Is it Permissable for a Jew Today to Live in Egypt?

        March 2013    
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May a Jew live in Egypt?

By Meir Loewenberg

When we sit at the Seder, we celebrate our redemption from Egyptian slavery. The Haggadah tells us that everyone must look at himself as if he himself had departed from Egypt. And if the Almighty had not liberated us from Egypt we and our children and our grandchildren would still be slaves to Pharaoh. But the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt! In the Torah the exodus-story ends with the Lord telling us, You shall not return that way any more. (Deut 17:16). A simple reading of the text suggests that Jews are prohibited from returning to Egypt.

Prohibition to live in Egypt

Actually, the Mechilta (Exodus 14:13) lists three different Torah verses that warn against returning to Egypt. The first verse is the one already cited. The second verse is ... for as you have seen Egypt today, you shall never see them again (Exodus 14:13). The third verse states, And the Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships, through the way about which I had said to you, You will never see it again. (Deuteronomy 28:68).

Maimonides formulated this prohibition of livinf in Egypt in a way that seems to leave no way of ignoring it. He said (Mishneh Torah, H. Melachim 5.7):

It is permitted to dwell anywhere in the entire world with the exception of the land of Egypt. Its territory includes a square of 400 parsah by 400 parsah from the Mediterranean Sea proceeding westward, bordering on the land of Kush and the desert. [This area includes not only today's Egypt but the entire north-eastern corner of the African continent, including Sudan, Ethiopia, and part of the Sahara Desert.] It is forbidden to dwell in this entire territory.. Alexandria is included in this prohibition.

Almost every Sage followed Maimonides in accepting the prohibition as a d'oraita (Torah-origin) prohibition. For example, the Sefer Hachinuch lists it as Commandment 500. A contemporary halachic authority, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the former Sefardic chief rabbi of Israel (who himself lived in Egypt for two years in 1947-1949), stated that there is no doubt that the prohibition of living in Egypt is of Torah-origin. Yet Maimonides himself lived the last 38 years of his life in Egypt!

Nor was Maimonides the only Torah scholar who made his residence in Egypt. As a matter of fact, there is a long history of Jewish settlements in Egypt, from earliest times until the 1950's when former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser persecuted the Egyptian Jews who numbered more than eighty thousand at that time and ultimately expelled them from Egypt.

A brief history of Egyptian Jewry

The prophet Isaiah, who lived in the 8th century BCE, several hundred years before the destruction of the First Temple, acknowledged (or prophetically predicted) the presence of a Jewish community in Egypt and prophesied its return to Jerusalem in the days of the Messiah (27:13):

And it shall come to pass on that day, that a great shofar shall be sounded, . and those exiled in the land of Egypt shall come and they shall prostrate themselves before the Lord on the holy mount in Jerusalem.

About a century after Isaiah, in 650 BCE, there was a community of Jewish soldiers who were stationed in Elephantine as part of a frontier garrison, protecting the Egyptian Achaemenid Empire. This Jewish community in Egypt existed fir more than two hundred years. The Elephantine papyri, a caches of legal documents and letters found in Elephantine, come from the years 495 to 399 BCE and document the lives of Jewish residents of this community during those years.

After the destruction of the Judean Kingdom in 597 BCE a large number of Jews took refuge in Egypt and settled there. (2 Kings 25.22-24, Jeremiah 40.6-8, 44.1).

During the Ptolemaic era (332-30 BCE) a many Jewish immigrants settled in Egypt, especially in Alexandria. Josephus wrote that after Ptelomy I captured Judea he forced more than 120,000 Jewish captives to settle in Egypt. Alexandrian Jews date their history to 332BCE, the date when their city was founded by Alexander the Great. Jews made up a large part of the city's population and were assigned two of the city's five districts. The Alexandrian Jewish community was virtually wiped out in 68 CE during a major pogrom.

The Talmudic rabbis (TB Sukka 51b) described the beauties of the Alexandria synagogue. It was so vast that is could hold "twice the number of people that went forth from Egypt (= 1,200,000)". However, they also note that the community was wiped out "because they transgressed the verse: Ye shall henceforth return no more that way (Deut. XVII, 16) and they did return."

In the second century BCE Onias IV, the son of Shimon Ha-Tzadik, built a temple in Alexandria (or Leontopolis) that is known as the Temple of Onias. The Talmud (TB Menachos 109b), after bringing two versions of how this temple came to be built, notes that it was built as a replica of the Beit ha'Mikdash in Jerusalem and that sacrifices were regularly offered in it. This temple continued to exist after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but was closed in 73 CE by order of Roman Emperor Vespasian. According to Josephus this temple was in existence for 343 years.

There are few records of the fate of Egyptian Jews during the next thousand years although there is little doubt that there was a large and vibrant Jewish community in Egypt during all of these years. The Cairo Geniza, which covers documents from approximately 870 CE to as late as 1880, gives ample evidence of this.

