Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Israel and the Nations
To dedicate this lesson

Egypt - Ancient And Modern - And The Jews


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

The Jewish people and their historical fate always seem to be somehow intertwined with our southern neighbor Egypt. This is not an op-ed piece about the current volatile situation in Egypt but it is rather a short review of the role that Egypt has played in the Jewish story over many millennia. Our father Abraham and our mother Sarah fled to Egypt to avoid a hunger in the Land of Israel. Sarah is taken to the harem of the Pharaoh but is miraculously saved by Divine intervention and Abraham leaves Egypt laden with wealth and honor. Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers and is carried down to Egypt. He miraculously again rises from the pit of the dungeon to become the viceroy of Egypt. During the famine years he develops Egypt into the major economic force of the ancient world. The Jewish family of Jacob, at that time only seventy strong, arrives in Egypt and settles in the land of Goshen. There they prosper and multiply greatly for 130 years before being enslaved by a new Egyptian Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. After eighty years of slavery, the Jews are redeemed from Egyptian bondage by God and through Moses and the Egyptian army is drowned at Yam Suf. The Jews eventually settle in their Land of Israel and throughout First Temple times maintained an ambivalent relationship of alternating periods of peace, war, friendship and wariness with their large and powerful southern neighbor.

During the latter century of the existence of the First Temple the kingdom of Judah maintained an alliance with Egypt as a protection against the aggressions of its northern neighbors, Assyria and then Babylonia. But Egypt proved to be a broken reed as far as the security of the Jewish kingdom was concerned. It did not come to the aid of Jerusalem when Nebuchadnezzar attacked the kingdom and eventually sacked Jerusalem, burned the Temple and exiled the Jews from their homeland. Egypt itself also suffered defeat at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. The prophet Jeremiah’s message was consistent: Do not ever depend upon Egypt. But true prophets are often made to be ignored. In Second Temple times there was a large Jewish community living in Egypt, mainly in Alexandria. The community was overly proud and wealthy. It even housed a Temple that competed with the Temple in Jerusalem. The Ptolemaic Empire which Egypt represented eventually succumbed to Roman rule. After the destruction of the Second Temple the Alexandrian community took on even greater importance. But it was also the scene of fierce rebellions against Rome and later pitched battles with the Greek Christians occurred. After the fourth century the community declined in numbers and influence. With the advent of Islam a Jewish community again arose especially in Fostadt (Old Cairo). Maimonides lived in Fostadt in the twelfth century and was the physician to the famous emperor Saladin. Great rabbinic scholars such as Rabbi David ben Zimra (Radvaz) headed the Jewish community. Jewish Egypt was a hotbed of Sabbatean false messianism and also of Karaite influences. The Jews there maintained a low profile, were treated as dhimmis (inferior citizens) but nevertheless were able to maintain their traditional way of life.

With the arrival of England and France and their colonial and imperialist outlook and the construction of the Suez Canal in the nineteenth century Egypt became a Western colony with puppet rulers. In 1948 it led the charge of Arab armies determined to crush the nascent Jewish state in its infancy. Abdel Gamel Nasser came to power in 1952 and with Soviet backing attempted to destroy Israel by terrorism and war. He was defeated in the 1956 Sinai campaign and even more decisively so in the 1967 Six Day war. However, Egypt continued its aggression against Israel in terrorist activities and a war of attrition on the banks of the Suez Canal. In 1973, Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor launched the Yom Kippur War which ended yet again in Egyptian military defeat. But in 1979 Sadat finally broke with war and entered into negotiations with Israel which resulted in the Camp David peace agreement. Sadat was rewarded for his peaceful vision by being assassinated by his own palace guard. Hosni Mubarak succeeded Sadat and has maintained a very cold peace with Israel for the past thirty years. Now Mubarak appears to be done and again Israel looks anxiously south at Egypt and what direction it will take now. The words of the prophet Jeremiah echo still in our ears. As far as Egypt is concerned nothing is certain. It still remains a broken but dangerous reed.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
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