Shiur #16: 9 November 1989 The Fall of the Berlin Wall and Aliya from the Soviet Union, Part 1
The Russian Revolution in 1917 signalled a dark time for Jews in that region of the world. As the Soviet Union was formed and its policies put in place, Jews were treated terribly. In an attempt to destroy Judaism, the Soviet government prohibited religious activity such as praying and the learning of Torah. Even speaking Hebrew was forbidden. During those dark years, many Jews were arrested, exiled and killed. Generations of Jews were raised without any exposure to Torah, mitzvot or any frumkeit.
The first wave of aliya from these countries began in the 1970s. The Six-Day War created an awakening within the Jewish people around the world, bringing people closer to their Jewish identity and pride. Jews in the Soviet Union sent letters to both local and foreign governments, demanding aliya to Israel. The Soviet government, thinking that by allowing some Jews to leave the country would achieve both quiet in the Jewish community and a positive image in the West, gave its permission. Between the years 1969 and 1973, 163,000 Jews from the Soviet Union made aliya to Israel.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the official collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 changed the world. After years of tension between the East and the West, the Cold War was over. The effect in the Jewish world was enormous. After 70 years of persecution, the Jews living in the former Soviet Union were free. As a result, a massive exodus began. Between the years 1990 and 2000, over a million Jews made their way to the State of Israel.
This time, however the reasons for aliya were a bit different, as the immigrants were not necessarily motivated by Zionist ideology. Many of those making aliya were intermarried, and hundreds of thousands of them were not even considered halakhically Jewish. This aliya brought with it new challenges, which we will discuss.
However, before we focus on the specific questions of this special wave of aliya, we will raise broader issues that have to do with the mitzva of aliya to Eretz Yisrael.
Religious Meaning of Kibbutz Galuyot
First, it is important to note that of all the miraculous events that have taken place in the past 75 years, kibbutz galuyot (the ingathering of the exiles) might be the most important one, serving as an indication that biblical prophecies are coming true in our days. Rav Yoel Bin-Nun dedicates an entire book to this theme. In his introduction, he explains the uniqueness of this miracle:
I see in kibbutz galuyot the greatest miracle in all of human history, because there is no other nation that has survived thousands of years after it was exiled from its country and returned to its land. Throughout Jewish history, the return to Israel was from as many as 100 countries. However, in the distant past, the return — both in the times of the Exodus from Egypt and the Return to Zion from Babylon — came in each case from only one country.
No other generation but ours has ever seen such a phenomenon. Over the past few decades, to this very day, the ingathering of the exiles has been taking place before our eyes. Thus, this is the ultimate proof of the truth of Torah and prophecy and for God’s existence amongst us. There is no need for any other evidence; for it is staring us in the face, as the prophet exclaims: “For eye to eye they shall see when the Lord returns to Zion” (Yeshayahu 52:8).
In fact, a suggestion has been made to add a chapter of Tehillim to our daily prayers mentioning the miraculous phenomenon of the gathering of scattered Jews from around the world. Basing his view on the daily obligation to mention in our prayers the Exodus from Egypt, Rav Benayahu Bruner, a Dayan and Rosh Yeshiva in Tzefat, argues that there is a similar obligation to mention the redemption occurring in our times. The mitzva to remember the Exodus from Egypt is mentioned in the Torah:
In order that you may remember the day when you left Egypt for all the days of your life.
There is a disagreement in the Mishna as to what this verse is referring to.
We mention the Exodus from Egypt at night. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said: Behold, I am almost a seventy-year old man and I have not succeeded in [understanding why] the Exodus from Egypt should be mentioned at night, until Ben Zoma explained it from a verse, “In order that you may remember the day when you left Egypt for all the days of your life” — “the days of your life” refers to the days; “all the days of your life” refers to the nights.
But the Sages say: “The days of your life” refers to this world; “all the days of your life” includes the days of the Mashiach.
