The Borders of the Land of Israel

Map of the borders of the Land of Israel according to the Biblical verses, Jewish law arbiters, and commentators * The borders of the Land conquered by the Israelites when they ascended from Egypt are only the basis * The borders of the Land of Israel are broader, however, the generation entering the Land was not large enough, and therefore, were commanded to conquer the primary territory * The various borders have significance in the settlement of the Land: places located within the borders of ‘olei Mitzrayim’ have higher priority * The borders are also significant regarding the commandments dependent on the Land, but places under Israeli sovereignty are mitzvoth-bound in any case

Whenever we talk about the borders of the Land of Israel, we must pay attention to two types of borders: the borders of the entire Land, and the borders of ‘olei Mitzrayim‘ (the Jews who came into the Land from Egypt, led by Yehoshua). The first is the border of the entire Land, as the Lord promised Abraham our father, as it is written: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the Egyptian River as far as the great river, the Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18); and then there are the narrower boundaries presented in the Torah portion ‘Masei‘ (Numbers 34) that the ‘olei Mitzrayim’ were commanded to conquer. And why were they not commanded to conquer the entire Land? Because their numbers were insufficient to settle the entire Land, and consequently, the commandment was to first settle in the primary parts of the Land, on the western side of the Jordan River, and gradually spread to all parts of the country. After the sons of Reuven and Gad asked to receive their inheritance on the eastern side of the Jordan River, Moshe agreed to their request ‘bedi’avad’ (reluctantly), however, the result was that the other tribes lacked the strength to fulfill the entire command, and conquer all the territories of the borders mentioned in the Torah portion ‘Masei‘.

The Southern Borders of the Entire Land

The southwestern boundary of the entire Land of Israel is ‘Nachal Mitzrayim’ (“River of Egypt”). It is agreed that ‘Nachal Mitzrayim’ is the eastern branch of the Nile, which is in the area of ​​the Suez Canal today. Regarding the southern border, it is said: “I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the Philistine Sea” (Exodus 23:31). In other words the entire Sinai Peninsula on the Israeli border, given that the Red Sea surrounds it, is set as the southern border.

It should be noted that there are commentators that Rambam (Maimonides), who lived in ancient Cairo in the eastern part of the Nile, considered himself as living within the borders of the Land of Israel, as Maharikash [Rabbi Yaakov Costaro (1525-1610]) wrote.

The Southern Border of ‘Olei Mitzrayim

However, the ‘olei Mitzrayim’ were commanded to conquer the border route which begins south of the Dead Sea to ‘Nachal Mitzrayim‘, as explained in the Torah portion ‘Masei’ (Numbers 34: 5), and only after they settled the primary part of the Land properly, would they spread to all borders of the Land. The ‘poskim’ (Jewish law arbiters) disagreed in regards to the southern boundary that the ‘olei Mitzrayim’ were commanded to conquer, and the dispute is contingent on identifying the places mentioned in the Torah portion ‘Masei’ from the southern Dead Sea to ‘Nachal Mitzrayim’. Some say that the border curves slightly south of the Dead Sea, including Yerucham and S’de Boker, and curves again north to the River of Egypt (Tevuot HaAretz); others say that it extends farther south to Ein Yahav in the Arava and Mizpe Ramon in the Negev, and from there it continues to ‘Nachal Mitzrayim’ (Admat Kodesh); and others say the border is even further south till Eilat, and from there continues to ‘Nahal Mitzrayim’ (Rabbi Tikochinsky, according to Rav Saadiah Gaon).

The ‘poskim‘ were also in disagreement about ‘Nachal Mitzrayim’. According to the majority of ‘Rishonim’ and some ‘Achronim’Nachal Mitzrayim‘ is identical to the “River of Egypt,” which is the eastern tributary of the Nile (Targum Yonatan and Yerushalmi, Rashi, Rambam, Tosafot, Rokeach, Radak, Gaon of Vilna), while many ‘Achronim’ according to some of the ‘Rishonim’, say that ‘Nachal Mitzrayim‘ is Wadi al-Arish (Rav Saadiah Gaon, Kaftor ve’Perach, Radbaz).