Rabbi Sa'adyah Ga'on, one of the last and most famous Gaonim, was born in Egypt in 882. He spent his decisive years in Babylon and died there in 942.

We know that Yehudah Halevi visited Alexandria in 1141. Benjamin of Tudela who visited Egypt about 1160 gave an account of the Jewish communities he found there. He reported that there were 2,000 Jews in Cairo and 3,000 in Alexandria.

In 1166 Maimonides settled in Fostat (near Cairo); he became the physician for the families of Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt, and of his vizier al-Qadi al-Fadil|?a?i al-Fa?il al-Baisami, Saladin's successors. It was here that he wrote his most important books, Mishne Torah (1180) and More Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed). He died in Fustat on December 12, 1204 (20th of Tevet 4965) but was later buried in Tiberias.

Rabbi Ishtori Haparchi (1280-1366), wrote in his encyclopedic work Kaftor v'Ferah, (ch. 5) that he met one of the Rambam's grandsons in Egypt who told him that his grandfather would sign his letters, "Moshe ben Maimon, who transgresses three prohibitions each day" - this is a reference to the three Torah verses that prohibit settlement in Egypt, as quoted above. However, no manuscripts have been discovered that include this signature phrase.

Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn (Abi) Zimra, known as the Radbaz (1479-1573), though born in Spain was chief rabbi of Egypt for forty years before moving to Jerusalem and Safed at the age of 90.

After the expulsion from Spain in 1498, many Jews made their way to Egypt. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the prospects for a tremendous growth of trade many more Jews from all over Europe were attracted to Egypt so that by 1898 there were 25,200 Jews living in Egypt among a total population of 9,734,405.

An invitation to return

As noted above, Jewish life in Egypt came to a sudden end during the 1950s when as a result of Nasser's persecutions almost all Jews left Egypt, about half to Israel and the others to various countries in Europe and the Americas.

A few weeks ago Dr. Essam al-Erian, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official and [until recently] an advisor to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi called in a TV interview on the Egyptian Jews who had immigrated to Israel to return home. "I hope that, God willing, the Jews will return to their homeland . I am calling on them and telling them: Egypt is your land. Why should you go on living under an oppressive and racist regime, a regime of occupation?"

His colleagues in the Egyptian political establishment lashed out against him and he was forced to resign his official position. At the same time, Israelis of Egyptian origin greeted this invitation with skepticism. No one expects former Egyptian Jews to return. Nevertheless, one should ask what the halacha says about Jews living once again in Egypt. Why did Jews, among them great sages, live in Egypt in the past if the Torah prohibits this? What is the halachic explanation for the large and vibrant Jewish communities that were in Egypt until the 1950s?

Rabbi Obadiah Yosef noted in the same t'shuva cited earlier (Yechaveh Da'at 3.82)

that even though the prohibition of living in Egypt is of Biblical origin, at all times rabbis were forced to find ways to permit this because so many Jews do live in Egypt. There are a number of different ways in which this question was approached, including the following:

  1. The prohibition to live in Egypt applied only in biblical times, so that nowadays such a prohibition does not exist (Rabenu Bechai on Deuteronomy 17:16, S'mag Lo Ta'aseh 227).
  2. Today's Egyptians are no longer the Egyptians among whom we are not allowed to live; but Minchat Chinuch (500) holds that the prohibition is a geographical one, regardless of who lives there today.
  3. The prohibition applies only to those Jews who depart from Eretz Israel to Egypt; this means that Jews who come to Egypt from any other country are allowed to settle there (Sefer Yere'im #309). The Ritva and the Kaftorv'Ferach add that this journey is forbidden only if it goes through the desert, along the path that the Jews traveled when they left Egypt.
  4. Since the Biblical prohibition is phrased in the plural, it does not apply to an individual; what is prohibited is a mass immigration, but individual settlement is allowed.
  5. Since Maimonides and other restrict the prohibition to "settling," coming to Egypt for any other purpose, such as trade or study, is permissible - and once there changing one's status from temporary to permanent resident is allowed. Thus Radvaz (Hilchos Melachim 5:7) wrote that a person who is already in Egypt, having arrived there in a permitted way such as for business, does not transgress the Biblical prohibition if he chooses to stay there. The rabbis were lenient and did not apply their prohibition once a person is already settled in the place because it is difficult to find a livelihood elsewhere
  6. The prohibition of living in Egypt is in force only when the Jewish people are settled in their own nation. When Eretz Israel is ruled by another people, it is not different than any other part of the world since Jews are in a state of Galut. In this case Jews may live in Egypt just as in any other country (Ritva on TB Yoma 38a). This reason, of course, no longer applies in our days.

Note however that none of these explanations are consistent with the words of the Rambam cited earlier. He ruled that the prohibition applies today unconditionally, regardless of where a person comes from or what path he takes to get to Egypt. They write that living there is forbidden, and not merely the act of going there. If so, why did the Rambam not follow his own decision and live in Egypt?


from the March 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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