(Background: Having completed the discussion of Rav Yehuda's opinion that even individual Jews are forbidden under the oath from going to Eretz Yisroel, we now turn to Rabbi Zeira, whom the halacha follows. Rabbi Zeira holds that the Three Oaths apply only to the Jewish people as a whole.)
Now that we have established that the halacha follows Rabbi Zeira, we must understand his opinion and the meaning of the Three Oaths. According to Rabbi Zeira, individuals are permitted to move to Eretz Yisroel; the oath prohibits only "going up as a wall." What kind of immigration does the Gemara mean by "wall"? There are three possibilities:
1) The immigration of a large group, all together
2) The immigration of the majority of the Jewish people
3) A military invasion, without the permission of the nation living there.
(Why doesn't the Rebbe split up number 3 into two possibilities: a military invasion by a large group, or a military invasion by the majority of the Jewish people - just as he splits up peaceful immigration into two possibilities? Because if the Torah's concern is to forbid a military invasion, it does not matter how many Jews are carrying it out.)
Rashi explains, "Together, with a strong hand." We will have to understand the meaning of these cryptic words. ("With a strong hand" seems to indicate military force, while "together" seems to indicate a large group, so which is it?) Later we will offer an explanation of Rashi.
The Maharsha also says something difficult to understand - it seems that he says "as a wall" refers to the building of a literal wall around Jerusalem. The problem is that the Gemara never says the word "build". The oath does not forbid building the wall, only going up as a wall.
(Here is the full text of the Maharsha: Certainly every Jew is permitted to go up to Eretz Yisroel, but they must not go up with a strong hand and to build for themselves the walls of Jerusalem. When Nechemiah said, “Let us build the walls of the city and no longer be a shame” (Nechemiah 2:17), it was with the king's permission, as it is written (2:8). But Toviah, who asked Nechemiah regarding the building of the wall, “Are you rebelling against the king?” did not realize that it was being done with the king's permission. End quote.
In ancient times, a city wall was a mechanism of defense. Thus it would seem that the Maharsha means to espouse the Rebbe's explanation number 3 above: that for Jews to go up and live in Jerusalem under the protection of the ruling power is fine, but if the Jews start to build the walls without permission, it is a signal that they seek independence and self-defense. It is not the building of the wall that violates the oath; it is the rebellion against the ruling power symbolized by building the wall.)
The Gemara in Yoma 9b sheds some light on the meaning of "as a wall":
Reish Lakish was bathing in the Jordan. Rabbah bar bar Chana came and gave him a hand. Reish Lakish said, "By G-d, I hate you! For it is written (Shir Hashirim 8:9), If she is a wall, we will build upon her a crown of silver, but if she is a door, we will build upon her a plank of cedar wood. If you had made yourselves like a wall and all come up [to Eretz Yisroel] in the time of Ezra, then you would have been compared to silver, which cannot rot. But now that you have come up like doors, you are compared to cedar wood, which can rot."
We see here that any mass immigration is called “a wall” even though everything was done with permission from the king and the Jews could do whatever they wished. (This would seem to contradict the Maharsha's assertion that “going up as a wall” means only building a wall or similar activities done without permission from the king. The Jews in fact did build the walls in Ezra's time, with permission from the king, and yet they were criticized for not coming up as a wall. If the king granted permission, how were they expected to build the wall without permission?)
However, the Maharsha in his commentary on Yoma 9b takes care of this problem. He explains that since the Jews of Ezra's time came up in such small numbers, they needed to build walls to protect themselves from their enemies. Hence Reish Lakish says, “If you had made yourselves a wall” and come up with such large numbers that you would have served as your own wall and not needed a wall of stone, then the Divine Presence would have returned fully to the Temple.
From Bava Basra 8b we can show the Sages use “wall” as a metaphor for strength and resolve. The Gemara says there that Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish disagreed about the meaning of the verse (Shir Hashirim 8:10), “I am a wall...” Rabbi Yochanan says that the wall refers to Torah, and Reish Lakish says that it means the Jewish people. Rashi explains, “All Jews are equally like a wall, and fence themselves off from become assimilated among the gentiles.” So we see that the same Reish Lakish who, in Masechta Yoma, expounds the word “wall” to mean mass immigration, expounds it in Bava Basra to mean the fence by which Jews guard themselves from assimilation.
