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Egypt and York: Are We Forbidden to Live There?


Rabbi Avraham Rosenthal

Tevet 19 5779
Edited by Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

Question #1: The Rambam
How could the Rambam live in Egypt when the Torah forbids it?
Question #2: Cairo
Can you change planes in Cairo?
Question #3: York or New York?
Are you allowed to sleep in York? What about in New York?

The Jewish Nation has been wandering in golus for a long time. In some countries we fared better than in others. But, even in the best of places, we still have to remember that golus is golus. There is some discussion in halachic literature concerning some of the lands where we found ourselves during this long exile. Specifically, is one permitted to return to those countries where the Jews suffered unspeakable atrocities? We will open by studying a mitzvah in which our discussion appears to be germane: the prohibition of returning to Mitzrayim.

Three Pesukim in Chumash
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sukkah 5:1) states: "In three verses, the Jews have been warned not to return to the land of Mitzrayim:
1. ‘For as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them ever again’ (Shemos 14:13).
2. ‘For Hashem has said to you, "You shall no longer return on this road again"’ (Devorim 17:16).
3. ‘Hashem will return you to Egypt in ships, on the road of which I said to you, "You shall see it never again"’ (ibid. 28:68).

Opinion of the Rambam
The Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Sa’aseh #46) writes: "The prohibition of which we have been warned is that one should never live in the land of Mitzrayim. This is in order that we should not learn from their heresy and not practice their customs which are despised by the Torah. And this is what Hashem said, ‘You shall no longer return on this road again’ (Devorim 17:16). This mitzvah has been repeated three times." After citing the Yerushalmi that we quoted above, the Rambam concludes: "However, it is permissible to travel there for business or in order to cross to another country. This is explained in the Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 10:8): "For dwelling you are not allowed to return; however, you may return for merchandise, business and to conquer the land."

The View of Rabbeinu Bachya
On the other hand, Rabbeinu Bachya writes in Parshas Shoftim (17:16) that this mitzvah of not returning to Mitzrayim applied only to that generation, as the Mitzrim of that era were exceptionally wicked, and Hashem did not want the Bnei Yisroel to learn from them. He continues that we can prove that the Torah did not forbid this for all generations, since we find "that many kehilos live there from then until today. And if there was a mitzvah for all generations, the holy Jews would not be lenient. Indeed, had they done so in violation of the halacha, the Sages of every generation would have protested."

The Semag’s Questions
As we have seen, Rabbeinu Bachya used the fact that Jewish communities always existed in Mitzrayim as proof that there was no prohibition, except for that generation. The Semag (Lavin #227), on the other hand, takes this point and asks a question. He writes that there is a clear prohibition in the Torah against residing in Mitzrayim, and therefore he does not understand how the Jews live there! Additionally, he questions that the Rambam, himself, although he maintained that it is forbidden to live in Mitzrayim, did live there!
As an interesting aside, Rabbeinu Eshtori Haparchi, a Rishon who lived in the fifteenth century, relates in his sefer, Kaftor Vaferach (chapter #5), that he met a descendant of the Rambam, Rav Shmuel, in Mitzrayim. Rav Shmuel related that whenever the Rambam would sign a letter, he would conclude with the following words: "The writer, who, every day, transgresses three prohibitions." (Numerous Acharonim discuss whether the Rambam could have written such a self-incriminating statement. Their arguments are presented in the new, annotated editions of Kaftor Vaferach, chapter #5, footnote #201.)
It is important to note that the Radvaz (Melachim 5:7) writes that the Rambam was forced to remain in Mitzrayim, as he was the physician of the king and many of the ministers.

Room for Leniency
The Rishonim suggest three other possible reasons why it may be permissible to live in Mitzrayim:
1) Chazal (Tosefta Kiddushin 5:4) relate that an Egyptian ger tzedek by the name of Binyamin told Rabbi Akiva that he was married to an Egyptian woman who underwent geirus, and that he intended to have his future child marry a second-generation Egyptian giyores. This was so his grandchild would be allowed to marry a full-fledged Jewess. (This is based on the mitzvah that only a third-generation Egyptian ger can marry into Klal Yisroel [see Devorim 23:9].)
Rabbi Akiva replied to him, "Binyamin! You have made a mistake!" It is unnecessary for you to do this, "as Sancheiriv came and mixed up all the nations." In other words, Sancheiriv, the king of Assyria, took all the nations of the countries he conquered and exiled them to other locations. Therefore, the people living in Mitzrayim are no longer the original Egyptians.
Based on this, the Semag (Lavin #227) suggests that the Torah’s prohibition against returning to Mitzrayim is no longer in force. This approach assumes that the prohibition to live in Egypt is only when the country is inhabited predominantly by the descendants of those inhabitants who enslaved the Jews.
However, the Semag is not satisfied with this approach. He cites another Tosefta (Yadayim chapter #2) that quotes a view that disagrees with Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Yehoshua cites a prophecy from Yechezkel (29:13) that the Mitzrim will be sent into exile for only forty years, and afterwards, they will return to their country. Based on this, it would be forbidden for an Egyptian ger tzeddek to marry directly into Klal Yisroel, and it would similarly be forbidden to live in Mitzrayim.
2) Rabbeinu Eliezer of Metz (Sefer Yerei’im #309) suggests that the Torah’s prohibition to return to Mitzrayim is limited to one traveling there from Eretz Yisroel. However, it is permitted to go to Egypt from other lands. He bases this on the wording of the pasuk, "For Hashem has said to you, ‘You shall no longer return on this road again’" (Devorim 17:16). Since the Torah specifies "this road," referring to the road from Mitzrayim to Eretz Yisroel, the prohibition applies only if one travels specifically on that route. The Sefer Yerei’im uses this approach to explain why it was permissible for Daniel to travel from Bavel to Alexandria, a major Egyptian city, the answer being that he did not travel from Israel. According to this approach, it would not be permitted to travel directly from Israel to Egypt, but one could fly Turkish Air to Istanbul, and then change planes for a flight to Cairo.
3) After citing the two previous approaches, the Ritva (Yoma 38a) writes that the correct solution is that the Torah’s prohibition against living in Mitzrayim applies only when all the Jews are living in Eretz Yisroel. However, "nowadays, when it has been decreed upon us to be dispersed to the ends of the earth, everything outside the Land is considered to be the same, and the prohibition is only to leave Eretz Yisroel willingly."
Thus, in conclusion , the rishonim suggest a variety of reasons to explain why Jews lived in Egypt.

York, England
As long as we are on the topic of locations that may or may not have a cheirem, we must mention the city of York. During the years of 1189-90, the non-Jewish citizens of England were swept up into an anti-Semitic frenzy. During those years, dozens of Jews were mercilessly slain. Of course, religious incitement was not the only factor behind the slaying of the Jews. Many non-Jews, especially the noblemen, had borrowed money from Jews, and this was a convenient method of not paying their debts.
The climax to the slayings took place in March, 1190, when many members of the York community, including Rabbeinu Yom Tov bar Yitzchok – one of the Baalei Tosafos – took refuge in York Castle. After the mob set the castle on fire in order to force the Jews out, the Jews chose mass suicide over forced baptism.
There is an oral tradition that, as a result of this calamity, a cheirem was enacted forbidding Jews from sleeping in York. Although this writer did not find anything in the halachic literature concerning this cheirem, it is reported that when the Gateshead mashgiach, Rav Moshe Schwab, would pass through York on the train, he would make sure not to sleep until they were outside the city’s limits.
Let us hope that we will soon merit seeing the kibbutz galiyos, the ingathering of the exiles, and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, bimheirah biyameinu!

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site

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