“And G-d will bring you back to Egypt in ships, along the way that I promised you would never see again. And you will try to sell yourselves as slaves and maids, but no one will want to buy you.” (Devarim 28:68)
We Jews tend to identify our own heroes. The Torah does not encourage adoration of heroes. In fact, the Torah and NaCh consistently describe the greatness of our ancestors and also their failings. This inclusion of the failings of such great people as Moshe and King David indicates that the Torah does not encourage the elevation of human beings into near-deities. Yet, it is difficult to avoid the human tendency to seek out individuals that we can adore as perfect. However, the converse is also true. Human nature can also incite us to denigrate or fail to appreciate some of the great personalities in TaNaCh and Jewish history. We must be wary not to succumb to the urge to bring these special individuals down to our own level. In our study of the Torah, we inevitably encounter instances in which we cannot explain the basis for actions or behaviors that we encounter. We must avoid the urge to resolve these mysteries by attributing to the great personalities of TaNaCh and our history the failing that we recognize in ourselves.
Maimonides was one of the greatest of our scholars. He is renowned for his wisdom and righteousness. Yet, there seems to be one commandment that Maimonides openly violated. Maimonides lived for a portion of his life in Egypt. In Egypt, he combined his research and writing on Torah topics with the practice of medicine and rose to the position of court physician. However, we are commanded in the Torah to not return to Egypt. How is it possible that Maimonides apparently violated this commandment? It is easy to simply respond that no one is perfect and this was a failing. Alternatively, it is tempting to resort to farfetched explanations designed to preserve Maimonides’ status as an untainted hero. Yet, the best approach is to consider the issue carefully. Evaluate whether Maimonides did violate this commandment. Perhaps, we will discover that a careful analysis of the commandment reveals an explanation. If it does not, we should be willing to leave the issue as an unresolved question and avoid resorting to desperate explanations that lack any real credibility.
Let us begin our analysis with the above passage. The above passage is part of the admonishment that Moshe delivers urging the nation to be faithful to the Torah. He describes the punishments that we will experience if we abandon observance. One of the punishments is that Hashem will return us to Egypt. This is one of the three passages in the Torah that refers or alludes to a prohibition against living in Egypt.
Nachmanides offers an explanation for the prohibition. He explains that the people of Egypt are characterized by the Torah as unusually corrupt and degenerate. We cannot allow ourselves to be influenced by this corrupt and degenerate culture. Therefore, we are prohibited from living in Egypt.
Based on Nachmanides’ comments, Rabbaynu Yom Tov ben Avraham Isbili – Ritva – concludes that this commandment does not apply in our times. Ritva explains that the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib conquered most of the Middle East and displaced and relocated the various nations he overpowered. Among his conquests was the land of Egypt. Its population was exiled and replaced by refugees that Sennacherib relocated from other conquests. Ritva argues that it is not the Torah’s intention to prohibit us from living in the land of Egypt – a geographical location. The Torah forbids us to live among the Egyptians. After Sennacherib exiled the Egyptians and replaced the native population of Egypt with other nations, the prohibition against living in Egypt became meaningless. The population that the Torah forbids us to live among no longer exists as a distinct nation.
Although it has been suggested that according to Ritva, Maimonides did not violate any commandment by living in Egypt, it is unlikely that Maimonides agreed with or relied upon Ritva’s position. This conclusion is based on a comparison of two relevant rulings of Maimonides. Maimonides explains that we are commanded to destroy the seven nations that inhabited the land of Israel before the conquest of Bnai Yisrael. However, Maimonides explains that this commandment has no practical application in our times because these nations have completely assimilated and are no longer extant. Rabbaynu David ibn Zimri – Radvaz – explains that this is a result of the activities of Sennacherib. However, Maimonides in his discussion of the prohibition against living in Egypt does not indicate that the commandment is inapplicable in our times. Therefore, it seems that he does not agree that the activities of Sennacherib impacted the prohibition against living in Egypt.
