Parashat Shoftim

Never Return to Egypt

Resisting the temptation to return, geographically or psychologically, to the site of our bondage

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Similarly, in Deuteronomy 28:68, we find an ominous sanction amid a plethora of threats. As one of the consequences of not observing the mitzvot, Moses warns: "the Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you should not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves but none will buy." Again, the source of this warning is Moses and the situation is vastly different from the verse in our parashah. Whereas parashat Shoftim seems to imply a categorical prohibition on returning to and settling in Egypt, parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy: 28:68) implies that returning to Egypt will be a punishment for Israelite transgressions.

What then is the force of the legislation found in parashat Shoftim? How has it been understood in the past and how are we to understand it today? Essentially, there are two exegetical approaches to the prohibition against returning to Egypt--geographical and behavioral. Although it is the latter that has the greater and more substantive application for us as moderns, I want to explore the former as well through the eyes of Rambam (12th century, also known as Maimonides).

Despite the tenuous roots of the Torah's prohibition, Maimonides is quite stringent in his interpretation of the verse in our parashah. Writing in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim [Review of the Torah, Laws of Kings], Chapter 5, Laws 7-12, Maimonides states: "it is permitted to dwell anywhere in the world, except for the Land of Egypt. . . it is forbidden to settle there." Rambam cites the three scriptural verses explored earlier and then goes out of his way to single out one locale in particular, Alexandria, to which this prohibition applies.

Why single out one city in Egypt? Maimonides used such specific language because Jews of his time would have observed that Alexandria was a thriving center of the Jewish world, as it had been for centuries, and would have therefore concluded that Alexandria warranted an exception to the prohibition.

Dr. Raymond Scheindlin, a distinguished professor of medieval literature at JTS [The Jewish Theological Seminary], notes that the third century BCE witnessed the rapid growth of the Jewish community of Egypt, especially in the then-recently-founded city of Alexandria, which soon became a major center of Jewish life. Scheindlin explains that this community was "so Hellenized that they were regarded legally as Hellenes, that is, as belonging to the same social class as the Greek rulers, rather than to the social class of the subject Egyptian population. It was for the use of these Hellenized Egyptian Jews that the Torah was translated into Greek in this period" (Scheindlin, A Short History of the Jewish People, p. 35).

Given the prosperity of this diaspora community from the third century BCE through Maimonides' time (and even up to the early 20th century), it is not surprising that Maimonides felt compelled to single out Alexandria. It would follow then that Maimonides limited himself to a strict geographical understanding of the prohibition against living in Egypt.

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Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

A Wexner Fellow ordained in 1999 by the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz is the senior rabbinic fellow in JTS's KOLLOT: Voices of Learning program.