Misconception: Every four cubits or amot (approximately six feet) one walks in the Land of Israel is a mitzvah.
Fact: In the context of its litany of praises for the Land of Israel, the Gemara says that “one who walks four amot in the Land of Israel merits Olam Haba.” But it does not say that every four amot or every “new” four amot is a mitzvah.
Background: As a means of motivating tired tourists on long hikes in Israel, tour guides are fond of reminding their charges: “every four amot that one walks in the Holy Land is a mitzvah.” But is it really a mitzvah?
The Gemara (Ketubot 110b–111a) includes a long discussion about the attributes of the Land of Israel. It begins with the statement that one should live in the Land of Israel, even in a majority non-Jewish city, rather than live outside of Eretz Yisrael in a city that is majority Jewish. It states that one who lives in the Land of Israel has his sins forgiven;1 it then quotes Rabbi Yirmiyah bar Abba, who said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan (who lived in Tiberias) that, based on Yeshayahu 42:5, whoever walks four amot in the Land of Israel is guaranteed that he is a “ben Olam Haba” (a person destined for the World to Come).2
Clearly, living in and walking in the Land of Israel is a positive value. But is it every four amot or just a one-time reward for the first time one walks the Land?
The first one to be instructed to “walk in the Land” was Avraham Avinu when G-d said (Bereishit 13:17): “Arise, walk through the Land, its length and breadth, for to you will I give it.” The Gemara (Bava Batra 100a) records a dispute as to the meaning of G-d’s instruction. Rabbi Eliezer posits that walking the length and breadth of the Land was meant as a means of acquisition (kinyan); Avraham was thereby taking possession of the Land for himself and all future generations. Other sages disagree and say that walking the Land does not transfer possession;3 rather, out of G-d’s affection for Avraham, He told him to see the Land and become acquainted with it. As opposed to Rabbi Eliezer, who interprets the pasuk as a command, the sages, as explained by Ramban (Bereishit 13:174), understood G-d’s instruction as an assurance—because the Land was given to Avraham, it was safe for him to walk in it if he so desired and G-d would be with him. Neither Rabbi Eliezer nor the rabbis of the Gemara, nor the classic commentators, suggest that G-d was ruling like Rabbi Yochanan and telling Avraham to perform the “mitzvah” of walking in the Land.
Lest one thus conclude that Rabbi Yochanan’s statement was mere hyperbole, the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 5:11) quotes it in his halachic work.5 Indeed, Rabbi Yochanan’s statement is viewed as having halachic ramifications. In the context of discussing when one may set off on a desert caravan before Shabbat, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 248:4) grants greater leeway to one heading to the Land of Israel as it is a mitzvah to go there. Magen Avraham (248:15) cites two opinions regarding the precise criteria that render going to the Land a mitzvah. Some opine that a mitzvah is gained only if the person is settling there, thereby fulfilling the mitzvah of yishuv ha’Aretz; others suggest that the leniency in the Shulchan Aruch for traveling on erev Shabbat applies even to one who is just visiting, because even walking four amot in the Land of Israel is a mitzvah. Aruch Hashulchan (OC 248:14) says that the journey to the Land itself is a mitzvah, even if one is not making aliyah, and thus he states this leniency as well. He does not, however, mention the idea of walking four amot, but rather asserts that there is a mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael, even temporarily.6
Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (d. 2006; Tzitz Eliezer 4:5:2:1, in a response to Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook) cites both opinions from the Magen Avraham without choosing sides. On the other hand, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (Ezrat Kohen, notes to sec. 37 on p. 411 [1985 ed.]) says that the Gra and Mishnah Berurah both rule like the latter opinion—even visiting Israel is deemed a mitzvah.
In discussing what type of neder (vow) is classified as a neder mitzvah and thus has different rules regarding annulment, Rabbi Chaim Benveniste (d. 1673; Shiurei Knesset Hagedolah, YD 203:B”Y:6) quotes the Shiltei Giborim7 that a neder to visit Eretz Yisrael is in the category of a neder mitzvah because there is a mitzvah to walk four amot there. This is opposed to the Rosh (Teshuvot HaRosh, end of klal 12), who says that there is no mitzvah to visit but only to live in Israel, and thus a neder to visit would not be a neder mitzvah.
