Shofetim – Immigration, Portugal, and Prohibitions

I finally feel like the proverbial Jew. For the first time in my life I am an immigrant!

All joking aside, Jews are accustomed to relocating, whether forced to do so, or when the promise of a better life can be found elsewhere. In fact, a Jew is permitted to settle anywhere, with one exception. The Torah prohibits settlement in Egypt. In reference to a Jewish king it is written, “Only, he may not acquire many horses for himself, so that he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, for the Lord said to you, “You shall not return that way any more (Debarim 17:16).”

Indeed, Rambam codifies this ruling: “It is permitted to dwell anywhere in the entire world with the exception of the land of Egypt (Mishne Torah, Melahim 5:7).” It is a perplexing ruling as Maimonides himself lived in Egypt! Born in Cordoba in 1135, his family fled through Fez to Acco, and eventually settled in Cairo, where he lived out the rest of his life. Rambam was a great rabbi, so how could he transgress his own ruling?

This is not the only instance of prohibited settlement. In the seventeenth century the leaders of all of the major Western Sephardic synagogues prohibited Jews from even visiting the Iberian Peninsula. Talmud Torah in Amsterdam first did so in 1644 and that prohibition was then copied by Livorno in 1655, Hamburg in 1657, and even London in 1677. Transgressors were required to admit their guilt in public, and were often even prevented from receiving synagogue honors for a time.

Here is the language of the London Shaar Hashamayim Haskama (33) translated into English. “A circumcised Jew who goes to the lands of Spain and Portugal and later returns to Judaism from there will not be accepted [in the community] until he mounts the podium and asks publicly for forgiveness, from the blessed Lord and from the congregation, for the scandal he has committed, and he must obligate himself to repent according to what is imposed upon him.”

The logic behind the ban was several fold. Whilst in Spain or Portugal a Jew would need to live outwardly as a Catholic. As a result he would be forced to break Jewish law. Furthermore, if caught by the Inquisition and charged with Judaizing, the accused would endanger himself, and anyone else with whom he associated.

Even today, many Jews feel uncomfortable with visiting, let alone living in places like Germany and Poland, where Jews suffered so very recently. In truth, if Jews were to ban settlement in any place where we collectively suffered, there would be few remaining places to live. So what are we to make of these Biblical and communal bans? This question is particularly relevant today, with the recent Spanish and Portuguese ‘Laws of Return.’

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

Rabbenu Bachye ben Asher (fourteenth century Saragossa), student of Ramban, believed that the Egyptian ban was only temporary. He believed it only lasted as long as Egypt carried on in its early wayward ways. However, in ‘modern’ times, he did not think that the ban still persisted. In that same vein, it seems that whenever the leadership structure of a place changes, we need no longer consider the location in question to be the same as before. Therefore, after the Assyrians relocated ancient populations, or after the Inquisitions were uprooted (1830s), the prohibitions are no longer in effect.

While the previously banned settlements are no longer prohibited, it is always worthwhile to bear in mind another teaching of the Talmud and Rambam. The law states that once a Jew settles in Israel, he or she is not permitted to live elsewhere. There are, however, three exceptions. If moving to the Diaspora will help one to find a spouse, increase their knowledge of Torah, or make a livelihood, then it is permitted. In other words, a Jew’s primary objective is to build a Jewish home and community. While a Jew is permitted to live anywhere, it is crucial to make sure that this value is always our priority, and that we always put ourselves in a place where we can achieve this goal. It is my belief that a rejuvenated jewish community can take shape once again in the City of London, at Bevis Marks Synagogue.

Bevis Marks Synagogue, London

Bevis Marks Synagogue, London

For Further Study

Kaplan, Yosef, “Amsterdam, the Forbidden Lands and the Dynamics of the Sephardi Diaspora,” in The Dutch Intersection: The Jews and the Netherlands in Modern History, ed. Yosef Kaplan (Leiden 2008).


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