Are the Oaths of the Jewish People Dependent on the Gentiles Keeping Their Oath?

Dear Rabbis,

How do I answer a friend of mine who argued that the Three Oaths are a treaty between the Jewish people and the nations. The nations were prohibited from subjugating the Jews too much. Since the nations violated their oath by killing six million Jews, the Jewish people is no longer bound by its oaths.

The first thing to note about this argument is that it is dependent on the other common Zionist argument that the oath only prohibits forceful conquest of the land. Then we could see the oaths as a kind of peace treaty between the Jews and the other nations. As long as the nations don't afflict us, we won't fight with them.

But if we hold like the Ramban, Yefei Kol, Ohr Hachaim, Rabbi Yonasan Eybeshutz and so on, who say that the oath applies to mass immigration even with the approval of the nations living there, then we are saying that the oath was not imposed on the Jews for the nations' benefit. It is a mitzvah between us and Hashem, and has no connection to the nations' oath.

Furthermore, there is another oath that prohibits forcing the end, which includes false messiahs and, according to Rashi, even excessive prayer. This is certainly not a sin against the gentiles but against Hashem Himself. Therefore everyone would agree that we must keep it whether or not the nations keep theirs.

Also, although the great destruction wrought by Germany is one of the worst our people have ever suffered, there is no reason to say that previous massacres such as the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the destruction of Beitar, the Crusades and the massacres of 1648 (Tach Vetat) did not constitute a violation of the gentiles’ oath. Why then did the Zionist idea sprout only in this most recent century? In previous generations not only was such an idea never entertained, but it was expressly forbidden by the greatest Torah sages of the time. The Amoraim lived after the Roman massacres and yet they recorded the Three Oaths in the Gemara as practical law. The Rambam knew of the early Crusades and also terrible persecutions in his own lands by the Muslims, and yet he warns the Yemenite Jews not to violate the oaths. The same is true of other Rishonim such as the Rashbash (siman 2) and the Rivash (siman 101), and more recent poskim such as the Avnei Nezer and Rabbi Shmuel Salant, who deal with the oaths as practical halacha.

It is interesting to note that one anonymous commentator, quoted in the Kitzur Alshich Ushar Meforshim (printed in the Lewin-Epstein Chumash) on Shir Hashirim 2:7, does connect the oaths of the Jewish people and the nations, but in the opposite direction. The Gemara says that if the Jewish people violates the oaths, Hashem will permit their flesh like the deer and hinds of the field. This commentator explains, "If the Jewish people violates its oath and forces the end, Hashem will release the nations from their prohibition on subjugating Israel too much. He will permit their flesh to the nations by permitting the oath of the nations."

So the Kitzur Alshich is really saying the converse of what you said. You said that now that the nations have violated their oath, we are allowed to violate ours. And the Kitzur Alshich is saying that if we violate ours, then they are allowed to violate theirs. But this doesn't show that you're right. Because the most you can claim is that the oath against conquering Eretz Yisroel is dependent on the nations' oath. But the oath against forcing the end clearly has nothing to do with the nations, as we explained above. Now, the Kitzur Alshich mentions specifically the sin of forcing the end. Why should the gentiles have the right to retaliate against us for that sin, which is not against them but against Hashem? So clearly, the Kitzur Alshich does not mean that the gentiles are actually released from their oath and are permitted to afflict us. He simply means that their actions against us are part of Hashem's plan to punish us for violating the oaths. But they will be duly punished for exercising their free will - just as the Egyptians were punished despite the fact that the slavery in Egypt was a decree of Hashem (Rambam Hilchos Teshuva 6:5).

Some claim that the Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:7 supports the interdependence argument: "Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina says: There are two oaths here, one for Israel and one for the nations of the world. He made Israel swear that they would not rebel against the yoke of the kingdoms, and He made the kingdoms swear that they would not harden their yoke upon Israel, for if they would harden their yoke upon Israel, they would cause the end to come not in its proper time."

But the Midrash does not say that the oaths are a covenant between Israel and the nations, nor does it say that if the nations harden their yoke upon Israel the oath is annulled. It says only that if they harden the yoke, G-d will bring an early end to the exile.

Similarly, the Shitah Mekubetzes in Kesubos 111a says in the name of the disciples of the Rashba: "I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my Beloved, what will you tell Him? That I am lovesick" (Shir Hashirim 5:8). The Jewish people is speaking to the nations of the world, after the Holy One, blessed is He, made the nations swear not to afflict Israel too much, lest they cause Him to arouse their love before its time, because the Holy One, blessed is He, cannot bear to see Israel in great distress and not save them, as the Gemara says (Sanhedrin 97b), "When the time to redeem them arrives, the Holy One, blessed is He, will raise up a king whose decrees are like Haman's and he will bring them to repent, and then immediately they will be redeemed."

Here again, it is clear that G-d will be the one to bring the redemption before its time. In passing, we note that the Shitah Mekubetzes states clearly that redemption, even when it comes due to the distress of Israel, must be preceded by repentance.

