August 31st, 2023

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll to the bottom of the page)

This week marked the 96th anniversary of the untimely death of Rabbi Yisrael Abba Citron, who died in 1927 at the tender age of 46. At the time of his passing, Rabbi Citron was the rabbi of Petah Tikva, where he had lived since 1911. During his tenure as Petah Tikva’s rabbi, Rabbi Citron not only acted as a spiritual guide to the local community, but also as a civic leader, social worker, and powerhouse advocate for Religious Zionism.

Born in Dvinsk into a very devout family, Rabbi Citron was a descendant of the celebrated eighteenth-century chief rabbi of Hamburg, Rabbi Raphael Susskind Cohen (1722-1803). In his formative years, Rabbi Citron studied at the yeshivas of Telz and Volozhin. He later returned to the city of his birth and studied with the two local rabbis, both of whom were world-class scholars: Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen, author of the seminal work Ohr Some’ah on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah; and Rabbi Yosef Rozin, known to all as “The Rogachover Genius.”

While in Dvinsk, Rabbi Citron married the Rogachover’s daughter, Rachel, and also acquired a formal education, receiving a governmental diploma, and learning to speak, read and write Russian, French, English, and German.

Although Rabbi Citron received countless invitations to become the rabbi of various well-established European communities, in the summer of 1911 he decided to accept the rabbinic position he’d been offered in Petah Tikva – at that time a tiny Jewish farming settlement not even recognized by the Ottoman authorities as its own municipal jurisdiction. When his family and friends queried his decision to abandon the promise of a solid career in Europe, Rabbi Citron dismissed them, saying: “It’s preferable to be the rabbi in a small village in the Land of Israel than in a big city abroad.”

Rabbi Citron’s closest confidant and colleague in Eretz Yisrael was Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, first as rabbi of Jaffa, then as Palestine’s chief rabbi. They worked closely together on various projects to invigorate religious life among Jewish immigrants, and they also collaborated in founding the chief rabbinate and a higher rabbinical court for Palestine, against an avalanche of opposition by rabbinic colleagues and ideological adversaries.

Curiously, Rabbi Citron does not seem to have been in close communication with his father-in-law, and there is no record of correspondence between them in the Rogachover’s published works. It is widely suspected that this poor relationship was due to their divergent views on Jewish resettlement in the Land of Israel; the Rogachover fiercely opposed Zionism, including its religious exponents.

But there was one remarkable exception, relayed many years later by the Religious Zionist activist and Jerusalem’s first mayor Shlomo Zalman Shragai (1899-1995), in a letter to Rishon LeZion’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Chaim Zevulun Charlap (1902-1966).

Three years after moving to Petah Tikva, in 1914, Rabbi Citron was suddenly faced with a significant challenge. The Ottoman authorities informed him of their intentions to deport him, as he was not a Turkish citizen. His only recourse was to take an oath that he was born in Palestine — which wasn’t true, as he had been born in Dvinsk. Lying under oath was not something Rabbi Citron could do, but the thought of abandoning his community and the Land of Israel was too much for him to bear, and he sought guidance from his renowned father-in-law.

True to his idiosyncratic style, the Rogatchover sent his son-in-law a terse response: a cryptic Talmudic reference to Ketubot 75a. The Gemara there interprets a verse from Psalms (87:5) —וּלֲצִיּוֹן יֵאָמַר אִישׁ וְאִישׁ יֻלַּד בָּהּ  “And of Zion it shall be said, ‘This man and that man were born there’” — to mean that whether one was literally born in Zion or ardently yearns for Zion, one is considered to have been born there.

On that basis, the Rogachover was saying, Rabbi Citron could swear that he was born in the Land of Israel, and his oath would not be false. Heartfelt longing for Israel and a belief that Zion is your country meant that even if you were born elsewhere, you could proclaim “I was born in Zion” with as much confidence as any native-born resident.

Commenting on the opening verses of Ki Tavo that discuss bringing Bikkurim – the tithe of the first fruits – to the Temple, Sifrei says “Do this mitzvah, for in its merit you will enter the land.” But this statement presents a problem. According to the Talmud, the commandment of Bikkurim could only be fulfilled after the land had been both conquered and distributed among the tribes – and this only happened 14 years after the Israelites entered the land. In which case, how can the mitzvah of Bikkurim serve as the merit through which we earn the privilege to enter the Promised Land, when the commandment itself can only be observed after we’ve already settled there?

The answer is hinted at in the verses themselves. Moses began his address to the nation about Bikkurim by telling them: וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּה – “When you enter the land that Hashem your God is giving you as a heritage – and you possess it and settle in it.”

Clearly, for the tithe of first fruits to have any meaning or significance, the Jewish nation would first have to internalize the idea that the land is their heritage, their inheritance, and their birthright – namely, at the very center of their national identity. Only then would they be able to possess it and settle in it.

The essence of Eretz Yisrael transcends mere geographical borders, or increasing the population, or building cities and expanding commerce. Even the establishment of autonomous Jewish rule is not enough. You could vanquish the Canaanites and populate the entire territory, and still not appreciate that the land is your heritage. The true identity of Eretz Yisrael lies in its role as the spiritual epicenter and sanctuary of Jewish existence, and that is something that can only ever exist in the heart of a Jew.

Rabbi Citron’s successor as rabbi of Petah Tikva was Rabbi Reuven Katz (1880-1963), a distinguished rabbinic scholar and respected community rabbi who abandoned his well-paid job in Bayonne, New Jersey, to take up the position in Palestine. According to Rabbi Katz, what distinguishes the fruit of Eretz Yisrael from fruit that is grown anywhere else in the world is the profound spiritual connection a farmer feels to his produce. That is why the farmer will willingly offer his cherished first fruits to the priest – an act of sacrifice symbolizing an acknowledgment that the gifts of the land, and indeed every other blessing, are not solely the fruit of human endeavor, but they are graciously bestowed upon us by God.

In reflecting on the journey and legacy of Rabbi Yisrael Abba Citron, it is unmistakably clear that the true essence of Eretz Yisrael is embedded not in the soil or borders of the country, but within the soul and heart of every Jew. Rabbi Citron, like the farmers offering their first fruits, embodied the profound understanding that our connection to the land is not just about our physical presence, but also about recognizing it as the divine gift it truly is.

Rabbi Citron’s passionate commitment, even in the face of adversity, serves as a timeless testament to this bond. Whether born on the soil of Zion, or whether drawn to it by the strings of one’s heart, Eretz Yisrael remains the unshakable pillar, the center of Jewish identity, and the eternal homeland for the Jewish soul. Rabbi Citron’s story reminds us all that to truly call Israel ours, it is not enough to live in it – we must allow it to live within us.

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