Shiur #13: 19 November 1977 “No more war, no more bloodshed” Sadat’s Visit to Jerusalem and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty Part II
The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt raises halakhic questions that have to do with the Torah’s ambivalence concerning the Egyptians. On the one hand, the Torah teaches us:
You shall not despise an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land.
However, on the other hand, it prohibits Jews from living in Egypt.
The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for God has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.”
Does this issur apply in our days? Following the Yom Kippur War and the peace agreement with Egypt, Rav Yehuda Gershuni, a prominent talmid chakham, discussed this question and its relevancy in times of war as well in times of peace.
Rav Ovadya Yosef was asked whether reporters covering the peace talks were permitted to travel down to Egypt. Rav Ovadya himself had lived in Egypt and served as a dayan there.
In modern times, our question serves also as an important precedent for questions regarding dwelling in Spain after the expulsion and even visiting Germany after the Holocaust.
Prohibition to Live in Egypt
Our rabbis teach us:
On three occasions, the Torah warns against returning to Egypt, yet the Jewish people violated this decree and each time were severely punished.
Firstly, on the shores of Yam Suf, Moshe says to the Jewish people, "Don't be afraid; stand firm and see God's salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity."
Secondly, we have the prohibition upon the Jewish monarch — he “must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for God has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’”
Finally, when the Torah teaches us about potential curses that might occur to the Jewish people, it states: "And God will bring you back to Egypt in ships, through the way about which I have said to you, 'You will never see it again.’”
As a result, many Poskim understand that there is a prohibition of returning to Egypt.
The Rambam’s claim is accepted by many:
It is permitted to dwell anywhere in the entire world except for the land of Egypt.
However, we find that throughout the centuries, Jewish communities were established in Egypt, and many prominent rabbis, including the Rambam, Radbaz and Rav Ovadya, lived there.
As a result, this historical fact leads some to dismiss these pesukim as biblical prohibitions, and instead see them as temporary or conditional laws.
Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340, Spain) writes that since the Egyptians were known and famed to be immoral people, the Jews at the time were warned to distance themselves, but the establishment of communities in Egypt proves that the prohibition is temporary.
Other rabbis, who accept the prohibition as the Rambam does, are very troubled by this question and suggest several explanations, which end up limiting the prohibition. Many of the halakhic limitations are connected to the reasons for this halakha.
Rav Eliezer of Metz (1115-1175) understands that the issur is limited to traveling from Israel to Egypt as this would be a direct insult to God who took us out of Egypt and brought us to Israel.
Rav Moshe ben Yaakov of Coucy, France (1200-1260) claims that the prohibition emerges from the immoral behavior of the ancient Egyptians. However, the Mishna (Yadayim 4:4) states: “Sancheiriv, king of Assyria, has already arisen and mixed up all of the nations.” The ancient Egyptian natives have been replaced by others, so the prohibition should be lifted.
As mentioned before, Rav David ben Shelomo ibn Abi Zimra (Radbaz, 1479-1573) lived in Egypt. In his commentary on the Rambam, he discusses our problem and quotes the Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:8 , which permits temporary return to Egypt for business or other non-residential purposes. This opinion is mentioned by the Rambam himself.
He thus explains that many Jews arrived in Egypt with the intention to stay there temporally and ended up remaining there. His conclusion is that the actual prohibition would be violated only if a person moved to Egypt with the intention of living there.
Based on this opinion, Rav Ovadya argues that reporters are permitted travelling to Egypt, as they have no intention of settling there.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook has an original explanation. His understanding combines both elements of our prohibition: the land and the people. Firstly, he quotes the Rambam himself:
It appears to me that if a king of Israel would conquer the land of Egypt with the approval of the court, it would be permissible to settle there. The prohibition against returning was only given to individuals or to dwell there while it is under the rule of the non-Jews, for their behavior is more depraved than that of the peoples of other lands, as can be inferred from Vayikra 18:3: “Do not follow the ways of Egypt…”
Rav Kook mentions that one can derive two chiddushim from this halakha:
- When the people of Israel conquer the land of Egypt, the kedusha of Eretz Yisrael enters the land, thus affecting the tuma (moral impurity) of Egypt. This change to the land has the power to lift the prohibition.
