“Egypt: Off Limits to Jews”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we learn of the Torah’s prohibition for Jews to return to the land of Egypt.

In Deuteronomy 17:16, in the midst of the portion in which the issue of appointing a king for Israel is discussed, the Torah states, “ Lo to’see’foon lah’shoov bah’derech ha’zeh ohd,” You shall no longer return on this road [to Egypt] again.

Unexpectedly, the issue of returning to Egypt is raised in the context of appointing a king because of the Torah’s concern that the Jewish king not have too many horses, which will lead him to return the people to Egypt where horses were bred and raised in those days.

The many restraints placed upon the Jewish king, which are found in Deuteronomy 17:17-20, are intended to ensure that the Jewish king devote the throne of his kingdom entirely to G-d. In addition to not having too many horses, the king shall not have too many wives, so that his heart not turn astray. Nor may a king greatly increase silver and gold for his coffers. The king is required to write for himself two copies of the Torah, that are to be with him at all times. He is to read from the Torah all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear G-d, and observe all the words and decrees of the Torah and perform them. With these restraints, it is hoped that the king not become haughty over his brethren and turn from the commandments right or left. His loyalty to the Al-mighty, will ensure that his and his family’s reign over Israel will be prolonged.

The Yalkut May’am Lo’ez notes that even before the above references, the Torah had previously alluded to the prohibition of residing in Egypt. Prior to the Splitting of the Red Sea, G-d tells the Jewish people (Exodus 14:12) that the way they see Egypt at that time (powerful and mighty) will never be seen again. In the Tochacha, G-d’s reproof of the Jewish people, the Al-mighty warns (Deuteronomy 28:68) that if the people misbehave, they will be sent back to Egypt in boats, on the very path which G-d had said they would not see again.

The injunction against returning to Egypt is understood to mean that a Jew may reside in any place in the world, with the exception of dwelling permanently in Egypt. Therefore, one may return to Egypt for business reasons or to participate in the conquest of other nations. If the land of Egypt is conquered by a Jewish king with the approval of the Jewish Court of Law, Jews may then live there freely.

The Ramban underscores that due to the profoundly degenerate lifestyle in Egypt, Jews may not live there, lest they too adopt a decadent lifestyle.

Despite the clear Torah prohibition of living in Egypt, for many centuries, Jewish communities flourished in Egypt, especially in the city of Alexandria. The great sage and physician Maimonides resided in Fostat (old Cairo) Egypt, where he served as the court physician to the Egyptian sultan, the great Saladin.

Varied explanations are offered by the commentators and interpreters, in an effort to explain the fact that, despite the prohibition, many noted Jews settled in Egypt.

Rabbeinu Bachya felt that the prohibition of living in Egypt was not meant to be permanent. Rather, it was to be in effect only in Biblical times, when the period of Egyptian bondage was still a recent memory. By the time of Alexandrian Jews and of Maimonides, the prohibition to reside in Egypt had lapsed.

Another view propounded by some authorities is that the prohibition applied only to those Jews who specifically left the land of Israel to settle in Egypt, and did not apply to those who came from other countries.

Radbaz rejects that suggestion and concludes instead that Jews may have gone to Egypt initially for the purpose of business, and subsequently found it unsafe to return to their homelands. They, therefore, remained in Egypt. Both Bachya and the Radbaz point out that Maimonides was called by the king to be his personal physician, and that his residence in Egypt was involuntary.

A most interesting footnote to this discussion may be found in a brief review of the history of the Jewish community of Alexandria.

Jews settled in Alexandria in the third century before the Common Era, when that metropolis became a major seaport and the center of commerce and culture. The city was named after King Alexander the Great, who was a great friend of the Jews. Fully one-third of the 300,000 residents of the city were Jewish, which is a greater proportion of Jews than is found in New York City today. So large were the synagogues in Alexandria, that the leaders would have to wave flags for the people in the rear of the synagogue to know when to say “Amen” to a blessing. Nevertheless, many Jews attended synagogue only one day a year.

The Jews of Alexandria were enamored with Greek culture, language, and especially the philosophy of Plato. They gave their children Greek names. The Bible was known only from the Greek Septuagint. Hebrew was hardly ever used, except for the presence of the word “Shalom” found on tombstones. Apparently, not even the great Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE–50 CE, also called Philo Judaeus), was familiar with the Hebrew Bible in the original.

Soon after their arrival, the Jews of Alexandria gave up most of their Jewish rituals and instead developed a minute acquaintance with the Greek culture and lifestyle. They were prominent in literature, philosophy, theater and drama. Eventually, the Jews became so assimilated, that, but for archaeology and the Christian scriptures, there would be no record of their presence in the city. To such an extent had they assimilated, that Tiberius Alexander, a nephew to Philo, served as the Chief of Staff to Titus, during the siege and the destruction of Jerusalem!

Although the Torah prohibition of dwelling in Egypt applies specifically to Egypt, the lessons that may be derived from that prohibition are universally applicable. The prohibition is intended to convey a warning not only about residing in Egypt, but to serve as a firm reminder to all Jews of the dangers of residing in any locale where immoral living prevails.

Those who wish to learn from that lesson must take heed.

May you be blessed.