Abaye concludes the Beraisa's description by telling us of the tragic end of
the Alexandrian Jewish community. The entire community was wiped out by a
Roman monarch (according to the Vilna Ga'on and the Yerushalmi, Trajan;
according to Rav Yakov Emden, the Abarbanel in his introduction to Melachim,
and perhaps Rashi here DH Stav (..."Alexandrus"), the Roman monarch
Alexander Latirus; according to the Gemara in Gitin 57b, the emperor Hadrian
-- it does not seem plausible that Alexander the Macedon killed them, as the
text of our Gemara reads, since he lived much earlier, see ARUCH LA'NER).
The Gemara explains that the people of Alexandria were punished because they
transgressed the prohibition, "You shall not return on this path [to Egypt]
anymore" (Devarim 17:16).
The Mechilta (Shemos 14:13) expands on this Isur and says that in three
different places the Torah warns us not to return to Egypt. The first verse
is the one quoted above, "You shall not return..." (Devarim 17:16). The
second verse is, "... for as you have seen Egypt today, you shall never see
them again" (Shemos 14:13). The third verse appears in the admonition in
Parshas Ki Savo, "Hashem will return you to Egypt in boats, on the path of
which I said to you, 'You shall not see it ever again'" (Devarim 28:68). The
RAMBAM (Hilchos Melachim 5:7 and Sefer ha'Mitzvos, Lo Ta'aseh 46) quotes the
Mechilta and adds that the Isur to live in Egypt applies to an area of 400
by 400 Parsa'os in the north-eastern corner of the African continent, which
includes the Sudan, Ethiopia and some of the Sahara Desert.
It seems from the Gemara, the Mechilta and the ruling of the Rambam that it
is forbidden for a Jew to return to Egypt. However, we know of many
prominent Jewish communities in Egypt, up until recent times (see the book,
"Tuv Mitzrayim," by Rabbi Yosef Nefussi). Many Gedolim, such as the Rambam
himself and the Radvaz, one of the foremost commentators on Mishneh Torah,
lived there as well. The KAFTOR VA'FERACH (ch. 5) writes that he met one of
the Rambam's grandsons in Egypt who told him that his grandfather would sign
his letters, "Moshe ben Maimon, who transgresses three prohibitions each
Why did these Gedolei Torah live in Egypt even after reading of the fate of
the Alexandria Jewish community?
(a) The SEMAG (Lo Ta'aseh 227) writes that the prohibition against living in
Egypt applies only to living among the Egyptians who were there at the time
that the Torah was given. The Torah did not want the Jews to learn from that
nation's evil ways, as the Rambam (ibid.) and Sefer ha'Chinuch (Mitzvah
#500) write. After Sancheriv jumbled the nations of the world it is
permitted to live in Egypt, because the people there are not the Egyptians
of yore. This also seems to be the opinion of Rabeinu Bachye (Devarim
However, the Semag himself rejects this suggestion because of our Sugya, in
which it is evident that the people of Alexandria, who settled there *after*
Sancheriv mixed up the nations, were still punished.
The RITVA (Yoma 38a) modifies the Semag's explanation in order to answer
this question. He says that the prohibition applies to living in the cities
that *were founded by* the original Egyptians. (Alexandria, although
developed and renamed by Alexander, was originally an ancient Egyptian
city.) This is presumably because the customs of the cities follow those of
the original inhabitants. Now that those cities are no longer settled and
different cities are settled instead, it is not forbidden to live in Egypt
in the new cities.
(b) The SEFER YERE'IM (Siman 309) writes that the Torah forbids only going
*from Eretz Yisrael to Egypt*, as is implied by the verse quoted by our
Gemara. The logic behind this might be that returning to Egypt from Eretz
Yisrael shows a lack of gratitude to Hashem. If one goes from Eretz Yisrael
to Egypt after Hashem took us out from there, it is as if one is saying that
he does not need nor appreciate what Hashem gave him.
The RITVA and the KAFTOR VA'FERACH add that it is only forbidden to go to
Egypt from Eretz Yisrael through the desert, following the path the Jews
took out of Egypt. However, the BRIS MOSHE on the Semag points out that the
verse in Devarim (ibid.) seems to contradict this, for it says that Hashem
will send the Jews "by boats to Egypt, in the way that He said not to return
there," which implies that it is forbidden to go from Eretz Yisrael to Egypt
even by boat.
The RADVAZ asks that even if the Isur is to go from Eretz Yisrael to Egypt
by any route, that is supported only by the verse which our Gemara quotes.
The other two verses, though, mention only that it is forbidden to go to
Egypt, but make no mention of *how*, or from where, one gets there.
(c) The RITVA (ibid.) concludes that the Isur only applies when the Jewish
people are an independent nation, settled in their homeland, and they go to
live in Egypt. When the Jews are in a state of Galus, all parts of the
Diaspora are the same and one may live in Egypt just like he may live in any
other country. The only Isur that applies then is not to leave Eretz Yisrael
if he is living there, no matter where he leaves to. This might be Rashi's
intention in our Sugya when he writes (DH Stav) that the people of
Alexandria settled there at the time of the Churban of the first Beis
ha'Mikdash. That is, the problem was that they went directly from the Jewish
kingdom in Eretz Yisrael to Egypt. Had they not reached Alexandria directly
from Eretz Yisrael, it would have been Mutar for them to go to Egypt.
The logic behind this is presumably that going to Egypt when Eretz Yisrael
is occupied by Jews shows a lack of Emunah in Hashem. The Jews should live
in Eretz Yisrael and trust in Hashem to protect them, rather than going to
neighboring Egypt for protection. After they are sent into Galus, though,
and they need to find a place to live, they may live wherever they want.
(d) The RADVAZ (Hilchos Melachim 5:7) writes that the Isur is to *go* to
Egypt, not to live there. Once a person is already in Egypt, having arrived
there in a permitted fashion (such as for business, which the Yerushalmi
(Sanhedrin 10:9) permits), then if he decides to live there, he transgresses
no Isur d'Oraisa (but only an Isur d'Rabanan). Since it is difficult to
travel and to find a livelihood once a person is settled, the Rabanan were
lenient and did not require him to leave if he has already settled, until
the time comes that he is able to leave easily.
(e) However, the RAMBAM and the SEFER HA'CHINUCH seem to preclude any of
these explanations. They seem to rule that the Isur applies today
unconditionally, regardless of where a person is coming from or what path he
takes to get there, and they write that *living* there is Asur and not
merely going there.
Why, then, did the Rambam live in Egypt? The RADVAZ and the KAFTOR VA'FERACH
write that perhaps he had no choice, since he was the physician of the
Sultan, and it was not possible for him to leave.
What the Radvaz might mean by this is that it is permitted to go to Egypt
for business or any other temporary purpose, as long as one intends to leave
when he can. It is even permitted to settle there for an extended period,
since he plans to leave. The Rambam always had plans to leave; to remind
himself of this he adopted the practice of signing his letters as "sinner of
three sins" so long as he did not have concrete plans for when he would
leave. This is consistent with what the Radvaz states (in Hilchos Melachim,
and in Teshuvos 4:1145) in a personal vein that he himself lived in Egypt
for many years, where he founded a Yeshivah and taught Torah until he
eventually left and came to Eretz Yisrael. Such a thing, he says, is
certainly permitted, since he did not settle there for the sake of living in
Egypt, but in order to teach Torah to those who were already there, and he
planned to leave when the opportunity arose.