The Midrash Rabbah on Shir Hashirim 2:7 begins: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem.” With what did He make them swear? Rabbi Eliezer says: He made them swear by heaven and earth.
The Maharal (Netzach Yisroel, Chapter 24) explains this in a manner similar to Moshe Rabbeinu’s warning to the Jewish people to keep the Torah (Devarim 30:19). Moshe said, “I call witness to you today heaven and earth: I have placed life and death before you, the blessing and the curse; and you shall choose life, so that you might live, you and your offspring.” Rashi explains: "The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Israel: Look at the heavens that I created to serve you. Have they ever changed their ways? Did the sun ever fail to rise from the east and light up the world? Look at the earth that I created to serve you. Did it ever change its ways? Did it ever fail to sprout when you planted it? Did it ever grow barley when you planted wheat? If the heavens and the earth, which are not rewarded or punished, never failed to do their jobs, then you who are promised reward or punishment should certainly keep the commandments of the Torah."
Here too, says the Maharal: Just as the heavens and the earth keep to the order of nature decreed by G-d, never changing, in the same way the Jewish people must keep the order of exile decreed by G-d. And just as the heavens and earth, if they were to change their nature and order, would bring havoc and destruction to the world, so too if the Jewish people leaves the exile decreed on them by G-d it would mean destruction for them, G-d forbid. Therefore they must not violate the decree.
After Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion that He made them swear by heaven and earth, the Midrash brings Rabbi Chanina’s opinion, that He made them swear by the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and Rabbi Yehuda’s opinion, that He made them swear by circumcision. Then comes the Rabbis’ opinion: He made them swear by the Generation of Martyrdom. “By the tzvaos” – they did My will (tzivyoni) in the world, and I did My will with them. “Or by the deer of the fields” – they pour out their blood for the sanctification of My name like the blood of the gazelle and the blood of the deer. This is the meaning of the verse, “For on Your account we were killed all day long; we were considered like sheep to be slaughtered” (Tehillim 44:23). Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said: If someone were to say to me, give your life for the sanctification of the name of the Holy One, blessed is He, I would give it, but only if they would kill me quickly. But in the Generation of Martyrdom I would not be able to withstand the trial. What did they do in the Generation of Martyrdom? They brought balls of iron, made them white-hot in the fire and placed them under their armpits and burned their souls out of them. And they brought shells of reeds and placed them under their nails and burned their souls out of them. This is what Dovid said: “To You, Hashem, I raise up my soul” (Tehillim 25:1). The written text says not “esa” (I raise up) but “asi” (I burn). (This is not true of our text of Tehillim, but the Midrash must have had a different text.)
The Maharal explains the progression of the Midrash as follows. Rabbi Chanina held that swearing by heaven and earth would not be enough, because the Jews in exile could argue that the motions of heaven and earth are natural, whereas the exile goes against a man’s nature. Perhaps in those circumstances they would not be obligated to keep to the terms of exile. Therefore, he says, Hashem made the Jews swear by the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, who withstood trials and did His will even when it was difficult for them.
Rabbi Yehuda holds that swearing by the Patriarchs would not be enough, because the Jews in exile could argue that the Patriarchs, despite all their trials, did not actually get killed, whereas in exile Jewish blood flowed like water. Perhaps in those circumstances they would not be obligated to keep to the terms of exile. Therefore, he says, Hashem made them swear by circumcision, which does involve loss of blood.
The Rabbis hold that swearing by circumcision would still not be enough, because the Jews in exile were subjected to more than just bloodshed – they were tortured and burned alive. Jews might argue that under such circumstances, the oath need not be kept. Therefore, they say, Hashem made them swear by a generation of martyrdom. Just as Jews kept the terms of exile even during the reign of Hadrian, when they were tortured and burned, so too they must keep it in all times.