It should be noted that according to all opinions, the Gaza Strip and the area of Yamit are also included in the borders that ‘olei Mitzrayim’ were commanded to conquer, and they were included in the inheritance of Judah, as it is written: “And Gaza with its surrounding towns and settlements, as far as ‘Nachal Mitzrayim’ and the border at the Mediterranean Sea” (Joshua 15:47).

The significance of the discussion as to where the border of ‘olei Mitzrayim‘ is, is twofold: 1) The obligation to settle the Land there – whether it is of higher priority as the borders of the Torah portion ‘Masei’, or of lesser priority as the other borders of the Promised Land; 2) The obligation of the ‘mitzvot teluyot b’aretz’ (mitzvot dependent on the Land) when they are not under Israeli sovereignty. Nevertheless, a place that is under Israeli sovereignty and is within the borders of the entire Land in any case, is bound by the ‘mitzvoth teluyot b’aretz’, as the border of ‘olei Bavel’.

The Northern Borders – Mount Hor (Hor HaHar)

The northern boundary of the Torah portion ‘Masei‘ begins in the west, from the sea, in the place adjacent to Hor HaHar, as it is written: “This shall be your northern boundary. From the Mediterranean Sea, draw a line to Hor Mountain” (Numbers 34: 7). The question is: where is ‘Hor HaHar’, and whether it is the northern border of the entire Land of Israel, or only the northern border of ‘olei Mitzrayim’, who, once strengthened, conquered further on, till the Euphrates River.

There are five opinions:

  1. According to Targum Yonaton (Bamidbar, 34:7), Mount Hor is the place called Tavrus Umnus, north of the 36th latitude line.
  2. According to “Kaftor Ve’Perach,” it is the place called Akra, located on the 36th latitude line.
  3. According to the Rambam, the northern border is the 35th latitude line (Laws of Kiddush HaChodesh, 11:17), beginning from the western side in the place called Banyas (see Teshuvot HaRambam
    137, where he wrote that according to Chazal, it is called Amnas or Samnus. It is clear that his intention is not to the place we call the “Banyas” today, which is located at the bottom of the Hermon).
  4. According to the Radbaz (Sect. 4: 30) and Rabbi S. Serlio, Mount Hor is located slightly south of Tripoli, at the place called Batrun.
  5. According to ‘Admat Kodesh’ (Chapter 1) it is near Beirut on the eastern side, on a mountain today known as Hamna.

Seemingly, according to the fourth and fifth opinions, Hor HaHar is the border that ‘olei Mitzrayim’ were commanded to occupy and divide among the tribes; however, it is difficult to say that in their view it is the border of the entire Land, because it is impossible to draw a natural border between the Euphrates River and Hor HaHar according to their opinion. Therefore, it seems that in their view the border of the entire Land is similar to that of the first or second opinion.

On the other hand, according to the first opinion, Hor HaHar is indeed the border of the entire Land, and it is possible to stretch a natural border of about 180 kilometers to the Euphrates River, but what Israel was commanded to conquer in the Torah portion of ‘Masei’ apparently includes only the Lebanese mountains. Thus, there is no great dispute over the northern border, because the minimalist opinions refer to the border of the Torah portion of ‘Masei‘, whereas the maximalist opinion refer to the border of the entire Land. It appears to me that the border of the Torah portion ‘Masei’ is similar to the fifth opinion, and the border of the entire Land is similar to the first opinion. It also appears that the fact that Israel was unsuccessful in conquering the entire area of ​​Transjordan to the end of the northern boundary of the Torah portion ‘Masei’ was because two and a half tribes settled on the eastern side of the Jordan, and consequently, they were unable to take possession of the Lebanese mountains.

*** This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at:

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