It is told8 that when Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (d. 1932; co-founder of the Edah Chareidis) went with Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook in 1914 on the famous expedition to visit the Jewish villages in the Shomron and Galilee, he would periodically dismount from the wagon and walk because walking on the holy soil was precious to him. As part of his justification for hiking in the Land of Israel during Chol Hamoed Sukkot, Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv (d. 2018; Techumin 23, p. 318) distinguishes between the case discussed by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OC 3:93) of touring in the US and that of touring in Israel, based on the statement that walking four amot in the Land of Israel has special merit.9
There is much debate whether the benefits of walking in the Land are accorded to a visitor or only to a resident. Rabbi Amihud Levine, in a commentary to the Rabbi Sonnenfeld story (in Eleh Masa’ei, based on Pe’at Hashulchan by the Gra’s student Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov), notes that the Rambam first describes the importance of living in Eretz Yisrael and then says that “even” one who just walks in the Land—i.e., even one who does not live there—has the merit of merely walking. Rabbi Amihud notes that the Land should be no different than any other item used for a mitzvah. Just as, for example, the residents of Jerusalem in the Temple period would hold their lulav and etrog all day out of a love of the mitzvah (Sukkah 41b), one can express love for G-d’s gift of a land in which one fulfills a mitzvah by walking in or sitting on it.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (d. 1995; Halichot Shlomo, Tefillah, ch. 23, n. 16 [pp. 276-7]) derives from the Talmudic saying about walking in the Land that even a visit is worthwhile. Thus, despite being against flying during the Nine Days, he ruled that one may fly even on Tishah B’Av if it is to go to Israel. Nonetheless, in his opinion, visiting did not compare to living in Israel, and he was therefore against leaving the Land. He was wont to quote the Chatam Sofer (Gittin 44a), who explained that a person living in chutz la’Aretz cannot be described as fulfilling all of the mitzvot except yishuv ha’Aretz; rather, all of his mitzvot are deficient. And Rabbi Shlomo Zalman added that reciting Shema in chutz la’Aretz is not the same as reciting it in the Land of Israel. Finally, when Rabbi Shlomo Zalman was once asked for his advice by someone making calculations whether to move to Israel, he said half in jest that in the conquest of the Land, the Israelites killed “the king of Cheshbon” (Yehoshua 12:1–2)—that is, one does not make calculations (cheshbonot) about moving to Israel; one just moves.
Harav Peretz Cohen10 cites a convincing proof that even riding in a car in Eretz Yisrael counts for this mitzvah. The halachah is that men may not walk four amot bareheaded. Based on the Shulchan Aruch ruling (YD 242:16) that one must stand if his teacher passes by while riding because that is considered like walking, the Taz (YD 242:11) takes to task those who think that while riding in a wagon they can go bareheaded because they are not walking four amot. He says that sitting in a wagon is similar to riding a donkey, which is like walking. Thus, says Rabbi Cohen, riding in a wagon, car or bus in Israel is also meritorious.11 Rabbi Menashe Klein (d. 2011; Mishneh Halachot 3:189) proves from Moshe Rabbeinu’s requests (Devarim 3:25) and the Gemara’s analysis of the subject (Sotah 14a) that even merely seeing the Land of Israel is also a mitzvah.
In discussing the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri (d. 1600; Sefer Chareidim, ch. 59) makes no mention of the merit of walking four amot in the Land of Israel but does quote the Ramban as saying that every moment that a person is in the Land he fulfills a mitzvah, and thus residents of the country should rejoice in this ever-present mitzvah.
Rabbi Yitzchak Chai Buchbaza (d. 1930; Sefer Lechem le-Fi Hataf, Ma’arechet alef, ot 45) quotes from Rabbi Yaakov Pitusi (who moved to Eretz Yisrael in 1800 and died in 1812; Yerech Yaakov, Parashat Masei, end of ot 1) that he heard from people living in Eretz Yisrael that they have a tradition that the adage “whoever walks four amot in the Land of Israel has all his sins forgiven” refers to walking a “new” four amot. That is, one who walks four amot that he had previously not walked has his sins forgiven. While Rabbi Pitusi was unsure about this tradition, Rabbi Buchbaza was sure it was erroneous. He saw it as a conflation of two statements that was subsequently distorted. He declared that there is no source for the idea that walking in Israel causes sins to be forgiven; rather, there is the Talmudic statement that one who lives in Israel lives without iniquity. And then there is the statement that one who walks four amot is destined for Olam Haba. Regarding the second, he observes that another four amot cannot make a difference after one is guaranteed Olam Haba following the initial four amot, and thus there is no additional reward promised for every “new” four amot.
Rabbi Yaakov Reischer (d. 1733; Iyun Yaakov, Ketubot 110) understands the gemara in Ketubot as metaphorically referring to the “four amot of halachah” (cf. Berachot 8a), meaning that one who studies halachah in the Land of Israel, wherein the “air increases wisdom” (Bava Batra 158b), will earn Olam Haba. This is based on the saying that one who studies halachah daily merits Olam Haba (Niddah 73a; said in Shabbat davening).12 One could perhaps understand that he interpreted this gemara as encouraging those in the Land to learn halachah during bein hazemanim rather than go hiking.
In whatever manner one understands the saying about walking four amot in Israel, it is clear that Chazal placed great emphasis and value on the physical Land of Israel and creating a personal connection with it.
