Parsha Halacha

Parshat Shoftim

Revisiting the Prohibition to Live in Egypt

History and Applications

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The mitzvah of appointing a king is discussed in The Torah portion of Shoftim. There the Torah enumerates three prohibitions that apply to a king:[1]

1)     He may not have too many horses.

2)     He may not have too many wives.

3)     He may not amass too much gold and silver.

The Alshich points out that these prohibitions relate to three negative character traits which can lead a person to stray from the service of G-d. These are arrogance, pleasure seeking, and dishonesty.

Akavya ben Mehalalel addressed these issues when he said,[2] “Take note of three things, and you will not come into the power of sin: Know from where you come, where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning.”

“From where do you come? From a putrid drop.” (This should help a person overcome arrogance.)

“Where are you going? To a place of dust, worm, and maggots.” (This should help a person overcome pleasure-seeking.)

“Before Whom are you destined to give an account and reckoning? Before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” (This should help a person overcome dishonesty.)

Having too many horses can lead to arrogance, having too many wives can lead to overindulging in pleasure-seeking, and trying to acquire gold and silver can lead to dishonest business practices.

The Prohibition to Live in Egypt

The reason given in the Torah as to why a king may not have too many horses is “so that he not make the people return to Egypt to add to his horses when G-d has told you ‘You should not go on that path again.’”[3]

The verse seems to indicate that the command not to return to Egypt was already given earlier (“And G-d has told you not to return in that path…”). Since we find no explicit command about this in earlier portions, the commentaries offer various explanations of this verse:

·        In the Torah portion of Beshalach

Ibn Ezra writes that G-d commanded the Jewish people not to return to Egypt when He told them through Moshe (before the splitting of the sea), “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which G-d will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you will never see again.” Although the simple meaning of the verse is that G-d was assuring the Jews that they will never see the (murderous) Egyptians again, in light of the verse in our Torah portion we can reinterpret that verse to also mean that G-d was commanding them not to (return to Egypt and not to) see the Egyptians again.[4] This interpretation is supported by the Jerusalem Talmud[5] (see below).

·        Oral Mitzvah

Alternatively, the Ibn Ezra writes, this command may have been communicated orally to the Jewish people but was not written down up until this point.

·        This Is It

The Tur Ha’Aruch writes that the verse means that G-d has commanded us, in this verse, not to return to Egypt.

Three Commands, Three Reasons and Three Tragedies

The Jerusalem Talmud[6] says that the Jewish people were commanded in three separate verses not to return to Egypt with a different reason given in each verse. Unfortunately, on three separate occasions many Jewish people returned to Egypt, each of these groups doing so in contravention of one of the reasons given in the verse. These ventures ended in tragedy as all of the groups were massacred, en masse.

Here are the details of these events as mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud and explained in the commentaries:[7]

1)     Don’t Go Back out of Fear

The first verse is the one which Moshe said before the splitting of the sea and indicated that the Jewish people should not go back to Egypt out of fear, as it says, “Have no fear… the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.”

The group that disregarded this verse were the Jews who survived the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash and the massacre of Gedaliah, son of Achikam. They feared that the Babylonians would accuse them of being complicit in the murder of Gedaliah, who had been installed as governor by the Babylonians, so they fled to Egypt.[8] The prophet Jeremiah warned them that the very sword that they feared and from which they thought they were escaping would come after them in Egypt. As he said,[9] “If you turn your faces toward Egypt, and go and sojourn there, the sword that you fear shall overtake you there, in the land of Egypt… and there you shall die.” Unfortunately, they didn’t listen and after going down to Egypt, the words of the prophet were fulfilled, and they were killed by the Egyptians.

2)     Don’t Go Back for Horses

The verse in this week’s Torah portion says that one should not go back to Egypt in order to buy horses. Extra horses represent military alliances and strength which can lead to a lack of faith in G-d.

In the days of Hoshe’a ben Alah, the last king of the 10 northern tribes, Hoshe’a stopped paying tribute to the Assyrian king Shalmenesar[10] and aligned himself with Egypt. The prophet Isaiah warned against this folly. And he said, “Woe! Those who go down to Egypt for help and rely upon horses! They have put their trust in abundance of chariots, in vast numbers of riders, and they have not turned to the Holy One of Israel, they have not sought the L-rd.” When the Assyrian king uncovered this alliance, he marched on to Hoshe’a’s kingdom, conquered it, and exiled the tribes to distant lands. [11] To this day, we do not know the location of these tribes or if they still exist at all.

3)     Don’t Go back for Wealth

The verse in the Torah portion of Ki Tavo indicates that we may not go back to Egypt in order to amass wealth, as it says,[12] “G-d will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you that you should not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy.” The fact that their punishment is to be enslaved indicates that the sin leading to that punishment involved the opposite – seeking wealth.

The group that transgressed this directive was the community of Alexandria which began during the era of the second Beit HaMikdash. The Jerusalem Talmud describes the synagogue of Alexandria as having 70 golden thrones inlayed with precious stones and pearls for each of the 70 elders of their Sanhedrin. These thrones were each worth 250,000 golden dinars, proof that this community was extremely wealthy. The reason they moved there may have been in order to amass this wealth. The community was wiped out by the Roman Emperor Trajan during a rebellion against Roman rule.

What About the Sages Who Lived There?

There were many righteous Jews who lived in Egypt over the centuries. The commentaries offer several explanations as to why it was permissible. Here are some of their explanations, in addition to the ones you can find here:[13]

·        Only For That Generation

Rabeinu Bachaye suggests that the prohibition was only for that generation, when the Egyptians were particularly wicked.

·        Not a Command at All

According to the Targum Yonatan, this verse is to be understood as a warning and not as a command. Here is how he translates the verse: “But he shall not ride on two (or more) horses as this may make him arrogant, and he will cease following the commands of the Torah. The Jewish people will then be exiled to Egypt, and G-d has told you not to go in this path (of not following the Torah) again.”

·        A Communal Prohibition

Some say[14] that the prohibition of living in Egypt only applies if a large community or tribe moves there but not if several individuals do so. A small group of people will not become entrenched in a place and will therefore not be greatly affected by the behavior of the inhabitants.

·        Only in the Ancient Egyptian Cities

Some say that the prohibition only applied in the ancient Egyptian cities where immorality was a way of life. Since these cities no longer exist, neither does the prohibition.[15]

·        A Mitzvah for the King

Some say[16] that the Torah is instructing the Jewish king not to bring the Jewish people back to Egypt, but if individual Jews wish to return there not at the behest of the king, it is permissible.

May we be blessed to live in holy places and be inspired by holy people!


[1] Deut, 17:16-17

[2] Avot 3:1

[3] Verse 17

[4] Ha’amek Davar

[5] Sukkah 5:1

[6] Ibid

[7] Yefeh Mareh, see the Artscroll Mesorah edition of the Jerusalem Talmud.

[8] Kings II 25:26

[9] Jeremiah 42:16

[10] According to Sanhedrin 94a, Shalmanesar was another name for Sancherev

[11] II Kings 4-6

[12] Deut. 28:68

[13] See also Likutei Sichot vol. 19 page 171 and on

[14] Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson (1808 – 1875 0f Lemberg/Lviv) in Respnsa Sho’el UMashiv, Mahadurah Tinyana 4:107

[15] Ritva on Yoma 38b

[16] Rabbi Chefetz ben Yatzliach, a Gaon who was a blind Rosh Yeshivah in the 10th Century

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

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