Reading through the Talmud, I noticed several agricultural laws that are only applicable in Israel.

However, in the Bible, and throughout history, the borders of the territories which are under Jewish ownership seem to constantly be changing. Furthermore, there are many portions of land throughout the rest of the world owned by the Jewish people, so would they be classified as Israel as well?

If so, would those laws regarding the Land of Israel also be applied to land outside of the current boundaries of Israel?


The borders of the “Land of Israel” which G‑d gave to our forefather Abraham are delineated in Genesis1:

On that day, the L‑rd formed a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates river…”

And more specifically in Numbers2:

The L-rd spoke to Moses, saying, Command the children of Israel and say to them, when you arrive in the land of Canaan, this is the land which shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders…

With regard to the agricultural laws described in the Talmud3 as applying “only in the land of Israel,” the borders are not static.

To explain: the Jewish people's ownership of the land began with G‑d's promise of the land to Abraham. The sanctity of the land, by contrast, which is the defining factor with regard to the agricultural laws, did not begin until the Jewish people actually took possession of it.4

The exact location of the biblical borders is of much discussion among Bible scholars. As your question actually regards the second set of borders, i.e. where the obligations apply, I will stick to that subject, which is explained in detail in Maimonides’ codex of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah.5

Firstly, Maimonides defines what is meant in Jewish law when a specific commandment is limited to the “Land of Israel.” The intent is any land conquered by a king of Israel, or a prophet, with the consent of the entire Jewish people, i.e. approved by the Jewish High Court in Jerusalem. If these guidelines are met, those territories gain the status of “Land of Israel”.

If, however, an individual Jew, family, or tribe go and conquer a place for themselves – even in the actual territory given by G‑d to Abraham – it is not considered the Land of Israel in the sense that one is obligated to observe all the commandments specific to the Land of Israel.

The ability to expand the borders applies only if the land was conquered after the conquest of the Land of Israel as described in the Torah.

(Therefore, many of the lands which King David conquered outside of the Land of Canaan, even though he was a King of Israel and he was acting with the consent of the High Court, are not considered as the Land of Israel with regard to all matters. Their status was considered lower than that of the Land of Israel because David conquered them before he conquered all of the Land of Israel. There were still members of the seven living nations there. If, however, he had conquered the Land of Israel entirely, in all of its boundaries, and afterwards conquered other lands, his entire conquest would have been equivalent to the Land of Israel in all regards.

Nevertheless, those territories are also not considered entirely like the Diaspora in all regards. Instead, these areas were removed from the category of the Diaspora, but did not enter the category of the Land of Israel. The lands which King David conquered are called “Syria”6 in Jewish law, and the obligations in those territories are in a category of their own.7)

Within the lands conquered according to these guidelines there is also a difference between those conquered by the Jews when they entered Israel, led by Joshua, following the Exodus from Egypt, and the lands sanctified by the Jews when they returned, led by Ezra, from the Babylonian exile.

The land that the Jews took possession of after the Exodus was indeed sanctified in the first consecration of the land, but when the Jewish people were exiled that sanctity was nullified. The initial consecration came about because of the conquest. Hence, its consecration was effective for the time it was under their rule, but not for all eternity.

When, by contrast, the exiles ascended from Babylon and took possession of a portion of the land, they consecrated it a second time. This consecration is perpetuated forever. 8

To summarize, the entire earth is divided into three categories in relation to those obligations involving land ownership:

  1. The Land of Israel, referred to in Jewish law as Eretz Yisrael.
  2. What Jewish law would call “Syria.”
  3. The Diaspora.

The Land of Israel itself is divided into two categories:

  1. Those portions that were settled only by the Jews who ascended from Egypt.;
  2. Those portions settled by the Jews who ascended from Babylonia years later.

Additionally there could be a third category:

  1. Land acquired following the procedure described above, in which case there is the possibility of more land falling under the status of “the Land of Israel” in Jewish law.

The Talmudic references to the Land of Israel, with regard to the agricultural laws, refer only to b) and c).

These are the general guidelines, and I hope this answers your question.

For the exact borders of the original and later conquests see the continuation of the discussion in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Terumos 1:7-9.

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson
Ask the Rabbi @ The Judaism