The Torah instructs us, concerning the laws of kings: “But he shall not have too many horses for himself, so that he will not return the people to Egypt in order to increase horses, for Hashem has said to you: You shall no longer return on this way again” (Devarim 17:16).
Although the pasuk refers to the prohibition against a king of Israel owning too many horses, we learn from the pasuk a general prohibition against returning to Egypt: “You shall no longer return on this way again.”
Other Pesukim in the Torah also mention a general prohibition against returning to Egypt. The Mechilta (Shemos 14:13) lists two additional verses to this effect. One states, “…as you have seen Egypt today, you shall never see them again” (Shemos 14:13), and another, at the end of the Admonition, states, “Hashem will bring you back to Egypt in ships, by the way concerning which I had said to you: You will never see it again” (Devarim 28:68).
In the present article we will discuss the Torah prohibition against returning to Egypt. Does this prohibition apply today? Is it forbidden to return to Egypt even for a business meeting (such as to purchase horses)? Is the prohibition specific to returning from Israel to Egypt? And how, given a prohibition, was there a continual and thriving Jewish community in Egypt for centuries?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Jews in Egypt
In the book of Yeshayahu we find a direct reference to Jews living in Egypt. The Pasuk states: “On that day a great Shofar will be blown, and those who are lost in the land of Assyria and those cast away in the land of Egypt will come, and they will prostrate themselves to Hashem on the holy mountain in Jerusalem” (27:13).
Indeed, there were ancient communities in Elephantine of Egypt, and later in Alexandria, where many Jews settled after the Destruction of the First Temple. The Gemara (Menachos 109b) mentions a temple—the Temple of Onias, son of Shimon Hatzaddik—which was built for the Name of Hashem in Alexandria as a replica of the Mikdash in Jerusalem. Josephus also mentions this temple and writes that it stood for 343 years.
In later times, many great Sages and Torah scholars resided in Egypt. The Rambam is certainly the most renowned of them, but he is far from the only one. The great R. Saadya Gaon was born in Egypt, though he moved to Babylon where he lived for most of his life. The Radvaz, R. David ben Solomon ibn Zimra (1479-1573), was chief rabbi of Egypt for forty years before he moved, in his old age, to Jerusalem and Safed.
Documents found in the Cairo Geniza provide evidence of Jewish life in Egypt throughout the centuries, and vibrant Egyptian communities continued to exist until 1950, when Jews were largely banished from Egypt and the great majority of them emigrated to Israel.
Living in Sin?
Yet, though the historical record clearly shows a rich Jewish continuity in Egypt, it appears that living in Egypt is a transgression of a Torah law.
The Gemara (Sukkah 51b) describes the impressive beauty of the Alexandria synagogue, and notes that it was large enough to hold “twice the number of people who came out of Egypt.” Yet, the Gemara writes that the community and its Shul were destroyed because they transgressed the prohibition noted in the Pasuk: “You shall no longer return on this way again.”
The Rambam certainly seems to imply that living in Egypt is a full prohibition. In his Laws of Kings (5:7), the Rambam writes: “It is permitted to dwell anywhere in the entire world, except for the land of Egypt.” After noting the borders of Egypt, he concludes, “it is forbidden to dwell in this entire territory,” adding that this emerges from the three Pesukim mentioned above, and that Alexandria is included in the prohibition—as the above-mentioned Gemara says.
In Sefer Hamitzvos (Negative Commandment 46) the Rambam likewise notes the prohibition of living in Egypt, stating: “We are forever forbidden from living in the land of Egypt.” The Rambam adds that the purpose of the prohibition is “so that we should not learn from their heresy, and not come to imitate their behavior, which the Torah considers wicked.”
Prohibition for Biblical Times
As noted, commentaries—including the aforementioned Rambam, the Chinuch (Mitzvah 500) and the Ramban (Devarim 17:16)—state that the primary purpose of the prohibition is to ensure that the Jewish People should not be influenced by the immoral ways of the Egyptians.
