Tag Archives: Fifth Cup

How Long Were the Israelites Actually In Egypt?

Bo chronicles the final events in the exodus from Egypt. We read about the final three plagues (locust, darkness, and the smiting of the firstborn), the first Passover night, and at last, the liberation of the Israelites. Here, we are told that the Israelites left Egypt after having dwelled there for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). However, Jewish tradition (based on counting up all the years mentioned in the Torah) holds that the Israelites were only in Egypt for 210 years! To further complicate things, God had prophesized to Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years (Genesis 15:13). So, which is it? Were the Israelites in Egypt for 430 years, 210 years, or 400 years? There appears to be a simple answer to this question, and is the one most commonly cited. However, upon closer examination, this explanation breaks down entirely, and the real answer becomes much harder to find.

The Simple Answer

Let’s begin with the simple answer. Rashi’s commentary on the verse in question is that the Israelites were indeed in Egypt for only 210 years, since this is the sum one comes to when counting the lifespans of Jacob, Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Moses. According to this chronology, the Israelites lived prosperously in Egypt for 116 years. By this point, Jacob and his sons (the original immigrants) had all passed away, and a new pharaoh ascended to power in Egypt. Envious of Israelite prosperity and success, and suspicious of their populous numbers, the new pharaoh began instituting various anti-Semitic laws. Tradition holds that this period of segregation and persecution lasted thirty years, after which the Israelites were formally enslaved. Thus, the Israelites were slaves for 86 years. The year of their enslavement corresponds to the year of Miriam’s birth, hence her name, which (according to one explanation) literally means “very bitter”.* Moses was born six years later, and liberated the Israelites when he was eighty.

Rashi states that since 400 or 430 years in Egypt is impossible, one must assume that by “dwelling” and “sojourning”, the Torah refers to all the dwellings and sojourning since the time of Abraham. Rashi points out that if one counts back 400 years from the Exodus, one comes to the year that Isaac was born. Another thirty years before that was when Abraham beheld the “Covenant of the Parts”, and received the prophecy that his descendants will be slaves and foreigners for 400 years. Therefore, when the Torah states that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years, it is going all the way back to Abraham’s Covenant, which happened exactly 430 years earlier. And when God told Abraham his descendants would be slaves for 400 years, He literally meant all of Abraham’s descendants, starting with his first son, Isaac, born thirty years later. This explanation seems to work, at least when reinterpreting the definition of what it means to be “enslaved” and what it means to be “in Egypt”.

However, even Rashi is unhappy with this answer. He says that one has no choice but to accept this explanation al karchacha, literally “against one’s will”. He finishes by saying that this was one of the things that the Sages edited when translating the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy. (Recall that over two millennia ago, Ptolemy gathered seventy rabbis, put them in separate guarded rooms, and forced them to translate the Torah into Greek. Despite their separation, all seventy rabbis produced the exact same translation, making the exact same amendments where necessary, to make the text more palatable to the Greeks. This text became known as the Septuagint, because of the seventy rabbis. According to Yalkut Shimoni, there were seventy-two rabbis, and they made fifteen changes to the text, one of which is the duration of the Israelites’ dwelling in Egypt.)

The Problem with the Simple Answer

Aside from the fact that the Israelites were slaves for 86 years, not 400, and that the Torah states that they dwelled specifically in Egypt for 430 years, and not elsewhere, there is a much more pronounced problem with the simple answer. If we say that the 430 figure comes from the moment when Abraham first received the prophecy, that means that Abraham got it thirty years before Isaac was born, which means Abraham was seventy years old at the time (since Isaac was born when Abraham was 100). However, the Torah tells us that Abraham only came to the land of Israel for the first time when he was 75 (Genesis 12:4). Sometime after this, he descended to Egypt because of a famine, then returned to Israel. Years later, he participated in the war against the Mesopotamian kings (Genesis 14). It is only following this war that the Torah states, “After these things the word of Hashem came to Abram in a vision…” (Genesis 15:1). And it was in this vision that Abraham received the prophecy of 400 years. It is therefore impossible that he was seventy years old at that time! In fact, the very next chapter speaks of the birth of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son through Hagar, who was born when Abraham was 86. Based on this, some commentaries suggest the Covenant of the Parts happened when Abraham was 85 or 86 years old.

