Vayigash –  Segregation

The Shulchan Aruch in the beginning of the laws about Pas Yisrael (Yoreh Deah 112:1) says that the rabbis forbade Jews from eating home-baked bread made by a non-Jew, even if all of the ingredients are kosher and made in clean pans, because of intermarriage. Even if a priest dedicates himself to celibacy, and therefore does not have children, a Jew may not eat his bread because the Rabbis are concerned that if we get too friendly with them (i.e. sharing food or even buying and selling home bake goods) then we might come to marry their daughters or their acquaintances’ daughters. There is even an argument in the Shulchan Aruch on this topic as to whether we can eat from commercial bakeries owned by non-Jews, assuming everything is kosher. Most people are lenient and do in fact eat from non-Jewish-owned commercial entities because there is a disconnect between the seller and buyer, so there are no concerns about intermarriage. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

 The source of this rabbinic decree might have come from this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash according to the Sforno. After Yoseph reveals himself to the brothers and sends for his father and the rest of the family to move to Egypt, “G-D spoke to Israel in night visions and He said, ‘Yaakov, Yaakov.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘I am the G-D, G-D of your father. Have no fear of descending to Egypt, for I shall establish you as a great nation there…’” (Breishis 46:2, 3). The Sforno on pasuk 3 explains Hashem message to Yaakov, “I, Who told your father to not go down to Egypt (Breishis 26:2), tell you… If you remain here your children will intermarry and become absorbed by the Canaanites, but in Egypt they will not be able to do so, because the Egyptians may not eat bread with the Hebrews (Breishis 43:32); therefore they will be a separate, distinct people, as our sages state, The pasuk ‘And he became there a nation’ (Devarim 26:5), teaches us that they were distinguished there.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Sforno gives a very fascinating explanation of why Hashem told Yaakov not to be afraid about going down to Egypt. His family would be better off there, because there would be no need to worry about the issue of intermarriage and assimilation since the Egyptians would not want to mingle with them as it says in last week’s Torah portion of Miketz, “They served him separately and them separately and the Egyptians who ate with him separately, for the Egyptians could not bear to eat food with the Hebrews, it being loathsome to the Egyptians.” The Sforno explains there that Yosef “sat in his own room so that his brothers should not sense that he was also a Hebrew and because the Egyptians may not eat bread with the Hebrews therefore, he did not eat with his brothers, nor did he or his brothers eat with the Egyptians.” As a result, when Yaakov and his family came down to Egypt there was no concern of intermarriage because the Egyptians stayed away from them, and the Jews became a distinguished nation, to that effect as the Sforno concluded, quoting what we read in the Pesach Haggada. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

However, in the Pesach Haggada there is a different interpretation by various commentaries as to what it means that ‘they were distinctive there.’ The Kol Bo says all the Jews lived in one place, Goshen (which Pharaoh had in fact given to their great great grandmother, Sarah Immeinu many years back). They also wore their own style of clothing so that they wouldn’t mingle with the Egyptians. The Ritva in fact says that they wore tzitzis, and the Abarbanel adds that they kept their Hebraic names, spoke Hebrew, and dressed in their usual garb. If that is what kept them apart from the Egyptians and stopped assimilation, why couldn’t they do the same just living in Canaan? Why did they have to move to Egypt (barring the decree of exile, which the Sforno ignores anyways)? They could have lived in a ghetto in Canaan, spoken only Hebrew, have only Jewish names, distinctive clothing and even wear tzitzis to remind them of Hashem’s mitzvos. Their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents instilled this in them the emphasis of no intermarriage, which Avraham and Yitzchak went out of their way to emphasize is a big no-no; so why did they have to go to Egypt to escape the threat of intermarriage? (Click here for Hebrew text.)

We see from here how grave of a threat and temptation intermarriage is, even for the grandchildren of our forefathers. So much so that Hashem had to reassure Yaakov that the best thing for him and his family would be to move to Egypt. What then is the solution?

We see from this Sforno that the best solution is not to just dress, speak, act, and live differently from the non-Jews, because they still might be attractive to us and find a way into our society. The best thing is segregation. When they feel they can’t be close to us, that keeps them away, and makes us distinguished and distinctive. From the fact that Hashem assured Yaakov that segregation was the best thing for him and his family, it must mean that that was not a reason for anything bad to happen to them in Egypt, i.e. that was not the cause for the Egyptian bondage. On the contrary, we saw with Yoseph that the Egyptians and Hebrews were able to get along quite fine, even if they could not eat together. The slavery was a Heavenly punishment that was discussed already previously in parashios; therefore we see that segregation, the attitude that Jews and non-Jews can’t mingle with each other, not that it is negative but the acknowledgement that we are different, might very well be the best way to stop the threat of intermarriage.

Good Shabbos and easy fast of Asara b’Teves,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder