The prohibition to live in Egypt is mentioned three times in the Torah. It is first found in Exodus.1 Before the splitting of the sea, Moses said to the people, "Don't be afraid! Stand firm and see G‑d's salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity.'"

This is understood by the commentaries2 as a prohibition against returning to Egypt, and not merely as a prophecy that we will not see the might of the Egyptians again.

The second time we find the prohibition is in Deuteronomy. One of the prohibitions upon a Jewish king is that he may not acquire too many horses,3 "so that he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, for G‑d said to you, 'You shall not return that way any more.'"

Towards the end of Deuteronomy, the Torah details a litany of terrible curses that will befall the Jews should they not fulfill the commandments properly. The last verse of these curses reads4: "And G‑d will bring you back to Egypt in ships, through the way about which I had said to you, 'you will never see it again...'"

The Reasons

Various reasons are given for this prohibition. Some of them are:

  1. The people of Egypt were very immoral, as the verse states5: "Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do," and going to live there might influence the Jews in a negative way.6
  2. The return of the Jews to Egypt would be an affront to G‑d, who specifically saved us from slavery there and removed us from there.7
  3. The Arizal explains that wherever a Jew lives, he or she needs to extract the holiness that is "hidden" in that place and elevate it. When the Jews left Egypt, however, they emptied it of all holiness. The Talmud8 states "they made it like a [bird] trap that has no grain, and like the depths [of the sea] which have no fish." Therefore, it is considered pointless for a Jew to live in Egypt, as he cannot accomplish any elevation of holiness there.9

The Consequences

The Jerusalem Talmud10 tells us that the Jews ignored these verses three times, and each time there were tragic consequences.

The first was when the Jews of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, under the leadership of King Hosea ben Elah, appealed to Egypt for aid against the Assyrians. This was against the warnings of the prophet Isaiah:11 "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for aid, and who rely on horses and trust in chariots which are many, and on riders who are very strong, and they did not rely on the Holy One of Israel, and G‑d they did not seek… Now the Egyptians are men and not G‑d, and their horses are flesh and not spirit, and G‑d shall turn His hand, and the helper shall stumble and the helped one shall fall, and together all of them shall perish."

Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, found out that the Jews had appealed to Egypt and, taking it as a sign of rebellion, invaded the Northern Kingdom, conquering the land and exiling its ten tribes to distant lands. The ten tribes were never heard from again. For more on this, see End of the Kingdom of Israel.

The second time was after the destruction of the First Temple, when Jeremiah warned the Jews not to go down to Egypt. Unfortunately, the Jews, led by Yochanan ben Kare'ach, did not listen, and they went to Egypt, where they met tragedy. In the words of Jeremiah (42:15-16): "And now, therefore, hearken to the word of G‑d, O remnant of Judah, so said the Lord of Hosts, the G‑d of Israel: If you direct your faces to come to Egypt and you come to dwell there, the sword that you fear will overtake you there in the land of Egypt, and the famine that you are worried about shall overtake you there in Egypt, and there you shall die..." (See here for more on this sad episode.)

And the third time, after the destruction of the Second Temple, many Jews sought haven in Egypt. Fifty years later, the Roman Emperor Trajan destroyed that entire community.

Understanding the Historic Jewish Presence in Egypt

Nevertheless, despite these verses and the tragedies detailed above, we find that many G‑d-fearing Jewish communities were established in Egypt, and many leaders of the Jewish people lived there. To name some of them: Maimonides, The Radvaz (Rabbi Dovid ben Zimra, 1479-1589), Rabbi Betzalel Ashekenazi (author of the Shitah Mekubetezet, and teacher of the Arizal), and the Arizal (in his youth).

Several explanations have been given for this. Some of them are:

  1. The prohibition applies only to returning to Egypt from Israel (thus reversing the path of the Exodus—see the second reason for the prohibition, above).12
  2. Along these lines, some say that it's only forbidden to return to Egypt via the same route of 42 encampments that the Jews followed in the desert.13
  3. Some say that the prohibition only applied when the people of Egypt were particularly immoral, but is not a prohibition for all times.14
  4. In a similar vein, some say that since most of the native Egyptians were exiled by Sennacherib and the Assyrians, the prohibition no longer applies.15
  5. Some explain that the prohibition only applied when the Jews lived in the Holy land, and not after the destruction of the Temples and the ensuing exiles.16
  6. The Radvaz17 says that the actual Torah prohibition would be violated only if a person moved to Egypt with the intention of living there. But a person may move there for temporary asylum or while he does some business. Once a person is there, if he decides to stay, it is still forbidden but not as severe, as it involves no physical action. Therefore, if the economic situation is difficult in other lands or if the Jews in other lands are being persecuted, it is permissible for those already in Egypt to stay.

Despite all of this, there is a tradition18 that Maimonides signed his letters saying that he is one who "transgresses three commandments every single day" (the three verses mentioned above). Nevertheless, it seems that this was simply humility on his part, and that it was not actually forbidden, as we have explained.

The Details

  • The entire land of Egypt is included in the prohibition.19
  • One may go there for business or while on the way to another land. The prohibition is against settling there.20
  • Similarly, one may go to Egypt for sightseeing or on any other temporary trip.21
  • If the land of Egypt were to be conquered by a Jewish king under the guidance of a Sanhedrin, the prohibition would no longer apply. This is because at that point it would start being considered part of the Land of Israel.22