So, we may accept the figure of 400 years starting with Isaac, but where did 430 come from? In lieu of a historical answer, we may have to delve into more mystical literature.

The above is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Two. To continue reading, get the book here

Eliyahu’s Immortality, Passover, and Shabbat HaGadol

This week’s Torah reading is Tzav, detailing many of the priestly laws that applied to the Kohanim. It begins with God telling Moses to instruct Aaron (the first Kohen) and his children in the proper sacrificial rites, starting with the olah, a type of offering that is wholly consumed by the flames (as opposed to being roasted and eaten). Rashi comments that the term “tzav” – command – has the connotation of commanding not just Aaron, but all of his future descendants, and all generations of kohanim.

Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and Levites. (Braun & Schneider)

Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and Levites. (Braun & Schneider)

One of those descendants is Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron (through his son Elazar). For his heroic efforts, as described in Numbers 25, God blessed him with an eternal priesthood. Pinchas is mentioned as the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) in the book of Joshua (who was the first of the Biblical Judges). According to the Sages, he remained in this role until the times of Yiftach, one of the last Judges. This would mean he served as the High Priest for several hundred years! The Sages suggest that when God promised him an “eternal priesthood”, He literally meant it.

Due to the scandal that concluded the story of Yiftach (Judges 11-12), the commentaries state that Pinchas resigned as the High Priest. He then disappears from the narrative, only to reappear again a couple of centuries down the road. This time, he comes back as Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the prophet, as the Sages state: Pinchas ze Eliyahu, “Pinchas is Eliyahu”. The Arizal (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, 33, 2b) explains that Eliyahu was the reincarnation of Pinchas, while many others say it was literally one and the same person, since God’s blessing connoted everlasting life.

Eliyahu himself never passed away, further proving the point that Pinchas was meant to live forever. The Tanakh describes how Eliyahu was taken up to Heaven alive in a whirlwind of flames (II Kings 2:11). It is said that Eliyahu transformed into an angel, and thus lives on. This is why he appears (spiritually speaking) at certain times in the Jewish calendar and life cycle, including during a brit, and for the fifth cup during the Passover seder. Ultimately, it is prophesized that he will return in physical form once more at the End of Days to herald the coming of Mashiach, as it says: “Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the Day of Hashem, the great and awesome” (Malachi 3:23).

The commentary of Abudraham (or Abu Dirham, Rabbi David ben Yosef of 14th century Spain) explains that this is why the Sabbath before Passover is called Shabbat HaGadol, “the Great Sabbath”. The verse in Malachi ends by saying “the great and awesome”, hagadol v’hanora. After all, this passage from Malachi is the Haftarah portion that we read at the synagogue on Shabbat HaGadol!

The basic purpose of Shabbat HaGadol is to get us into the “Pesach spirit” and prepare us for Passover. On this Sabbath, It is customary to review the Haggadah and the pertinent laws of the holiday. Similarly, the Haftarah portion is also designed to get us into the Passover mindset. The Haftarah ends by juxtaposing the first redemption under Moses with the coming redemption ushered in by Eliyahu:

“Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, whom I commanded at Horev [Mt. Sinai] for all Israel, statutes and ordinances. Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the Day of Hashem…” (Malachi 3:23-24)

The Sages tell us that after the final redemption we will no longer need to recall the first redemption, which will pale in comparison. This is based on the verse in Jeremiah 23:7 which prophesizes that in the End of Days, people will no longer describe God as the One who took the children of Israel out of Egypt, but as the One who saved Israel from oppression all over the world, and restored them to their Promised Land.

This is one reason why during the Pesach seder, while commemorating the first redemption, we end by pouring a fifth cup for Eliyahu, who will come to usher in the final redemption. Is it then that Jews will no longer be misunderstood and oppressed, our exile will end, and we will all return to live in the Holy Land in peace, as we say at the conclusion of the seder: “Next year in Jerusalem”.