Based on this idea, Rabbeinu Bachya (Devarim 17:16) suggests that the Torah’s prohibition against living in Egypt was only a temporary rule for Biblical times, when the Egyptians were infamous for their immorality. Today, Egypt is not obviously less moral than the rest of the world, so that the prohibition may not apply.
Based on this reasoning, Rabbeinu Bachya justifies the fact that Jewish communities resided in Egypt throughout the generations. It does not stand to reason, he writes, to suggest that these communities should have lived in sin throughout the centuries, and that their rabbinic leaders should not have pointed this out and objected to it.
The Gemara in Sukka, as noted above, does not concur with this approach.
A Prohibited Journey
Another justification offered by Rabbeinu Bachya for permission to live in Egypt is that the prohibition refers specifically to the journey to Egypt, and not to the actual living in Egypt. This seems to be a reasonable reading of the Pasuk, which says that one must not “return on this way again,” which may mean that one must not traverse the route from the Land of Israel to Egypt.
The same idea is mentioned by Sefer Mitzvos Gadol (Semag, Negative Commandments 227), who concludes that the only reason he can find to justify those who live in Egypt is that they did not traverse the route from Israel to Egypt, but rather came from other countries. The justification is also noted by the Ritva (Yoma 38a) and by Hagahos Maimonios (Melachim 5:7), citing Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (Yere’im 303).
The prohibition, based on this approach, applies only to somebody who journeys from Israel to Egypt, and not to living in Egypt. In fact, Rabbi Ishtori Haparchi writes in his Kaftor Vaferach (Chap. 5) that according to this approach only somebody who travels through the wilderness, as the Jewish People did on their journey from Egypt, will transgress the prohibition. Either way, somebody traveling from elsewhere, or somebody born in Egypt, would not be in transgression.
The Radvaz (Melachim 5:7) rejects this approach, explaining that although it squares with the wording of the Pasuk in Devarim, is does not fit the wording of the Pasuk in Shemos, which states the prohibition in terms of seeing the Egyptian people again.
The People or the Territory?
Another possibility raised by the Semag is that the prohibition is contingent on the original Egyptian people being resident in Egypt. Once the Egyptian population changed, either because of Sancheriv who muddled the world’s population, or for other reasons, the prohibition no longer exists.
This idea is also noted by the Pri Chadash, as cited in Shut Chaim Sha’al (no. 91). He notes that inhabitants of Egypt today are regular Arabs, and do not seem to have any connection with ancient Egypt, although some say that the Copts, a large Christian minority people living in Egypt, are descended from the ancient Egyptians.
However, the Semag himself rejects this idea based on the above Gemara (noting the transgression of Jews residing in Alexandria), and concludes that the prohibition is territorial, and unrelated to the inhabitants of Egypt. The Minchas Chinuch (500) also mentions those who maintain the prohibition depends on the populace and not on the territory itself. He notes that the Rambam and the Chinuch clearly do not agree with this opinion.
A National Prohibition
Another justification mentioned by some authorities is that the prohibition of living in Egypt is only in force when the Jewish people are settled in their own country. This idea is raised by the Ritva (Yoma 38a), who states that when the Jewish People are not upon their own land, it follows that “all of chutz la’aretz is one,” and the prohibition of living in Egypt does not apply. Today this reason might no longer apply.
A different idea is raised by Shut Sho’el Umeishiv (Tinyana, Vol. 4, no. 107), who suggests that the prohibition applies only to the nation as a whole, and not to individuals, who are permitted to live in Egypt if they wish (see also Shut Hisorerus Teshuva 1:218).
The Torah context of the prohibition, which refers to the king’s horses, renders this approach strained: It is unlikely that the breeding of sufficient horses will require the entire nation to descend to Egypt.
Traveling for Trade
The Rambam adds that although it is forbidden to live in Egypt, it is permitted to visit to do business or to pass through to another land. The source for this is the Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin, Chap. 10), which states, “You may not return there to live, but may return there to do business and trade or to conquer [another] land.”
