Tag Archives: Slavery

Why Did the Levites Become Priests?

This week we start reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. The book is more commonly known as Leviticus—after the tribe of Levi—since most of it is concerned with priestly, or Levitical, law. The big question is: at which point did the Levites (including the Kohanim, who are from the same tribe of Levi) become priests, and why?

Temple Priests Bringing the Two Goats on Yom Kippur

The Torah does not explicitly answer this question. The traditional explanation (see, for example, Rashi on Numbers 3:12) is that the Levites were the only tribe not to participate in the Golden Calf incident, and thus merited to become priests. Before that point, the firstborn son of each family was meant to serve in the priesthood (and presumably anyone else who so wished), as God had originally stated that the entire nation will be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6).* After the Golden Calf, everything changed and it was strictly the Levites who became worthy of the priesthood.

Yet, other traditions maintain that the Levites were already priests long before the Golden Calf debacle. It is commonly held that the Levites were not enslaved in Egypt (or, at least, not to the same degree) because they were recognized as priests, and priests were protected under Egyptian law (see Genesis 47:26). This notion is supported by Exodus 5:4 where Pharaoh tells the Levite leaders Moses and Aaron: “Why do you, Moses and Aaron, cause the people to break loose from their work? Go to your own burdens.” Pharaoh essentially tells the brothers to mind their own business and let the others do their work.

Rashi cites the Midrash here in explaining that Aaron and Moses were able to freely appear before Pharaoh whenever they wished because Levites like them were not enslaved. In Gur Aryeh, a commentary on Rashi’s commentary, the Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, d. 1609) goes so far as to suggest that Pharaoh—perhaps the Pharaoh who actually enslaved Israel; not the Pharaoh of the Exodus—knew that Israel were God’s people, so he left the Levites to serve Hashem in an attempt to avert his own doom! This explanation may actually be a pretty good one, since polytheistic religions like that of the ancient Egyptians typically accepted the existence of other gods beyond their own pantheon. The Roman Empire famously absorbed the deities of the various peoples they conquered to the point where they had hundreds of gods in their pantheon. Doing so would appease the gods, and more importantly, help to subdue their conquered believers. For Egypt, allowing a portion of Israel to remain in God’s service would be a valuable political tool, hence the freedom granted to the priestly Levites.

There is a further issue in that the Levites are already commanded in priestly duties in the parasha of Tetzave, which comes before the parasha of Ki Tisa where the Golden Calf incident is recounted. This is generally dealt with through the principle of ain mukdam u’meuchar b’Torah, “there is no before and after in the Torah”, meaning that many events in the Torah are not presented in their chronological order. Still, there may be a way to solve the conundrum without resorting to this conclusion.

So, when and why did Levites become priests?

Surprising Answers from Jubilees

As discussed in the past, the Book of Jubilees is an ancient Hebrew text that covers Jewish history from Creation until the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The book is divided into 50 chapters, with each chapter describing one 49-year yovel, “jubilee”, period. While Jubilees was not included in the mainstream Tanakh, it was traditionally found in the Tanakh of Ethiopian Jews. It is also evident that Jubilees was used by the Hasmonean dynasty, and clearly influenced a number of midrashic texts, as well as the Zohar.

The Book of Jubilees offers three different reasons for the tribe of Levi’s priesthood. First (explained in 30:18), the Levites merited to become priests because their forefather Levi had defended his sister Dinah’s honour after her rape by Shechem (Genesis 34). Although Shimon was the leader of that mission, he later lost his merit when he suggested killing Joseph. This explanation is problematic because the wording in Genesis suggests Jacob was not at all happy with his sons Shimon and Levi for their impulsive, violent attack. Because of that, Jacob actually did not give these two sons a blessing as he did his other sons (Genesis 49:5-6).

