How long were the
Jews in Egypt? The Torah presents two versions
[Shemos 12:40-42] - (Context: Immediately preceding plague of 1st
Now the time that
the children of Israel dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty
years. It was at the end
of the four hundred and thirty years, and on that very
day all of Ad-noy's multitudes went out of the land of Egypt. a
night of watching for Ad-noy, to bring them out of the land of
[Bereishis 15:12 - 16] - (Context: Bris bein HaBesarim - covenant
between the parts)
As the sun was
setting, a deep sleep fell upon Avram; and behold, a dread of deep
darkness fell upon him.And He [Ad-noy] said to Avram: "Know for sure
that your descendants will be foreigners in a land that is not
theirs. They will enslave them and oppress them [for] four hundred
years.. You will join your fathers in peace; you will be
buried at a good old age. The fourth generation will return here,
for the sin of the Emorites will not be complete until then."
It's a good
ole-fashioned contradiction! Either Bnei Yisrael were in Egypt for
400 years or 430 years? Rashi quickly points out that neither
option is viable.
If you might
suggest that they were in Egypt 400 [years], [this could not be so]
because Kehos was of those who descended to Egypt. If you calculate
the [total] years of Kehos, Amram and the eighty years of Moshe when
[Bnei Yisrael] left Egypt, you will find only [a total of] 350. (And
you must still subtract from that all the years that Kehos lived
after Amram's birth and that Amram lived after Moshe's birth.)
Rashi implores us
to do the math and it becomes clear that Jewish stay in Egypt could
not have been close to 400 years - the number being [based on simple
textual analysis] in the 200+ range.
Now, we have two
problems: We must reconcile our 400/430 contradiction, and then
figure out to what these numbers refer.
deals with both questions. Herein his notion:
The 400 year
time clock begins from Yitzchak's birth.
Had they been worthy,
the Jews would have left after 400 years. It never happened. In
reality, their redemption was delayed 30 years due to personal
unworthiness. Ramban's point: Redemption is on our hands. Do
Ramban's math and you will realize that his conception has the Jews
in physical Egypt for 240 years.
classic answer, [based on Seder HaDoros] provides a fascinating
First the 400:
From Yitzchok's birth until Israel left Egypt was four hundred
... Yitzchok was 60 years old at Yaakov's birth and when Yaakov
descended to Egypt, he said, [he was] .... "one hundred and thirty
years," [making a total of 190]. They were in Egypt 210
[years]---... making a total of 400 years]. -
because [only] from the
time that Avraham had a child could there be a fulfillment [of the
prophecy]: "For your descendant will be a stranger,"
Now the 430:
.. and thirty
years passed from the covenant between the pieces until the birth of
dichotomy refers to potential vs. actual redemption;
For Rashi, the
two numbers plot the beginning of exile from different markers.
Four hundred years commence with Yitzchak's birth while 430
years start with Avraham's covenant, the bris bein
habesarim where Hashem informs Avraham of nationhood, exile, and
And for how long
were the Jews actually physically present in Egypt? Rashi's approach
yields the classic masoretic answer of 210 years, a famous
number that remarkably has no explicit textual mention and but a few
For Rashi, how long was the Egyptian exile a. 210 years b.
400 years or c. 430 years? The answer: d. all of the above.
We must probe why
it all matters. Instinctively, we understand the 210 number - for it
signifies physical exile, but why must the Torah present the 400/430
distinction. If the endpoint is the same, why start Exile's clock at
two different points?
Perhaps it hinges
on determining the why of exile. Hashem took us out of
Mitzrayim, but why did He put us there in the first place - a
fascinating issue probed by the Gemara:
R. Avahu said
in R. Eleazar's name: Why was our Father Abraham
punished and his
children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years?
1. Because he pressed scholars into his service, as it is
written, He armed his dedicated servants born in his own house. 2.
Shmuel said: Because he went too far in testing the attributes
[i.e., the promises] of the Lord, as it is written, [And he
said, Lord God,] whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? 3.
R. Yochanan said: Because he prevented men from entering beneath
the wings of the Shechina, as it is written, [And the king of
Sodom said it to Abraham,] Give me the persons, and take the goods
Here, we conceive
of exile here as punishment.
