Pharaoh Way From Home
I seem to remember something in the Torah about Jews not being allowed to return to Egypt. It occurred to me that if this is true, how were Jewish communities living there for so many years, including great rabbis? Wasn’t Maimonides also from Egypt? Thanks for explaining this.
Your memory hasn’t failed you. The Torah prohibits returning to Egypt in three different verses: “You shall never see the Egyptians anymore” (Ex. 14:13); “You shall not return on that way anymore” (Deut. 17:16); “You shall not see Egypt again” (Deut. 25:65). The following excerpt from the Talmud is a poignant example of the severity of this prohibition:
Whoever has not seen the Double Colonnade of Alexandria in Egypt has not seen the glory of Israel. It was like a huge basilica that contained twice the number of men who went out from Egypt [2 times 600,000], and there were seventy-one golden armchairs for seventy-one Sages, and each chair was no less than twenty-one talents of gold. And a wooden pulpit was in the middle of the palace where the attendant of the congregation stood with a scarf in his hand, and when the time came in the prayer to respond "Amen," he raised the flag, [to enable those who couldn’t hear on account of the great crowd to see when to respond] and the whole people said "Amen." And they did not sit mixed; rather the goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths, coppersmiths and weavers all sat separately. And when a poor man went in, he recognized his fellow-tradesmen and went to them, and received work to support himself and his family. Said Abaye: And they were all killed by [Trajan]. Why were they so punished? Because they transgressed the passage, "You shall not return on that way [to Egypt] any more" (Succah 51b).
The Jews of Alexandria were punished despite their apparent commitment to mitzvot and charity, solely on account of being in Egypt. If this is the case, how did loyal Jews throughout the centuries, including leading rabbis, justify moving to and remaining in Egypt?
Regarding the verse, “You shall not see Egypt again”, our Sages explained, “to dwell there you may not return, but for the purpose of business or to conquer you may return” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10:7). Accordingly, all those Jews who initially moved to Egypt did so not with the intention of staying there permanently, but only temporarily for the purpose of making a living. Once they were successful, they should have left. But since at that point staying entailed only a minor infraction, logistic difficulties in leaving and lack of significantly greater economic opportunities elsewhere resulted in their staying (Radbaz).
Your mention of Maimonides may serve as a case in point. Rambam was not born in Egypt, but moved there later in life. Born in Cordova, Spain in 1135, he learned Torah from his father Rabbi Maimon who was in the chain of disciples of the great Rabbi Alfasi (the Rif). In 1148, his family fled the fanatic Berber Almohades, eventually reaching Fez, Morocco. There, as a result of helping the other persecuted Jews, his family was endangered and they fled to the Land of Israel. The dire living conditions they found there resulted in the family’s moving to Cairo. There he served as rabbi for the Jews of Egypt until his death; but as a result of his family’s loss of estate, he was forced to earn a living as a doctor, eventually becoming the Sultan’s court physician.
Rambam himself writes about the prohibition to settle permanently in Egypt, and implies that remaining after the initial permission to do business is not just a minor infraction but an outright transgression. If so, according to his opinion, how was he able to stay there? Radbaz explains, “He was forced to stay by the government, since he was the doctor of the king and the ministers. And I also settled there for a long time in order to learn Torah, to teach it, and to build a Yeshiva, which is permitted, and then I returned to Jerusalem.” Despite this explanation, and perhaps more to express his longing for the Land of Israel, Rambam purportedly signed his name, “Moshe ben Maimon, he who transgresses the prohibition ‘You shall not return on that way anymore’ ”.
- Rambam, Mishna Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:7-8; Hagahot Maimoniot 2, 3; Radbaz 7.
- The Babylonian Talmud (Succah 51b) says it was Alexander of Macedon (the Great) who killed the Jews of Alexandria. But the commentaries note that he lived in Greek times and actually encouraged Jewish settlement in Egypt. Abarbanel writes it refers to a different Alexander in Roman times. The Gr”a writes that it should say “Trocinus”, based on the same account brought in the Yerushalmi (Succah 5:1) referring to the massacre of the Jews in Alexandria under Trajan in 116 recorded by Eusebius.
- Other well-known rabbis who lived in Egypt were Rabbi Saadya Gaon (b. 882, Egypt) and Rabbi Ya’akov Beirav (b. Spain). Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi (Shita Mekubetzet) and the Arizal (b. Jerusalem) learned in the yeshiva established by Radbaz.
- Kaftor v’ferach (ch. 5, ‘v’Omer’) writes that Rabbi Shmuel, a descendant of Rambam, said he signed as mentioned above. However, Sede Chemed, vol. 3, maarechet yod, klal 46, doubts this.