Ask the rabbi: Wander no more

After the seminal historical tragedies that occurred in Egypt, Spain and Germany, may a Jew live in those countries?

tefillin 311 (photo credit: AP)
tefillin 311
(photo credit: AP)
When 30 percent of polled Israelis stated that they were rooting for Germany to win the World Cup before its semifinal match, some raised an eyebrow about how Jews could root for a country with its disgraced past. Yet similar things may be stated about much of the world, including Germany’s semifinal opponent, Spain, from which Jews were violently expelled in 1492. Sports fanfare aside, larger moral and legal questions remain regarding the propriety of Jews returning to these countries.
The Torah prohibits Jews from returning to live in Egypt. “[The king] shall not send the people back to Egypt... you shall never return by that way again” (Deuteronomy 17:16). This command reemphasizes the promise made to the Israelites that they shall never again see Egypt (Exodus 14:13, Deut.28:68). Egyptian Jewish communities, however, certainly existed in antiquity, including refugees from the First Temple’s destruction.
The Talmud, however, claims that the community of Alexandria, including its grandiose synagogue, was ultimately destroyed because the people violated this biblical command (Succa 51b).
Yet Jewish communities continued to thrive in medieval Egypt, boasting of prominent scholars like Maimonides and Rabbi David Ibn Zimra. One medieval writer claimed that Maimonides himself viewed this as a sin which could be exculpated only because he initially fled to Egypt and could not leave because he was a physician to the Egyptian elite (Kaftor Veferah 5).
Most authorities, however, justified Egyptian residency for various reasons. The Talmud issued a dispensation for Jews to live in Egypt on a temporary basis, including work purposes (Hilchot Melachim 5:8). Ibn Zimra himself claimed that Jews initially came temporarily to Egypt for livelihood, but were then forced to stay because they did not have feasible economic opportunities in other countries (Radbaz 5:7). Elsewhere he claimed that as long as Jews coveted to return to Israel, they did violate the prohibition (Shu’t Radbaz 4:73). Others claimed the prohibition only applied when Jews lived in Israel. Once exiled, the prohibition remained dormant (Ritva Yoma 38a).
A different approach focuses on the reason for this prohibition. Maimonides, followed by Nahmanides (Deut. 17:16), asserted that the Torah did not desire the Jews learning from the decadent ways of the Egyptians (Leviticus 18:3). Indeed, the Talmud permitted Jews to return as conquerors, whereby it would gain control over cultural norms (JT Sanhedrin 10:8). As such, some claimed that this prohibition was only temporary and did not apply in later generations (Rabbenu Bachya). One scholar alternatively claimed that since other nations had become equally degenerate, Egypt was no worse than other countries! (Pirhei Zion 110). Another approach contended that following the dispersal of nations by King Sennacherib of Assyria, ancient Egyptians no longer resided there (Issurei Bia 12:25).
This answer is problematic, however, since Alexandrian Jews were punished many centuries later. As such, many interpreters tied the prohibition to the territory itself (Shu’t Haim She’al 1:91). One popular explanation was offered by Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (Yereim 309). Taking the verse literally, he contended that Jews were prohibited from returning on the same route from Israel back to Egypt, but could move there from other countries.
AMAZINGLY, while there exists a widespread belief that a similar ban was issued regarding Spain following the 1492 expulsion, rabbis and historians alike have found no evidence to back this claim (Yehaveh Da’at 3:81). While a few European communities imposed social sanctions on members who visited Spain, this stemmed from the inability to live religious lives there. Many rabbis have further questioned who was authorized to offer such a ban, and noted that similar bans were not imposed on England and France after their expulsions (Seridei Esh 2:6).
Nonetheless, following this widespread oral tradition, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg advised against settling in Spain (Tzitz Eliezer 5:17). Rabbi Abraham I. Kook ruled similarly, although added that any prohibition could not be stricter than the ban regarding Egypt, which allowed temporary residency (Iggerot 2:632). He himself believed that the prohibition to return to Egypt only applied to individuals, but not to whole communities (Mishpat Kohen 145). Many asserted that any such ban would have ceased with the ending of the Spanish monarchy, and therefore supported the 1968 construction of a Madrid synagogue following the formal repeal of the expulsion.
Agreeing with the majority of scholars who believed that no ban existed, Rabbi Meshulam Roth argued that a similar prohibition could not be imposed on post-Holocaust Germany (Kol Mevaser 1:13). Firstly, no authority possessed such power, and more fundamentally, such a ban would be illegitimate because it was unfeasible for those who needed to dwell or visit there. Indeed, history has shown that for pragmatic reasons, Jews will return to lands in which they were previously persecuted.
The author, on-line editor of Tradition and its blog Text & Texture (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.