- The prohibition to live in Egypt applies only to individuals; however when entire communities move down there, it is permitted to live in Egypt. The rationale is based on the concern that the immoral behavior of the people of Egypt would have a negative effect on the Jewish people. This obviously is not true when entire communities reside there.
This of course can justify the practice of the Rambam and all Jewish communities who lived in Egypt. Rav Gershuni seems to suggest that the occupation of Egyptian territory by the Israeli army during the war might accordingly lift the prohibition.
Rav Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli (1260s–1320s) argued that the prohibition applies only at times when the Mikdash is standing and Jews live in Israel. Rav Eliezer Waldenberg suggest that accordingly, since the establishment of the State of Israel, the prohibition might have resurfaced.
Rav Yehuda Gershuni question this idea as well. He questions whether the Ritva’s argument is based on the people of Israel dwelling in Israel, even under the rule of others, or if it is based solely on Jewish sovereignty over their land.
To conclude, it seems that visiting Egypt today is permitted if one intends to visit. Settling there today would be prohibited due to the establishment of the State of Israel and the fact that the largest Jewish population in the world is in the Land of Israel.
Spain and Germany
As mentioned above, our prohibition serves as an important source for discussing new prohibitions against living in countries that have persecuted Jews. May we use our prohibition against Egypt as a precedent for creating similar decrees in modern times?
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook was asked if it is permitted in our times to travel to Spain for business, and he responded by comparing this question to the prohibition against returning to Egypt:
Concerning the issue of living in Spain, I have not yet found recorded that there was a cherem or vow made concerning this, but it is probably not more stringent than settlement in Egypt, which is not forbidden unless one plans to live there permanently and not for the purpose of commerce with the intention of returning (from whence one came).
Marc Shapiro explores the source of this “well-known prohibition” and concludes that there is no known source prohibiting dwelling in Spain.
Rav Meshulam Rath (1875-1962) a dayan in Jerusalem, was asked if following the Holocaust, a new decree should be made prohibiting Jews to live in or even visit Germany. In his answer, he argues against this idea, using our prohibition as an example of a similar decree that is very difficult to follow:
The prohibition to live in Egypt, which is a Torah prohibition, has had many difficulties being accepted by the public, and the rabbis have been forced to seek a dispensation to justify the presence of the communities there. This decree (upon Germany) is even more severe than the Torah’s, because in Egypt the prohibition is only to settle permanently, but to visit is permitted. What you are asking is to prohibit even visiting! This is undoubtedly something that the public cannot withstand and will cause an obstacle and a violation of the Torah's honor.
 Devarim 23:8.
 Ibid. 17:16.
 Kol Tzofayikh, pp. 439-445.
 Yechaveh Da’at 3:81.
 Yerushalmi Sukka 5:1 and Mekhilta Parashat Beshalach.
 Shemot 14:13.
 Devarim 17:16.
 Devarim 28:68.
 Rambam, Hilkhot Melakhim 5:6.
 Rav Ishtori (Spain and Israel, 1280-1355) in Kaftor Va-ferach, Chapter 5, reports that the Rambam signed his correspondence as “the person who daily violates three prohibitions.” Many rabbis challenge this statement, as many doubt its authenticity.
 Rabbeinu Bachya, Devarim 17:16.
 See Rav Moshe Taragin’s article on the connection between the reasons of this halakha and the halakha itself at https://etzion.org.il/en/shiur-18-returning-egypt.
 Sefer Yere’im 309.
 Semag, Negative 237.
 He justified the Rambam’s presence by suggesting that he was forced to remain there, as he was the king’s personal doctor. He then explains that he (the Radbaz) was justified in settling there since he built a yeshiva and taught Torah.
 Hilkhot Melakhim 5:8.
 Mishpat Kohen 145.
 Ritva, Yoma 38a.
 Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, 14:87.
 “The Cherem on Spain: History and Halakha,” Sepharad 49:2 (1989). Shapiro writes that based on Rav Kook’s heter for communities to live in Egypt, he would also permit communities to reside in Spain. See ibid. fn. 25.
 Responsa Kol Mevaser, 1:13.