Bo: Clocking the Exile

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Countdown Clock
21 Jan 2010

How long were the Jews in Egypt? The Torah presents two versions:

Version 1 [Shemos 12:40-42]

The habitation of the B’nei Yisrael living in Egypt lasted 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. This was a night of vigil for Ad-noy, to bring them out of the land of Egypt.

Version 2 [Bereishis 15:12 – 16]

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.”

Ostensibly, it seems that there are two possibilities: Either Bnei Yisrael were in Egypt for a total of 400 years or for 430 years ? A good ole-fashioned contradiction! Rashi is quick to point out however, that neither choice is correct.

[Some background: Levi gave birth to Kehat who lived 133 years (Shemot, 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 Yisrael.]

If you might suggest that they were in Egypt 400 [years], [this could not be so] because Kehat 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 Kehat lived after Amram’s birth and that Amram lived after Moshe’s birth.).

In other words, do the math and it is clear that Jews could not have possibly been in Egypt for anywhere close to 400 years. A simple textual analysis will yield a number in the 200+ range. Now, we have two problems: We must reconcile the 400/430 contradiction, and now we must figure what these numbers refer to in the first place.

Ramban deals with both questions. His basic approach: The 400 year time clock begins Yitzchak’s birth. Had the Jews been worthy, they would have left after 400 years. In fact, they left after 430 years; their redemption delayed due to personal unworthiness. Ramban’s point: Redemption is on our hands. Do the math [and we will a bit later] and you will realize that according to this conception, the Jews were in Egypt a total of 240 years.1 For Ramban, the 400 number never happened – a theoretical number of what could have been.

In contrast, it is Rashi’s classic answer, [based on Seder HaDoros] that we shall focus upon.

First the 400:

[The time] from Yitzchok’s birth until Israel left Egypt was four hundred years. [How is this so? Yitzchok was 60 years old at Yaakov’s birth and when Yaakov descended to Egypt, he said, “The years of my temporary residence are one hundred and thirty years,” making a total of 190. They were in Egypt 210 [years]— the numerical value of {Hebrew Ref} , 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 when the decree of “between the pieces” was decreed until the birth of Yitzchok.

In other words the 400/430 dichotomy does not refer to theoretical-potential redemption vs. actual redemption; rather it plots the beginning of exile from two different markers. Four hundred years commence with Yitzchak’s birth while 430 years start with Abrahamitic covenant known as the bris bein habesarim wherein Hashem informs Avraham of nationhood, exile, redemption and ultimate redemption.

And for how long were the Jews actually physically in Egypt? Rashi’s approach yields the classic masoretic answer of 210 years, a most famous number that remarkably has no explicit mention and but a few midrashic hints.

Thus, one who is asked how long was the Egyptian exile and given the choice of a. 210 years b. 400 years c. 430 years – the answer would have to be d. all of the above2.

Instinctively, we get the 210 number – for it signifies physical exile, but we must certainly probe the 400/430 distinction. If the endpoint is the same, of what significance is there in starting the exile clock at two different times?

An answer might lie in determining the why of exile. Yes, God took us out of Mitzrayim, but why did He put us there? Consider the following Talmudic source:

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. Samuel 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 Shechinah, as it is written, [And the king of Sodom said it to Abraham,] Give me the persons, and take the goods to yourself.

Each notion requires deep analysis – but the common denominator here is that exile begins as punishment. One might ask: If Avraham is punished why should the children suffer? Maharal points out that punishment qua punishment is not the point. The goal is tikkun (rehabilitation) Thus, a micro-flaw in the spiritual DNA of the Jewish genome requires major gene therapy to avoid perpetual transmission to later generations. We still need to figure out how Mitzrayim is successful therapy, but the notion of exile as punishment and tikkun is key here. 3

There is however another idea lurking here. First consider these two midrashim:

  1. The 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
  2. “A dread! Great darkness fell upon him (15:12)., ‘”A dread’ – this is the exile of Bavel; ‘darkness’ – this is the galus of Persia; ‘great’ — this is the exile of Greece; ‘fell upon him’ — this is the exile of Rome, a wicked nation.’” [Bereishis Rabbah (44:17]

Do these not somehow indicate that exile was always part of the Divine plan? Indeed, some claim that Hashem always intended for Adam and Chava to leave the Garden; indeed – why did He create a whole world out there. And just as obviously Hashem did not intend Adam/Chava to sin. It seems then that Exile as part of the plan, even when not punishment-based, is a reality. But why?

Consider this 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 how do we know 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 a process of purity and refinement. It is a painful but necessary process to extricate deeply wedged dross. Painful for the refinee, and remarkably – it is also painful for the Refiner. And yet it creates gold. Indeed, our nationhood is conceived with the Avos/Imahos but gestates in the womb of Egypt and finally constricted to the max before it must leave AQAP (as quickly as possible).

Two conceptions: Galut Mitzrayim as punishment. Galut Mitzrayim as crucible. A clear tension in the sources.

Here we come to our dichotomy. At the covenant, Avraham is told of an exile. Certainly, it smacks of some notion of punishment-tikkun. That is the 430 number. The process is unfurled immediately. But then Avraham is told that only when Yitzchak shall be born will the exile begin. Stop! Did Yitzchak do anything wrong [other than the accident of birth]? Why should he be subject to exile? Only one notion can possibly apply. Yitzchak, the first born Jew teaches us that endemic to our destiny of greatness is the crucible of galus4.

The one who struggles with personal challenges (translations: all of us) might wonder how to define a particular experience – is it a punishment or test? That galus mitzrayim source tension is alive and well in all of us. It is a real life grapple. Who has not heard the question of Why/Is Hashem punishing me – if only He can tell me.

Self-reflection is certainly the call of our lives; and yet perhaps the blurring of those lines is Hashem’s way of teaching us –

My children – just respond to the challenge. All I want is for you to be great. Yours is not to reason why – yours is to transcend and fly.


1 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.

2 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.

3 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

4 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 .

5 Ralbag is a bit ambiguous, hence our guarded terminology. He says that Moshe had kotzer ruach from being isolated – he thus did not properly formulate the message to Bnei Yisrae; with regard to avodah kasha, his comments are ambiguous – he speaks about Pharaoh’s increasing the workload – but it is unclear if that is why Bnei Yisrael did not listen or why Moshe may have lost confidence.

6 A classic Rav Hutner letter [128] illustrates this idea: The wisest of all men [King Shlomo] said [Mishlei 24:16], “The tzaddik will fall seven times and will rise.” The unlearned think that this means, “Even though a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise.” The wise know well that the meaning is: “Because a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise.”

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.