At this point, the Maharal is bothered by a question: isn’t this circular reasoning? The Jews today must keep the oath, because the Jews during Hadrian's reign kept it. But what was forcing the Jews during Hadrian's reign themselves to keep it? He answers that indeed, they did not have to, but they did; and the oath is based not on their obligation to stay in exile under those conditions but on the fact that they did so.
Then he proposes a different explanation of the entire Midrash. The Midrash does not mean that Hashem made them swear by heaven and earth, the Patriarchs, circumcision, and the Generation of Martyrdom. It means that the oath applies even in heaven and earth, in the Patriarchs, in circumcision and in a Generation of Martyrdom. Even if the nations torture the Jews to death, they are not allowed to violate the oaths and leave exile, says the Maharal.
The Satmar Rav asks: How can the Maharal say that one must keep the oaths even in a case of death and torture? Don’t we hold that there are only three sins – idolatry, murder, and immorality - for which one must be killed rather than transgress? The Satmar Rav answers that violating the oaths is tantamount to heresy, because when the Jewish people rebel against the nations in exile or try to leave exile, they are in effect saying, “Our fate is in our own hands; Hashem does not run the world.” In other areas such as making a living or medicine we are permitted to make efforts and so those efforts do not amount to denial of Hashem; but in the area of exile and redemption human effort was explicitly forbidden by the oaths. Thus, a violation of the oaths is, in effect, a denial of Hashem’s control over the world. The Radbaz (4:92) rules that heresy has the same status as idolatry, for which one must be killed rather than transgress. Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 157:3 rules: "A Jew may not say he is a gentile to avoid being killed." The Tur explains the reason: "For by saying he is a gentile he is agreeing to their religion and thus denying the basic principles of Judaism." We see that although the Jew has no intention at all of denying a principle of Judaism, and he is only saying it out of fear for his life, yet since he would be causing the gentiles to think he is agreeing to their religion, he may not do it. Here too, even if someone has no intent of denying the coming of moshiach and replacing Hashem's redemption with a man-made substitute, yet since he appears to be doing just that, it is forbidden. (Vayoel Moshe 1:76).
Another answer to the Satmar Rav’s question is given by Rabbi Yehoshua Dovid Hartman in his footnotes on the Maharal. The Minchas Chinuch in mitzvah 425 argues that the obligation to fight the Canaanite nations applies even when the Jewish lives will be endangered by fulfilling this obligation, because it is only natural that in the course of a war, some people are killed on both sides, and the Torah’s laws are not predicated on miracles. So it must be that implicit in the command to wage war is the fact that one must give his life for this mitzvah. In a similar way, we can say that the prohibition to rebel against the nations or to leave exile on our own is, by its nature, a law that implies danger and even death, since the nature of life among the nations is that sometimes they kill Jews. When the Gemara says that there are only three sins for which one must be killed rather than transgress, it does not need to count laws such as fighting the Canaanites or the Three Oaths, which are by their very nature dangerous laws. It counts only the prohibitions on idolatry, murder and immorality, the keeping of which do not usually result in danger to life – only when the Jew is threatened and forced into doing it.
Based on the Maharal in Chiddushei Agados on Kesubos, we can offer another answer. He says there that the exile is an unnatural phenomenon, and therefore three oaths – three decrees – were necessary to maintain it in a constant state. Two decrees were placed upon the Jewish people that they should not lessen or negate the exile by rebelling or gathering themselves to Eretz Yisroel, and one decree was placed upon the nations that they not increase the exile. The Maharal concludes, “Understand these things well, for there is no doubt that any change in this matter would be a very, very dangerous thing.”
Hashem decreed that any human effort to end the exile will fail. This explains why the Maharal holds we must keep the oaths even when our lives are in danger in exile: because we know that any effort to leave exile on our own would result in even greater loss of life.