One might ask: If Avraham is punished why should the children
suffer? Maharal points out it is not punishment per se that is the
point; rather the goal is tikkun (rehabilitation). On some
level what is going on is that a micro-flaw in the Jewish Spiritual
DNA requires [major] gene therapy to avoid perpetual transmission to
later generations. We still need to understand out how Mitzrayim
is successful therapy, but the key notion here is exile as
punishment and tikkun.
There is however
another conception of exile. First, consider this midrash connected
with the Creation :
World was chaos - this is an allusion to the Babylonian Exile
And void this refers to the Medean exile with darkness -
this is an allusion to the Greek Exile; on the great Chasm -
this refers to the Roman Exile
One senses here
that Exile is part of the original Divine plan. Some even claim that
Hashem always intended for Adam and Chava to leave the Garden [why
did He create a whole world out there?] - even as Hashem did not
intend Adam/Chava to sin. It seems then, that Exile [from Gan Eden]
is not a punishment, it is a reality. But why?
pasuk [Devarim, 4:20]
But you, Ad-noy
took [for Himself] when He took you out of the iron crucible,
from Egypt, to be for Him a people-territory like this day. Rashi -
This is a vessel in which gold is refined.
And this midrash
R. Acha said
in the name of R. Yonatan: What is meant by the term "a nation from
within a nation"? Like someone who forcibly extricates the fetus
from the womb .. so too God removed Bnei Yisrael from Egypt;
we learn from this pain for
the released. And ... pain for the one who releases as it
says "and he took you out of the iron crucible" like the one who
handles the flame from the crucible without tongs or rags, so too
was it with God
Exile as a
crucible bespeaks purity and refinement; a painful yet necessary way
to extricate deeply wedged impurities. Painful for the one being
refined, [and remarkably, painful for the Refiner] - it the only way
to create gold. How is this accomplished? It's ahuge topic - but
this pithy statement will suffice: For the survivor, Exile compels
humility, simplicity, dependency upon God and forces one to cherish
his survival and essential identity.
thus emerge: Egyptian Exile as punishment and as crucible - it is a
clear tension in the sources.
Here we come to
our dichotomy. At the covenant, Avraham is told of an exile. It
smacks of punishment-tikkun.
That is the 430 number. The process is unfurled immediately. But
then Avraham is told of an exile that begins when Yitzchak will be
born. Stop! Did Yitzchak do anything wrong [other than the accident
of birth] - Why should he be subject to exile? Only one possible
notion can apply - Yitzchak, the first born Jew teaches us
that inherent in our journey to greatness is the crucible of galus
The one who
struggles with personal challenges (translation: all of us) might
wonder how to define a particular experience - is it a punishment
or a test? It is a real life grapple, for the galus mitzrayim
tension is alive in all of us!
A pragmatic thought:
Perhaps the blurring of the lines between punishment and test
is Hashem's way of teaching us:
My children: You will not always understand Me. Just
respond to the challenge and Be great. Yours is not to
reason why - yours is to transcend and fly.
 [Some background:
Levi gave birth to Kehos who lived 133 years (Shemos, 6, 18)
who gave birth to Amram who lived 137 years (ibid. 6, 20)
who gave birth to Moshe who 80 when he redeemed Bnei
 A second Ramban
approach starts the clock a bit earlier -from the famed
covenant between the parts (Bris Bein Habetarim). For Ramban,
Avraham was approximately eighty at the time (as it follows
chapter 12, where Avraham is 75 when he receives the command
of lech-lecha) Again, it could have been a four hundred year
span - but due to our lack of personal piety, we stay in
longer. According to this approach, the Jews are in Egypt
for a total of 220 years.
 In actuality, there
are 3 more sub-stages within the servitude. Stage 1:
Post-Yaakov's death [193 years] cf. Rashi Vayechi [Bereishi],
Post Levi's death [~133 years] and the period known as the
intense slavery - the koshi hashibud. [86 years].
Something to think about.
 Even as each
particular Talmudic answer requires great analysis
 Several other sources
indicate that galut mitzrayim starts as punishment cf.
Ramban, Bereishis, 12:10 , Abarbanel who connects it to the
sale of Yosef etc. as is indicated in Shabbos 10b
 A function of
 Ironically, at the
bris bein habesarim, Avraham is given the 400 number; it is
almost as if Hashem is comforting Avraham and telling him: It's
not your fault - this was always part of the plan .