In Chapter 31, Jubilees suggests a better answer. Here, we read how Jacob went to visit his parents after returning from a twenty-year sojourn with his uncle Laban in Charan. Jacob does not take his entire family, but is accompanied only by Judah and Levi (the reason why is not stated). Isaac then gives Jacob a blessing, and in this blessing Judah is conferred royalty and Levi given the priesthood. Thus, Judah’s descendants ultimately became kings while Levi’s became priests. That also explains why these two tribes alone would survive through history (the other ten—“The Lost Tribes of Israel”—having been extinguished over the centuries). Today, we have only Yehudim (ie. Judahites) among whom are Kohanim and Levi’im (ie. Levites).

A Tithed Son

The Book of Jubilees offers one more intriguing explanation for the ascent of the Levites to the priesthood. In Chapter 32, Jacob fulfils his previous oath to God (as in Genesis 28:22) to tithe everything God blesses him with. Since Jacob promised to tithe everything God gives him, that includes his children. So, Jacob lines up his twelve sons according to age and starts counting from the youngest, Benjamin. The tenth son, of course, is Levi, and therefore he is designated for God—to the priesthood. Following this, Levi sees a dream at Beit-El (in the same place his father had the vision of the Heavenly Ladder) in which God confirms Jacob’s deed and officially appoints Levi the family priest.

Finally, Jacob offers a host of sacrifices to God, and it is Levi who facilitates them. Levi accordingly becomes the first official Israelite priest. This may explain why later in history the Levite tribe in Egypt was already considered priestly and spared much of the slavery, and it also explains why the leadership of Israel in Egypt was composed primarily of Levites (Amram, Moses, Aaron). It gives a reason, too, for why it was the tribe of Levi in particular that did not participate in the Golden Calf, for they would have spent their time in Egypt in service of Hashem, making it highly unlikely that they would be drawn to idolatry like the common folk. Perhaps what happened after the Golden Calf is that God officially made the entire tribe priestly, and formally removed the responsibility from the firstborn.

Having said all that, there are those who maintain that having such priests was only necessary because of the Golden Calf, and sacrifices were only instituted to repair that grave sin, or to give the people an outlet to perform sacrificial offerings like they were used to (as the Rambam explains in Moreh Nevuchim, III, 32). If not for the Golden Calf, there would have been no need for a sacrificial altar or priestly offerings. The entire nation would have been a mamlekhet kohanim—a kingdom of priests—as God intended; and serving God, like today, would have been through prayer, study, and mitzvot.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*It appears that occasionally non-Levites did become priests. In II Samuel 8:18 we read that some of King David’s sons somehow became kohanim. Rashi dealt with this perplexing statement by saying they were not literal kohanim but simply “chief officers”. Samuel himself is described as being from the tribe of Ephraim, yet is given over to Temple service by his mother Chanah and seemingly becomes a priest. The later Book of Chronicles deals with this by stating that Samuel really was descended from a Levite (see I Chronicles 6).

The Real Ten Commandments You’ve Never Heard Of

An illustrated section from Gustav Doré’s “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law”

Tuesday evening marks the start of Shavuot—the second of the Torah’s pilgrimage festivals—commemorating the divine revelation at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah. Not surprisingly, the Torah reading for the day is the text of the Decalogue, more commonly known as “the Ten Commandments”. It is well-known that the Decalogue text actually appears in two places in the Torah: Exodus 20:1-14, and Deuteronomy 5:6-18. The latter is in the final book of the Torah, written from the perspective of Moses. The two texts are nearly identical, with the only major difference being the description of the Shabbat commandment. In Exodus, we are told to remember (zachor) the Sabbath, while in Deuteronomy we are told to observe or safeguard it (shamor). The former explains Shabbat being in commemoration of God’s creation of the universe, while the latter ties it to God bringing the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery.

If we have two different Decalogue texts, which one was it that the Israelites heard at Sinai? Some say they heard both simultaneously. (Every Friday night in Lecha Dodi we sing shamor v’zachor b’dibbur echad, “‘safeguard’ and ‘remember’ in one utterance…”) Others say the Israelites heard the Exodus version, and the Deuteronomy version is simply Moses’ recollection forty years later, or that Moses purposefully made slight changes to better reflect the needs of the Israelites at the time.