Rashi writes in his commentary on Shir Hashirim 8:9, “If she is a wall – if she is strong in her faith and fear of G-d, so that she is like an impenetrable copper wall to the gentiles, not intermarrying with them and not being enticed by their lifestyle.” So we see that Rashi explains “wall” as strength of faith and resistance to the enticements of the outside world. Similarly, Rashi explains "I am a wall" in verse 10 to mean, "Strong in the love of my beloved." From all of the above we see that any kind of strength and resolve is metaphorically termed a wall.
The Midrash Rabbah expounds the metaphoric words "if she is a wall, we will build upon her a crown of silver" (v. 9) in many ways. One opinion says it refers to Avraham Avinu. When Nimrod threatened to cast him into the furnace, Hashem said, "If Avraham stands up strong like a wall, I will save him and built him up in the world." Another opinion says it refers to the Jewish people. "If Israel raises up its good deeds like a wall, then I will build upon them and save them," and so on.
Then the Midrash relates that whenever Reish Lakish saw large crowds of Jews in the market, he would say to them, "Scatter yourselves! When you came up to Eretz Yisroel you did not make yourselves a wall, and here you are coming to make yourselves a wall?" The Matnos Kehunah explains that Reish Lakish was speaking to large crowds of Babylonian Jews; the criticism that they did not make themselves a wall when coming up to Eretz Yisroel refers to the passage earlier in the Midrash - the same statement of Reish Lakish brought in Yoma 9b: "If you had made yourselves a wall..."
Now, from the fact that Reish Lakish saw a large crowd in a market in Babylonia and called it a "wall", and criticized them for not coming with similar crowds in the time of Ezra, we see that any large crowd, even if not the majority of the Jewish people and even with permission from the government, is called a "wall." For certainly this crowd seen by Reish Lakish was not a Jewish uprising, G-d forbid - that would have been forbidden under the oath not to rebel against the nations. Also, Ezra's immigration took place with permission from the king, and there was no rebellion, yet the Gemara implies that it would have been called a "wall" if only the numbers had been larger.
And it would be unreasonable to dismiss this story about Reish Lakish and the crowd by saying that the crowd in question was in fact the majority of the Jewish people. It is highly improbable that the majority of the Jews from the entire world would have gathered at one time in some marketplace in Babylonia. We know that after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews were scattered to the four corners of the earth. Rather, there was merely a large crowd in that marketplace, So this proves that any large group, because of its great strength, is termed a wall. This idea that "wall" is an expression of strength fits with the Rashi on Shir Hashirim quoted above, and this is implied in many statements by our Sages.
[The Zionist writer Rabbi Aviner quotes Rabbi Avraham Yellin, who attempts to prove from the Second Temple period that slow immigration over a extended period is not called "going up as a wall." Although the initial group that came with Ezra numbered only 42,000, certainly over the course of time more Jews came up, he assumes. So why does Reish Lakish say that the Babylonian Jews failed to come up as a wall? Clearly "as a wall" means all at once, not over an extended period of time. The Zionists, too, did not immigrate all at once.
However, it may well be that he is mistaken and there was never any second wave of immigration from Babylonia. Those 42,000 were the ancestors of all the Jews of Eretz Yisroel in the Second Temple period.This is in fact the contention of the Pnei Yehoshua, quoted later in Siman 12.
Even if there was more immigration, his proof is not conclusive, because it may be that there is a difference between "as a wall" when used in connection with the Three Oaths, and when used in connection with a time of redemption. When a time of redemption comes, such as the conclusion of the 70 years of exile foretold to Yirmiyahu the prophet, Hashem wants all Jews to respond and return to Eretz Yisroel right away. It is not enough that they eventually returned over the course of a century or two. But during exile, Hashem wants the bulk of the Jewish people to live outside of Eretz Yisroel. So even if they come to Eretz Yisroel piecemeal, like the Zionists, if the end result is that a large portion of the Jewish people is there, it is a violation of the oath.]