As to why the Maharal calls the oaths "decrees", we must note that there are many commentators who ask how the oaths had force on the Jewish people. We do not find that Shlomo Hamelech ever gathered the entire people and spoke the words of these oaths to them, so that they could reply “Amein”. And even if he did, an oath only applies to the people who took it, not to their descendents for all time. One cannot impose an oath on unborn people (Yoreh Deah 228:35). And certainly the gentile nations never accepted any oath, so how can the Gemara say an oath was imposed on them? It could be that the Maharal is answering this question by saying that the oaths are really decrees, that is, things Hashem causes to happen as part of a punishment. For example, Chazal sometimes say that Hashem “decreed” death on a certain person. Does that mean he is obligated to go and kill himself? No. It simply means that all his efforts to save himself will fail. Here too, in order to maintain the state of exile, Hashem decreed that the Jewish people would never be successful at gathering themselves or at rebelling against the nations. Any attempt to contravene the decree would meet with failure, as the Gemara concludes: “If you keep the oath, good; but if not, I will make your flesh ownerless like the gazelles and deer of the fields.”
Some Zionists claim that from the fact that Zionism succeeded, we have proof that the decree has ended. But the history of Zionism is not over, and no one knows what will happen in the end.
Furthermore, you cannot say that the intent of the decree was that the Jewish people should keep trying to violate it until they chance upon the right moment. Look at the severity of the consequences of failure! It is certainly foolish to attempt something that will almost certainly lead to the failure expressed by the terrifying words of the Gemara, and called by the Maharal “a very, very dangerous thing.” The intent of the oaths was obviously that we should not make any such attempt. We should simply wait for moshiach.
Furthermore, it is important to realize that these decrees are not simply part of nature; they are part of the Jewish belief system. The Maharal understood the oaths not as regular prohibitions, like the commandments not to work on Shabbos or eat pork, but as part of the prophecy that Hashem sent us into exile and will one day redeem us. The commandments of the Torah are given to us and we have free will to obey or disobey them. The very existence of a commandment is proof that free will exists in that area. Free will is the only area of the world in which Hashem removed His control and allowed us to choose; thus our choice, right or wrong, does not contradict the principle of faith that Hashem controls the world. For example, someone who succumbs to temptation and eats pork may still believe in Hashem and all the Thirteen Principles of Faith. Even stealing is not tantamount to denial of Hashem's providence.
But one who violates the oaths, while not violating a specific law, is denying Hashem's mastery over the world and the truth of His promises. The oaths are not commandments given over to our free will. They are Hashem's decree of exile and promise of redemption.
As an analogy, if someone goes through a red light, he will have to pay a fine, but it will not be too severe, because even as he was breaking the law, he recognized the authority of the government and its right to make laws; he simply broke the law for his own convenience. But if someone takes his king's army and, in the name of his country, wages war on another country, he will be punished severely, because his crime shows that he does not recognize the king as the only one authorized to make such a decision. He may protest before the court and say, "Where in the lawbooks is there any law against what I did? I thought it was permitted." They will reply, "Didn't you know there was a king running this country? How could you have thought that you had the right to do it yourself? That is the height of treason against the king."
Similarly, the oaths are not a technical law on the books; they are the ultimate statement of Jewish belief that Hashem alone decides when we are to be exiled and when we are to be redeemed. You cannot decide to violate them and then use your temporary success to justify your decision.
The Maharal in Be’er Hagolah (Be’er Hashvii, p. 147) responds to the accusation that Jews pray for the downfall of the gentiles in the Blessing Against Heretics. If this were true, he says, it would contradict this mishnah in Pirkei Avos as well as the words of Yirmiyahu. Our Sages exhorted us to accept the authority of the nations, during exile, and taught that we were commanded under oath not to rebel against them. This exhortation is so crucial, the Sages say, that the punishment for violating it is that our flesh will be made ownerless like the gazelles and deer of the field (Kesubos 111a). Without a doubt, the reason is that it is Hashem’s decree that we live under the government of the nations, and we must not annul this decree by force. We may only pray for the time when the Jewish kingdom will be restored, as we say in the later blessings of Shmoneh Esrei, “the sprout of David your servant” and “to Jerusalem Your city may You return in mercy.”