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?

Lea Himelfarb
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 years."]

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 350.
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.