Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Va-Era 5762/ January 12, 2002
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies,
Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center,
and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet
under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's
International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Bo, 5762/ January 19, 2002
How Long Were the Israelites in Slavery?
Department of Bible
Several numbers are involved in calculating the length of the
Israelites' bondage in Egypt. In this week's parasha we
read: "The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four
hundred and thirty years" (Ex. 12:40); whereas in the Covenant Between the
Pieces (brit ben habbetarim) we are told: "Know well that your
offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved
and oppressed four hundred years" (Gen. 15:13). [Editor's note: the
literal translation of the latter half of the verse is, "and they shall
slave for them and they will oppress them for four hundred
It is generally deduced from the verse in Genesis that the
bondage lasted four hundred years. This interpretation follows from the pause
after the words "not theirs," a logical-syntactic pause in the
verse which separates the two subjects: the Israelites (= your offspring, shall
be strangers) and the Egyptians (shall enslave and oppress them). Such a reading
and the interpretation that follows from it, however, are incorrect. The
originators of the traditional cantillation signs, who divided every verse in
Scripture into two parts, indicated that the main pause in the verse comes
before the phrase "four hundred years." Accordingly they placed the
sign etnahta under the word otam, "them", which
precedes "four hundred years."
It is true that parsing the verse according to the
cantillation signs leads to a lack of clarity regarding the phrase "four
hundred years," which stands on its own as a separate unit in the second
half of the verse, making the antecedent uncertain. Likewise, the actual
cantillation is somewhat awkward insofar as the two parts of the verse are
highly unbalanced, one being very long (thirteen words in Hebrew), the other
extremely short (only three words).
Notwithstanding the difficulties in content and cantillation
style created thereby, the originators of the cantillation signs specifically
instructed us to pause before the final phrase in the verse, because they wished
to avoid reading as one phrase "they shall be enslaved and oppressed four
hundred years," since such a reading contradicts historical fact.
According to the cantillation signs, the phrase "four hundred years"
refers back to the words, "your offspring shall be strangers in a land not
theirs," and the years of being strangers began not with the Egyptian
oppression but with the birth of Isaac. Therefore the text ought to be
understood as follows: "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers
in a land not theirs... four hundred years."
According to the verse in Exodus 12:40, the reckoning of the
years began thirty years earlier, at the time of the Covenant Between the
Pieces. But neither 400 nor 430 matches the number of years in the generations
from the time Jacob and his sons went to Egypt until they left, insofar as the
total of the years of Kohath (133), Amram (137), and Moses (80) comes to
The prevalent approach of traditional exegesis is to argue
that "in a land not theirs" refers to more places than Egypt. Thus
the length of the time they were strangers (Heb. gerim) is viewed as
beginning in the days of the patriarchs, insofar as the term ger is used
with reference to the patriarchs. For example, Abraham is described as
"residing in the land of the Philistines" (Gen. 21:34), the word for
residing being derived from the root g-r.
Another approach totals all the years lived in Egypt by each
of the four generations in the family of Moses - Levi (137), Kohath (133),
Amram (137), plus the age of Aaron at the time of the exodus (83). The sixty
years that Levi and Kohath lived before going to Egypt is then subtracted from
the total of 490 years lived by the four generations.
To reconcile this reckoning with the figure of 400 years, the
aggadah uses the method of gematria, numerical reckoning of the
letters: "The Holy One, blessed be He, calculated the end (Heb.
ketz=190)," in other words, subtracted 190
years (kof, tzadeh) from the original decree of 400
years, so that the Israelites were delivered after 210 years (210=r-d-w,
which can mean "went down").
The Vilna Gaon reconciles the discrepancy in time by assuming
that the Israelites were redeemed before the appointed time because of the
hardship of their bondage. He adds a homiletical interpretation based on the
names of the cantillation signs. The verse, "they made life bitter for
them with harsh labor" (Ex. 1:14), has the signs kadma ve-azla
(originally called azla geresh) on the words "they made
bitter" and "life." The Israelites were early (Heb.
hikdimu, from the sign kadma) to leave (the sign azla,
Aramaic for 'to go'), because the Egyptians "made life bitter
for them." If you wish to know how many years early they left, compute
the gematria of kadma ve-azla and you come up with 190.