The Pnei Yehoshua, on Kesubos 111a, paraphrases the Midrash and makes it clear that G-d, not the Jews on their own, will bring the redemption. He asks how the oath on the nations of the world fits in with the verse "do not arouse or awaken the love before it is desired" which refers to the redemption of the Jewish people. He answers that if the nations afflict the Jews too much, "they will cause the Holy One, blessed is He, to hasten to bring the redemption before its time, as we find in the case of the Egyptian exile."

Pro-Zionist books often try to prove that certain Jewish sages and commentators in the pre-Zionist era said that the Jewish people's oath is dependent on the oath of the nations. But invariably, every source text they can find falls into one of three categories: 1) Reference to an action by G-d, not an annulment of the Jewish oath, such as the Midrash above; 2) Reference to the annulment of the oath prohibiting rebellion against the nations. 3) Reference to the annulment of the oath against excessive prayer. But no one has ever said that the oaths that concern us most - the one against going up as a wall and the one against forcing the end of exile through action - were subject to annulment when the gentiles violate their oath.

The first source text they quote is Rabbi Shimshon Chaim Nachmani in his commentary Zera Shimshon (published in 1778) on Megillas Esther 9:1. Scripture tells us that on the 13th of Adar, the very day that the Jews' enemies had planned to destroy them, the exact opposite happened: the Jews destroyed their enemies. The Zera Shimshon comments that Scripture goes out of its way to say that "the opposite happened" because if not for this, the Jews would not have had the right to lift up their hands against the gentiles. But now, since the gentiles planned to kill the Jews, the Jews were permitted to kill them. Because it states in the thirteenth chapter of Kesubos, "What are these three oaths? One that the Holy One, blessed is He, made Israel swear not to rebel against the nations of the world, and one that He made the nations of the world swear not to afflict Israel too much." And the Shulchan Aruch says (Yoreh Deah 236:6), "When two people swear to each other and one violates his oath, the other is also permitted and needs no annulment."

But note that of all the oaths in Kesubos, he only quotes two: the prohibition to rebel against the nations, and the nations' oath. He does not quote the oath prohibiting mass immigration to Eretz Yisroel, nor the oath prohibiting us to force the end, because those oaths have nothing to do with the nations and are not subject to any deal with them. However, the oath prohibiting rebellion against the nations might be, logically speaking, part of such a deal. Of course, if one nation violated its oath, that would not permanently annul the oath of rebellion against the nations, nor would it give the Jews the right to rebel against a different nation; but there might be a temporary relaxation of the Jewish oath with regard to the offending nation, as in the case of the Megillah.

The other purported sources for the interdependence argument are those who say that when the nations violate their oath, the Jews are allowed to pray excessively for the redemption, something that they are ordinarily prohibited from doing under the oath "that they should not force the end". These are Rabbi Shlomo Kluger in Maaseh Yedei Yotzer on the Hagadah, and Rabbi Hillel Lichtenstein in Avkas Rochel 9:1.

But these Acharonim do not say that the Jews are permitted to take any action towards the redemption. The difference between being permitted to pray and being permitted to take action is simple: taking action toward the redemption is tantamount to heresy, but violating the oath through excessive prayer is not, since on the contrary, prayer strengthens the Jew's belief that G-d controls all events and only He can end the exile. Therefore, as long as the gentiles treat the exiled Jews in accordance with G-d's decree and did not exceed their limit, G-d does not want us to pray for the end of exile, since the exile was His plan and is for our benefit. But when the gentiles exceed their limit, their actions emanate from their own free will and not from G-d's decree, and so we may pray to G-d to save us from them.

Not only do the Zionists fail to find sources for the interdependence argument; there are also some sources that explicitly contradict it.

Rabbi Avraham, son of the Rambam, writes in the Sefer Hamaspik Leovdei Hashem (Maamar Habitachon) about the trust a Jew must have in Hashem. He says that when the nations of the world are trying to kill Jews, our trust in Hashem must be accompanied by protective actions. In the times of King David, this would mean war; but in exile it means flattery and flight. We see that Rabbi Avraham forbids war even when the nations are trying to kill us.

When the Israelites passed through Esav’s land, Hashem said to Moshe, “Turn yourselves northward (tzafonah)” (Devarim 2:3). The Midrash comments: “If you see him [Esav] trying to start a fight with you, do not stand up against him. Rather, hide (hatzfinu) yourselves from him until his world passes."

Commenting on this Midrash, the Chofetz Chaim wrote: “The Torah teaches us not to resist the nations even when they fight against us. We must follow in the footsteps of Yaakov Avinu in his encounter with his brother Esav. As the Ramban writes in Vayishlach, all that happened between Yaakov and Esav happens to us constantly with Esav’s children. We must adopt the methods of that tzaddik, to make the three preparations that he made: prayer, a gift, and escape through war, that is, to flee and take refuge. As long as we walked on that well-tread path, Hakadosh Baruch Hu saved us from their hands. But since we have strayed from the path and new leaders have arisen who chose new methods, leaving behind our ancestors’ weapons and adopting the methods of our enemies, we have fared worse and worse, and great travails have befallen us. May Hashem have mercy on our people and restore our judges as of old." (Chofetz Chaim Al Hatorah, Devarim)

And the Ramban on Chumash discusses Yaakov Avinu's meeeting with Esav, making it clear that nowadays, even when the nations attack, our response must not be violation of the Jewish oath and counterattack, but rather prayer, gifts and escape.