If the Halakha follows Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah (as it seems to, based on the fact that we do mention the Exodus from Egypt during both day and night), it might indicate that in the future, in the days of the Mashiach, there will be no mitzva to remember the Exodus from Egypt. The Gemara mentions that Rabbi Elazar challenges the Sages’ view with the following verse:
Behold days are coming, says the Lord, and it shall no longer be said, "As the Lord lives, who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt," but rather "As the Lord lives, who brought up the children of Israel from the northland and from all the lands where He had driven them.”
This seems to argue that in the future we will not mention the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, because the new miracles of the future redemption will be greater. Basing his view on the Mishna and the verses from Yirmeyahu, Rav Bruner suggests reciting Chapter 126 of Tehillim, which describes the return of the Jewish people to Zion.
The Mitzva of Aliya Post-1948
Many halakhic authorities, from the Talmudic period up until our days, argue whether or not there is an obligation to make aliya. Although most of the Poskim hold like the Ramban that it is a positive mitzva at all times, not all are convinced that there is an active obligation at all times.
Some, like Tosafot, argue that it is too dangerous; some, like Rav Moshe Feinstein, argue that it is only recommended and not obligatory; and some, like Rav Avraham Bornsztain (1838–1910) of Sochaczew, believe that the obligation only applies to those who can make a living off the land.
Rav Eliezer Waldenberg discusses the mitzva of aliya before and after the founding of the State of Israel. He posits that although the mitzva applies, in his opinion, at all times, as of 1948, all the reasons given for not making aliya cease to exist. Moreover, the miraculous events taking place today serve as a catalyst for making aliya.
He explains that the mitzva of yishuv Eretz Yisrael consist of two sub-mitzvot: one upon the individual and one upon the public. When the Temple was destroyed, the mitzva upon the public was annulled. However, with the establishment of the State, the mitzva to build a country and a national home for the Jewish people has resurfaced. Therefore, he concludes, the mitzva of aliya to the Land of Israel is today, more than ever, a mitzva upon all of the Jewish people.
Birkat She-hecheyanu on Aliya
An interesting question is raised by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Yitzchak Nissim (1895-1981) regarding the recital of she-hecheyanu at the time of aliya to Eretz Yisrael. The rationale is based on the rule of making this berakha whenever one fulfills a mitzva for the very first time.
In his responsum, he mentions other Poskim who discuss this question, amongst them Rav Chayim Palachi (1788–1868, Izmir, Turkey) and Rav Ya’akov Hagiz (1620–1674, Morocco) who argue against it. Rav Hagiz’s position is that the recital of Birkat Ha-gomel includes within it she-hecheyanu.
Let’s elaborate on this argument: Halakha maintains that at certain times, when sad and happy events happen simultaneously, two contradicting berakhot may be recited. A good example would be the death of a parent who leaves a large inheritance behind. Similarly, Rav Hagiz argues that at the time of aliya to Eretz Yisrael, Birkat Ha-gomel is recited on the “miracle” of surviving the journey, together with the berakha of Dayan Ha-emet and performing keria upon seeing the desolation of the land.
Rav Nissim points out that one can derive from the words of Rav Hagiz that if not for Birkat Ha-gomel, she-hecheyanu would be recited. Rav Nissim explains that the logic behind this opinion is that she-hecheyanu is not necessarily a berakha recited on ultimate happiness, but rather upon experiencing a benefit. Making aliya, he argues, is surely considered a religious benefit.
Rav Fogelman (1898-1984) of Kiryat Motzkin discusses this question as well. He quotes an opinion which argues that the berakha of she-hecheyanu has to do with a state of happiness. This opinion (written before 1948) holds that Eretz Yisrael is desolate and the Temple is in ruins, so surely no berakha may be recited under these circumstances. Rav Fogelman argues that, based on this argument, the berakha should indeed be recited today:
The blessing of she-hecheyanu in our days for immigration to the State of Israel is an expression of joy and thanksgiving to God, Who, following the Holocaust, has taken us from darkness to light, from enslavement to redemption; and brought us back to the Land of our Patriarchs and Prophets.
