region that lay outside the halakhic borders, where the produce was exempt from halakhic restrictions, you still had to take into consideration the likelihood that it might have been imported.

Those of us whose acquaintance with the question of the "religious borders of the complete land of Israel" derives from Israeli political rhetoric might be in for a bit of a surprise when confronted by the talmudic interpretations of the question. The rabbis (at least when they were dealing with issues of practical halakhah) were not envisaging a territory that extended grandly from the Nile to the Euphrates--far from it. In their view, the holiness of the land had been redefined at the beginning of the Second Jewish Commonwealth to include only those areas that were actually inhabited by Jews when they returned to Zion from the Babylonian captivity. This policy served to exclude several regions that are now being politically contested, as well as some that lie securely within Israel's pre-1967 borders, such as the Negev or the Mediterranean coast north of Acre. On the other hand, in some places the halakhic boundary line did poke out towards the north beyond the current Lebanese border. The Rehov synagogue inscription ignores the southern border, which was relatively straightforward, and was not of urgent relevance for the Jews of Beth-Shean.

More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that by defining the borders according to demographic criteria, it was possible to identify enclaves of "non-Israelite" settlement that lay in the midst of holy territory, and vice versa. Thus, certain regions with large pagan populations were treated as foreign soil; even though small zones within those regions were declared to have venerable Jewish presences dating from the beginning of the Second Temple era. The Rehov inscription covers all these permutations--listing the portions of the holy land that were settled by the returning exiles, the types of agricultural produce that are subject to sabbatical year and tithing restrictions even in permitted regions; as well as listing forbidden villages that were located in permitted regions.

The Rehov inscription pays special attention to a number of important towns and their outskirts that were considered as lying outside the domain of the land of Israel. These were pagan cities that lay on the borders of the predominantly Jewish settlements of the Galilee. Beth-Shean itself was classified as one of those exceptional towns.

As is the case in our own time, the ideologically questionable policy of excluding regions from the borders of the holy land could serve as a pragmatic means for strengthening the Jewish hold on those very regions. Just as Rabbi A. I. Kook in the early days of Zionist settlement eased the hardships posed by sabbatical restrictions by invoking of the dubious fiction of selling the land to gentiles, the ancient rabbinic leadership tried to achieve similar objectives by declaring that certain towns were not subject to the sabbatical or tithing requirements because they had not been occupied by Jews during the formative years of the Second Temple era. This argument could be applied plausibly to the regions of the northern Galilee whose Jewish population had experienced rapid expansion since the middle of the second century CE, when the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt and the ensuing repression led to a massive wave of migration northward from Judea.

Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, the great Torah scholar and national leader, played a central role in that process, and talmudic tradition credited him with the controversial enactment that "permitted" Caesarea, Beth-Guvrin, Kefar Zemah and Beth-Shean as "foreign" enclaves whose crops were therefore exempt from the strictures of tithing and sabbatical prohibitions. Other non-Jewish towns such as Sebaste in Samaria enjoyed a comparable status. In a similar spirit, the rabbis defined certain regions in Transjordan and along the Mediterranean coast as foreign territory and therefore not subject to the agricultural restrictions; while they extended those obligations to various Jewish farms that were situated in the midst of those regions.

Indeed, as we can learn from careful study of the Rehov mosaic and its talmudic sources, the drawing of borderlines between a homeland and foreign territory is a difficult and intricate enterprise that cannot always be conveniently reduced to patriotic slogans, topographic landmarks or strategic advantages. In some respects, our ancient sages demonstrate a greater sensitivity to the complexities of the process than can be found among present-day political leaders.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, May 6, 2011, p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Sussman, Yaacov. "A Halakhic Inscription from the Beth-Shean Valley." Tarbiz 43 (1973-1974): 88-158.
    • ________. "The Inscription in the Synagogue at Rehob." In Ancient Synagogues Revealed, edited by Lee I. Levine, 146-151. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1982
    • ________. "The Baraita of The "Boundaries of Eretz Israel"." Tarbiz 45 (1976): 213-257.
    • Lieberman, Saul. "On the Halakhic Inscription from the Beit-Shean Valley." Tarbiz 45 (1976): 74.
    • Newman, David. "Borders and Bordering: Towards an Interdisciplinary Dialogue." European Journal of Social Theory 9, no. 2 (2006): 171-186.
    • Vitto, Fanny. "The Synagogue at Rehob." In Ancient Synagogues Revealed, edited by Lee I. Levine, 90-94. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1982.