Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Living in Egypt

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

There is an intriguing prohibition in the Torah which states that it is forbidden to return to Egypt. Indeed, this prohibition is repeated in three different places in the Torah.[1] The commentators teach that the primary purpose of such a commandment is in order to ensure that we are never again exposed to or influenced by the immoral ways of the Egyptians.[2]

It is actually only traveling to Egypt with the intention of residing there which is forbidden. It is permitted, however, to travel to Egypt for business or other such interests.[4] So too, in the event that a Jewish King would conquer Egypt in a war, the prohibition on living in Egypt would cease.[5] It seems, therefore, that there may be some halachic difficulty in justifying the existence of Jewish communities throughout Egypt from time immemorial.[6] There are a number of different approaches among the halachic authorities which helps resolve this discrepancy.

Click here to read moreSome authorities are of the opinion that the prohibition on living in Egypt only applied in Biblical times when the Egyptians were infamous for their immorality.[7] Considering that Egypt today is in fact a more conservative society, the prohibition would not apply according to this view. Other authorities suggest that the prohibition on living in Egypt was only a temporary one intended for that generation alone.[8]

Additionally, there are a number of authorities who contend that the prohibition was strictly on living amongst the Egyptian people and not subject to territorial or geographical parameters. As such, should the Egyptian nation as a whole pick up and move to another country, it would consequently be prohibited for Jews to live there, as well. There are some authorities, however, who assert that the prohibition is a geographical one and would apply even if Egypt was devoid of any inhabitants.[9]

Another interpretation of this prohibition contends that it is only prohibited to live in Egypt when one’s point of departure is from the Land of Israel.[10] Therefore, moving to Egypt from some other place in the Diaspora would be permissible according to this view.[11] It is also noted that the prophet specifically acknowledges the Jews of modern Egypt, assuring us that when the Mashiach comes, they too will be redeemed.[12] The implication of this prophetic declaration seems to lend some legitimacy to the view that living in Egypt is a permissible option for those who choose to do so.[13]

It also may also just be that the Torah’s intention was that the Jewish nation as a whole is prohibited from relocating to Egypt. Individuals, however, would be permitted to do so should they so desire.[14] Indeed, the verse which discusses the prohibition to return to Egypt is worded in plural form. Moreover, even according to the view that even individuals are forbidden from settling in Egypt, there would be no requirement upon those who were born there to pick up and leave.[15] It is reported that when the Rambam lived in Egypt, he would sign off all his letters with: "From me who violates three commandments of the Torah each and every day".

Nevertheless, the Egyptian nation of today is simply another branch of the Arab nation, unrelated to the peoples of ancient Egypt.[16] Indeed, ever since Sancheriv shuffled the nations of the ancient world, none of the Biblical commandments which apply specifically to a single or specific nation are binding.[17] The emergence of Jewish communities throughout Egypt may conceivably have simply been the doing of a few individuals who initially went down to Egypt for business purposes and became so tied up in their affairs that leaving became a near impossibility.


[1] Shemot 14:13, Devarim 17:16,28:68
[2] Rambam Sefer Hamitzvot 46, Melachim 5:8, Chinuch 500
[4] Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:8, Rambam Melachim 5:7,8, Minchat Chinuch 500
[5] Minchat Chinuch 500
[6] Sanhedrin 93a
[7] Rabbeinu Bechaye;Shoftim
[8] Rabbeinu Bechaye; Shoftim
[9] Minchat Chinuch 500
[10] Minchat Chinuch 500
[11] Sefer Hayereim Mitzva 303;Shoftim, Darkei Moshe E.H. 4, Shu”t Shoel U'meishiv Y.D. 15. See Rambam Melachim 5:16 who rules it is forbidden for one who resides in Babylon to ever leave.
[12] Yeshayahu 26:13
[13] Maharshal;Smag 227
[14] Suggested in Hitorrerut Hateshuva 1:218, Sho’el U’meishiv cited in Minchat Asher Devarim 28
[15] Hitorrerut Hateshuva 1:218
[16] Pri Chadash cited in Chaim Sha’al 91
[17] Mishna Yadayim 4:4, Rambam Melachim 5:4, Rambam Issurei Biah 12:25, Semag 227

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