Violating Shabbat for the Aliya of Soviet Jews
When the gates of the Soviet Union first opened, many were concerned that they might close at any moment. The feeling of many was that there was no time to spare and that we had to do all we could to gather the Jews from these countries and encourage and help them to settle in the Land of Israel.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the reason for haste was a profound feeling that without immediate action, many Jews would be lost to the Jewish people. After 70 years of complete isolation from Jewish tradition, many were married to non-Jewish spouses, as mentioned above.
Rav Shaul Yisraeli was asked, if under the circumstances, Shabbat could be violated for the purpose of aliya to the State of Israel. Are we allowed to produce documents and permits for former Soviet Jews on Shabbat? If needed, may we drive? It is a well-known halakha that if a life in danger (pikuach nefesh), one must violate Shabbat. The question is if this applies only to physical harm or to spiritual harm to the “Jewish soul” as well.
Rav Yisraeli explains that the main question is an argument amongst the Rishonim:
Rav Shlomo ben Aderet (1235-1310, Spain) addresses a case in which a Jewish girl is in danger of converting to Christianity. The question is whether or not this would justify violating Shabbat for the purpose of saving her. His answer is that it is forbidden to sin for the purpose of saving others from sin; therefore, in our case, it is forbidden to violate Shabbat.
Rav Yosef Karo, after quoting the Rashba, points out that Tosafot disagree and hold that it is permitted to violate a “smaller” mitzva for the purpose of keeping a “greater” one.
What is the pesak? Rav Karo rules, following Tosafot, that it is permitted to violate Shabbat to save a Jew from converting to Christianity.
However, Rav Yisraeli explains, it is not clear how far we can go with this pesak. Rav David Ha-Levi Segal (1586–1667) is of the opinion that when it comes to violating Shabbat for pikuach nefesh, there is no difference between physical or spiritual danger. However, Rav Avraham Abele Gombiner (1635–1682) disagrees and holds that this leniency is limited to cases where the danger is clear, without any doubt.
Rav Pinchas Goldschmidt, the current Chief Rabbi of Moscow, discusses whether or not one can rely on Rav Yisraeli’s heter and allow Soviet Jews to travel on Shabbat to the State of Israel. His opinion is that there is no guarantee that if the Soviet Jews leave the country and immigrate elsewhere they will be religious. Therefore, he concludes that the situation in his time (1994) does not justify violating Shabbat.
It seems to me that disregarding the practical question of whether or not we should violate Shabbat, between the lines of these discussions I sense that there is a bigger argument regarding the importance of immigration to the State of Israel. It is obvious that Rav Yisraeli understands that aliya to Israel is not just a means to keep the Jewish people from assimilation; rather, it is a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of the return of the Jewish people to their home.
Next shiur, we will discuss specific questions that arose regarding the status of Jews who made aliya during the end of the 20th century.
 Rav Yoel Bin-Nun, Nes Kibbutz Galuyot, p. 11.
 Techumin, Vol. 38, pp. 461-469.
 Devarim 16:3.
 Mishna, Berakhot 1:5.
 Berakhot 12b.
 Yirmeyahu 16:14.
 Ketubot 101b, s.v. Hu.
 Iggerot Moshe, EH 1:102.
 Avnei Nezer, YD 454.
 Tzitz Eliezer, 7:48.
 Yayin Ha-tov #47.
 Kovetz Torah she-be’al Peh, Vol. 11, pp. 55-60.
 The article was printed in a special collection of articles dedicated to aliya from the former Soviet Union: Torah she-be’al Peh, Vol. 32, pp. 26- 31; printed also in Techumin, Vol. 2, pp.27-34.
 Beit Yosef, OC 306.
 Turei Zahav, OC 306:4.
 Magen Avraham, OC 306: 29.
 Ha-ma’ayan, Tammuz 1994.