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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Leaving Israel

I am of the understanding that if you go to Israel, you can't leave. And yet we see people doing this al the time – not only visitors to Israel, but people living there who take vacations in Europe or America, or go to visit relatives. Can you locate for me an authoritative responsa on this issue?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Talmud (Avodah Zara 13a) says that one may only leave Israel for one of two purposes: To get married and to learn Torah.

The reasons cited by the authorities are varied: Nachmanides (Numbers 33:53) explains the prohibition on account of the mitzvah to settle the land of Israel. Rashbam (Bava Batra 91b) explains that the prohibition exists because by leaving the land, one is actively removing oneself from the mitzvot that are uniquely dependent upon being present in Israel. The Lechem Mishnah (Melachim 5:12) explains that because Israel is holy, it is forbidden to leave it.

Besides that, there appear to be few exceptions. Most of the responsa we have do not distinguish between a visitor and resident. Perhaps before the advent of plane travel, when one went to Israel, he did not go just to visit.

May one leave Israel for business? Maimonides (Laws of Kings 5:9-12) writes that the only other acceptable reason to leave is in case of a famine, i.e. for the need to earn a livelihood. This is on condition that one returns to Israel as soon as business is done

Are there other exceptions?

• One may leave Israel in order to attend to his parents, under the mitzvah of honoring one's parents. (Tashbetz 3:288; Tzitz Eliezer 11:94 and 14:72)

• Certainly, one is permitted to leave Israel to seek medical care or for health reasons in general.

• It is permitted to travel to the gravesites of tzaddikim, in order to pray there. (Sha'arey Teshuvah 568:20)

• It is permitted to leave Israel to teach Torah to others. (Yechaveh Da'as 5:57)

• One may leave Israel to visit a good friend. (Mishnah Berurah 531:14)

But all of the above are conditional. One may leave but must return as soon as whatever he set out to do is taken care of. (see Yechaveh Daat 3:69, 5:57)

Is there a time limit? Maimonides lived in Israel, and then went to Egypt for the last few decades of his life. It would seem that Maimonides' mind-frame in Egypt was one of a temporary sojourner, with the intent to return to Israel as soon as the situation availed itself. Though we see that "temporarily" leaving Israel can last for many years.

Springtime Blessing – Flowering Fruit Trees

I was recently at the springtime Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. I was astounded by the beauty of it all. It made me think I should praise God in some way for the beauty He created in this world. Is there an appropriate prayer to say on such an occasion?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Yes, as a matter of fact. The Sages (Talmud – Brachot Ch. 9) instituted blessings to be recited upon observing many of the world’s wonders – majestic mountains, great rivers, astronomical events, exotic animals, beautiful people, great scholars. (A few rules can be found here.) We can and must see God’s handiwork in His entire creation. God most certainly leaves signposts of His existence throughout the natural world. We ought to take note of them when we see them.

The Sages likewise instituted a special blessing to be recited upon seeing blossoming fruit trees in the spring. It should ideally be said in the Hebrew month of Nissan – the month when the springtime Passover holiday falls. However, it can be said anytime in the spring. If you didn’t say the blessing when the trees first flowered, you can do so even after – so long as the fruit hasn’t yet ripened (Shulchan Aruch 226:1, Mishnah Berurah 4).

Here is the text of the blessing in both Hebrew (transliterated) and English:

Baruch atta Adonai Elohainu melech ha’olam, she’lo chisar ba’olamo davar, u’vara vo b’riyot tovot v’ilanot tovim, l’hanot bahem benei adam.

Blessed are You, Hashem our God, who did not cause a lack of anything in His world, and who created beautiful creations and beautiful trees to cause man pleasure through them.

I should add that the end of the blessing – “to cause man pleasure” – should not be taken to mean that we view the world selfishly – as if we are to exploit it for our own pleasure. Rather, we turn our praise into gratitude: Not only did God create a beautiful world. He allowed us to enjoy it too.

Happy springtime!

The Plagues: Why the Staff?

Many times throughout the story of the Exodus God tells Moses to take along his staff and to use it to perform one of the miracles – such as to wave it at the water to make it part (Exodus 14:16) or to direct the locusts to invade (10:12-13). Why the emphasis on the staff? Can’t God do miracles just as easily without it? In fact, using his staff might have given Pharaoh the false impression that the plagues were done via magic. Why didn’t God reveal His strength directly?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s a very good basic question. First of all, it is clear that Moses’s staff had special powers. It was not merely a deception. The Talmud (Pirkei Avot 5:8) lists Moshe's staff as one of the unique items created on the twilight before the first Shabbat. (Other such items were the manna, the well which accompanied Israel in the desert, and the mouth of the donkey which spoke to Balaam.)

My teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig explained that all the items created at that time period were really supernatural – items which do not belong in the physical world. They really should have been created on Shabbat itself. But since God refrained from working on Shabbat, He created them in the time immediately preceding it.

Why did God want to use the medium of Moses’s staff to perform so many of the miracles of the Exodus? Can’t God do anything? Don’t the laws of nature basically mean nothing to Him – with or without a staff?

Although this is true, it seems clear that God does not simply trifle with the laws of nature at will. He set them in motion as part of the process of creation and only very rarely suspends them. The Midrash states that when God created the sea, He specifically made a condition with it that it split for Israel at the Exodus (Bereishit Rabbah 5:5, Shemot Rabbah 21:6). Thus, again, although theoretically God is not bound in the slightest by the laws of nature He Himself created, He does not lightly ignore them. The staff was likewise the medium He placed in the world to allow their temporary suspension.

On a different track, it’s possible that God specifically wanted to trick Pharaoh into thinking the plagues were nothing other than ordinary magic – the type the Egyptians were quite familiar with already. This allowed Pharaoh to persist in his stubbornness and not be moved by the miraculous plagues. As the commentators explain, since Pharaoh was never sincerely interested in repenting his evil ways and letting the Jewish people go, God allowed him to be tricked. Rather than the plagues forcing him to concede, he managed to convince himself they were not the hand of God – until he destroyed himself and his wicked nation utterly. (See Rashi to Exodus 7:3).