This raises a subsidiary question. In discussing the reason for the prohibition against living in Egypt, Maimonides offers an explanation that is very similar to Nachmanides’. It seems that if this explanation of accepted, Ritva’s ruling is not only reasonable, it is compelling. How can Maimonides imply that the prohibition against living in Egypt applies in our times if the nation of Egypt no longer occupies its homeland and does not even exist as a unique people? There is a hint to Maimonides’ answer to this question in his wording of the prohibition. Maimonides explains that if the land of Egypt would be conquered by Bnai Yisrael, it would be permitted to live there. However, as long as the land is ruled by non-Jews, it is prohibited to live there because “its behaviors are more corrupt than other lands.” It is noteworthy that Maimonides associates these unacceptable behaviors to the land not to the Egyptians. In fact, he states that it is prohibited to live there as long as the land is controlled by non-Jews – any non-Jews. He does not seem to relate the prohibition to the nation of Egyptians. This suggests that according to Maimonides, the prohibition is not against intermingling with the nation of Egyptians. Instead, according to Maimonides, the Torah has established an association with the land of Egypt and perversity. We are forbidden to live in the land of Egypt because we are prohibited to identify ourselves with a land associated with perversity and degeneracy. Therefore although Maimonides acknowledges the activities of Sennacherib and their effect, he does not regard this factor as relevant to the prohibition against living in Egypt.
It might be suggested that Maimondes lived in Egypt based upon another ruling. Some Sages argue that the prohibition against living in Egypt only applies at times during which we are in possession of the land of Israel. However, at a time that we are in exile the prohibition does not apply. However, there are a number of reasons to reject this ruling as a basis for Maimonides’ activities. First, let us begin with a question. According to these authorities, what is the reason for the prohibition? Do they agree with the explanations offered by Nachmandies and Maimonides? It seems unlikely that they agree. If we accept the explanations offered by Nachmanides and Maimonides, then the prohibition is based on the requirement to avoid association with corrupt influences or to even identify with a land associated with perversity. It is difficult to imagine that a prohibition based on these considerations would be impacted by whether we are in possession of the land of Israel or in exile. So, according to these authorities – who limit the prohibition to those times in which we occupy the land of Israel – what is the basis or foundation of the prohibition?
It seems that according to these authorities, we are not prohibited from living in Egypt. Instead, we are prohibited from rejecting the land of Israel and the significance of our redemption from Egypt. The ultimate rejection of the land of Israel and our redemption is to return to the land from which we were redeemed. However, these authorities argue that living in Egypt can only regarded as a rejection of our redemption and the land of Israel when we are in possession of the land. However when Hashem exiles us from the land of Israel, we are free to settle wherever we please.
Second, Maimonides does not say that it is prohibited to return to Egypt or to forsake the land of Israel to live in the land of Egypt. Instead, he states that it is prohibited to live in the land of Egypt. This indicates that he would not distinguish between periods during which we are in possession of the land of Israel and times during which we are in exile.
Radvaz suggests that we must carefully consider Maimonides’ specific language in describing the prohibition against living in Egypt. He notes that according to Maimonides, it is not prohibited to travel to Egypt or even to live there temporarily. He rules that it is prohibited to settle there – to establish permanent residency in Egypt. This is an interesting distinction but it makes perfect sense if we consider Maimonides’ explanation of the prohibition. According to Maimonides, the prohibition is not against intermingling with the nation of Egyptians. The prohibition is against forming an association with a land identified with corrupt and perverse values and behaviors. This association is not formed by merely traveling to the land of Egypt or spending time there. The association is established by creating a relationship with the land – by settling there.
Radvaz observation suggests a very obvious explanation for Maimonides’ behavior. Maimonides did not travel to Egypt with the intent to settle there. Therefore, Maimonides did not violate any commandment by fleeing to Egypt in order to avoid persecution. However, once he was appointed physician to the ruler, it became impossible for him to leave. It seems likely that this could not be characterized as settling in Egypt. “Settling” implies a willful and self-determined decision. This did not take place in Maimonides’ case. Even if this characterization of settling is challenged, it seems that Maimonides was not permitted to leave and would have been at great risk if he had attempted to abandon his position at court. So, although this explanation is not eloquent or remarkably scholarly, it does seem to provide a simple explanation for Maimonides’ behavior. Rabbaynu Yom Tov ben Avraham Isbili (Ritva), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Yoma 38a.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:4.  Rabbaynu David ibn Zimra (Radvaz) Commentary of Radvaz on Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:4.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:7-8.  Rav Matis Blum, Torah LaDa’at, volume 2, p 455.  Rabbaynu David ibn Zimra (Radvaz) Commentary of Radvaz on Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:7-84.