The context of the Torah prohibition seems to raise a difficulty with this assertion: Surely bringing horses from Egypt also refers to a business deal, and not to living in Egypt? Rashi, indeed, comments on the Pasuk (Devarim 17:16) that horses are purchased in Egypt, and elsewhere (Sanhedrin 21b) elaborates that horses needed to be purchased from Egypt and sending agents to do so transgresses the prohibition. But if this is done for business reasons, surely there is no prohibition?
The Ramban, who is disturbed by this question, replies that the prohibition noted by the Pasuk refers to people who would have to actually live in Egypt in order to purchase horses. The Egyptians would not release horses to visiting buyers, and bringing horses back from Egypt required the king’s agents to actually settle and live there.
Shut Chaim Sha’al suggests an alternative answer, explaining that although it is permitted to descend to Egypt for business, this applies only to one’s own business, with which a person is intensely preoccupied, so that he will not be influenced by the surrounding culture. However, if a person is sent on somebody else’s business, including that of the king, this will not be a sufficient distraction to prevent influence by Egypt, and therefore the prohibition will apply.
Once there for business reasons, the Radvaz (Melachim 5:7) writes that a person does not transgress the full Torah prohibition if he chooses to stay there (he adds that although a lesser prohibition still applies, this was not heeded on account of the difficulty of finding a livelihood elsewhere).
The Rambam does not mention any justification for living in Egypt, and many have expressed wonder: In view of the prohibition, which the Rambam writes so sharply and unequivocally, how did the Rambam himself reside in Egypt?
Indeed, Rabbi Ishtori Haparchi writes (Kaftor Vaferach, chap. 5) that he heard from one of the Rambam’s descendants, whom he met in Egypt, that the Rambam would sign his letters, “Moshe ben Maimon, who transgresses three prohibitions each day.”
Yet, no manuscripts of the Rambam have been discovered that include this signature phrase, and the idea that the Rambam should have signed his letters in this manner, or even that he would consciously live in transgression of Torah prohibitions, seems very difficult—to the degree that Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yecheve Daas 3:81) writes that this is not to be believed, and “heaven forbid” that the Rambam should transgress Torah prohibitions.
Some of the approaches noted above were written, among other reasons, in justification of the Rambam’s practice—yet as noted, the absence of any justifying rationale from the Rambam himself remains a difficulty. The Radvaz (Melachim 5:7) and Kaftor Vaferach suggest that the Rambam was forced to live in Egypt because of his closeness with the Sultan (the Radvaz notes that he, too, lived in Egypt for many years, to teach Torah). The question, however, seems better than the answers that have been suggested.
The Torah prohibits us from returning to Egypt to live there. Several approaches have been suggested to justify the existence of a Jewish community for many centuries. These effectively limit the scope of the prohibition:
- Several authorities suggest that the transgression refers only to journeying to Egypt from Israel, and not to actually living in Egypt.
- Some write that the prohibition only applies when Israel is settled in their land, and not when they are in exile.
- A minority view posits that the prohibition depends on the presence of the ancient Egyptian people, though most authorities view the prohibition as territorial.
- Rabbeinu Bachya suggests that the prohibition is temporary for Biblical times, relating specifically to the immorality of ancient Egypt.
- It is permitted to visit Egypt for trade. Some write that once there for trade, remaining in Egypt does not violate the full Torah prohibition.
Just as it is permitted to visit Egypt for trade, it seems that it will also be permitted to visit Egypt for a vacation. As Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yecheve Da’as 3:81) notes from several authorities, the prohibition is reserved for somebody who is returning to reside in Egypt (permanently), and not for somebody just passing through (he therefore rules that it is certainly permitted for journalists to visit Egypt for their work).
However, it seems that due to severity of the prohibition, it is correct to avoid Egypt as a vacation destination, when other destinations are readily available. This is all the more true for somebody traveling from Israel to Egypt, which according to several authorities constitutes the main prohibition.