This attachment to the physical Land is further seen in the description of the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 5:10; based on Ketubot 112a) that the greatest of the sages would kiss the ground at the border of the Land of Israel and kiss its rocks and roll in its dirt. This is based on the pasuk in a chapter in Tehillim described as an “exile’s plaint” (102:14–15) that of late has become a popular song in Israel (“Atah Takum”): “You will arise and have compassion upon Zion, for it is time to be gracious to her, for the appointed time has come. For Your servants take delight in her stones, and cherish her dust.”
For 1,900 years, Jews could only dream of visiting and moving to the Land of Israel; circumstances today are such that it is within the grasp of the majority of Jews. Walking the Land and touching its stones and dust is no longer an impossible dream of Jews living distant from their homeland. The promise of Chazal that one can have his sins forgiven and be a “ben Olam Haba,”13 however those statements are understood, is quite enticing.
1. Pnei Yehoshua says this only refers to one who lives in Eretz Yisrael for the sake of the mitzvah and because of its holiness. If such a person sins, he will realize he is in a holy place, regret the sin and repent. He notes that obviously, living in the Land of Israel cannot be a carte blanche wiping of the slate, because it can’t be more effective than Yom Kippur. As Yoma 85b states: “If a person says, ‘I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone,’ Yom Kippur does not atone.”
2. Chatam Sofer (Shu”t OC 194) sees two levels in these statements. The higher level is living in the Land and having one’s sins forgiven; the lower level is being considered a ben Olam Haba by merely walking four amot. To gain the higher level, one must actually live in the Land of Israel. Similarly, Teshuvot Maharit (2:YD:28) says that the ideal is to live in the Land, and the consolation prize for walking in the Land is only gained if one goes with the intention to live there and then does not succeed because he died and is then buried in the Land of Israel. Cf. Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:3), which states that one who lives permanently in the Land of Israel is a ben Olam Haba.
3. This is how the halachah is ruled (Shulchan Aruch, CM 192:7; Aruch Hashulchan, CM 192:10). Nonetheless, Targum pseudo-Yonatan translates the pasuk as saying that Avraham was taking possession. Ritva (Bava Batra 100a) explains that if the halachah is in accordance with the sages’ view, how indeed did Avraham acquire the Land and bequeath it to his descendants? He explains that a verbal promise from G-d is sufficient to transfer ownership, and in addition, Avraham did other acts of acquisition, such as pitching his tent.
4. See the Kli Yakar for a comparison of Avraham in Bereishit 13:14–17 and Moshe in Devarim 3:25.
5. Note the subtle switch in language—the Gemara says the walker is “ben Olam Haba,” while the Rambam says he is “zocheh l’chayei Olam Haba” (merits life in the World to Come).
6. This would seem to be the position of the fourteenth-century Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (Rivash, 101) and against the opinion of early-seventeenth-century Rabbi Yoseph Trani (Teshuvot Maharit, 2:YD:28) who says that there is no mitzvah to visit the Land, only to move there. The Talmudic adage about walking four amot features in all of these discussions.
7. Note that it does not appear in our versions of the Shiltei Giborim. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (d. 1806; the Chida; Yosef Ometz, 52) and Rabbi Chaim Palagi (d. 1868; Nishmat Kol Chai, 50) point out that the Shiltei Giborim seems to say otherwise elsewhere.
8. Related by Rabbi Benzion Yadler (d. 1962), a maggid in Yerushalayim and a member of the expedition, in his posthumously published memoir Bituv Yerushalayim (1967; p. 394) and reprinted in an appendix to the new edition of Eleh Masa’ei, 2001, p. 236.
9. It should be noted that Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein famously exhorted youth groups and others that despite all the religious and educational value inherent in hiking in the Land of Israel, the primary message on Sukkot must be the observance of the mitzvah of living in a sukkah and that should be incorporated in the tiyulim (Alon Shvut:90; available in English at https://etzion.org.il/en/halakha/orach-chaim/holidays/travelling-and-mitzva-sukka).
10. In Mi’tzohar L’tzohar: Ner Zikaron l’Oron Bergman, edited by Rabbi Shlomo min haHar (Jerusalem, 5744) pp. 127–35.
11. Note that based on the story above, Rabbi Sonnenfeld may have disagreed. Or perhaps he simply saw it as even more meritorious to actually walk.
12. This is an interesting way to link Torah, Eretz Yisrael and Olam Haba, the three precious gifts G-d gave to the Jews, which according to the Gemara (Berachot 5a) are all acquired with affliction.
13. The promise discussed until now was one of earning Olam Haba by living in/visiting Israel. Ibn Ezra (Bereishit 33:19) suggests that owning a piece of Eretz Yisrael is actually like having a piece of Olam Haba.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.