Whatever the case, few are aware that there is actually a third Decalogue text in the Torah! This one is in Exodus 34. Here, we are given a very different set of Ten Commandments:

[1] You shall make no molten gods. [2] The feast of unleavened bread shall you keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of spring, for in the month of spring you came out of Egypt. [3] All firstborn are Mine; and of all your cattle you shall sanctify the males, the firstlings of ox and sheep. And the firstling of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before Me empty. [4] Six days you shall work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. [5] And you shall observe the feast of weeks, even of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, [6] and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before Hashem, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; neither shall any man covet your land when you go up to appear before Hashem, your God, three times in the year. [7] You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; [8] neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the Passover be left unto the morning. [9] The choicest first-fruits of your land you shall bring unto the house of Hashem, your God. [10] You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

Aside from idolatry and Shabbat, the above text is a totally different Decalogue! And just in case you thought that this was an unrelated set of ten laws, the Torah continues by emphasizing in the following two verses (Exodus 34:27-28):

And Hashem said unto Moses: “Write these words, for according to these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” And he was there with Hashem forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

The Torah makes it explicitly clear that these ten are the Ten Commandments that Moses wrote upon the Tablets, and with these ten did God seal the covenant with Israel! What’s going on?

The Golden Calf

The key to solving this mystery is understanding when the second Decalogue was given. This set came after the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf. That one monumental incident totally changed the course of history. The Arizal explains how the Israelites had affected many tikkunim (spiritual rectifications) during their long years of slavery in Egypt. The Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea accomplished even more rectifications. The preparatory period leading up to the Sinai Revelation ascended the Israelites even further, and when they witnessed God’s Revelation, they had climbed all the way up to the highest level, nearly repairing the entire cosmos. All that was left was to receive the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue which they had heard). This Decalogue was the whole Torah. Once they would have received it and wholeheartedly accepted it, that would have completed the entire rectification of all of Creation, and it would have ushered in the Messianic Age (Moses being Mashiach). Unfortunately, the people worshipped the Golden Calf which, the Arizal explains, now shattered the cosmos once more. Everything reverted to the way it was before the Exodus.

Israeli commemorative stamp of the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), better known as “Maimonides”.

The Sages teach that before the Golden Calf incident, every firstborn male was meant to be a priest. After the Calf, the Levites became the designated priests (since they were the only tribe to abstain from the idolatrous act), and among them, only the descendants of Aaron could serve as high priests. Meanwhile, the Rambam writes that God never wanted the Israelites to bring any sacrifices or offerings (Moreh Nevuchim, III, 32). It seems that this only became necessary after the Golden Calf incident. The Rambam explains that the Israelites could not separate themselves from the old pagan ways they were accustomed to. Offering sacrifices is what they knew; this was their way to connect to a higher power. So, God reluctantly gave them various sacrificial rituals, but only to wean them off this unnecessary practice. The Rambam bases his argument on the words of several prophets, including Jeremiah 7:22, which explicitly has God stating that He never commanded any sacrifices! A careful reading of this verse in Jeremiah shows that God said He never wanted sacrifices when He took the Israelites out of Egypt. Later, however, they became necessary, though only as a temporary measure.

And so, after the Golden Calf incident, God gave Moses a new Decalogue. He affirmed that it was with this new Decalogue that He was forging a covenant with Israel. Reading through these commandments, we see how they are all related to the Golden Calf incident.

The first one commands not creating molten gods. The phrasing here uses the exact same words that were used to describe the Golden Calf. The second commands observing the Passover holiday. Recall that at the Golden Calf incident, the people declared that it was the Calf that took them out of Egypt. Now, the second commandment makes clear that God took them out of Egypt. (This also explains why Moses modified the text of the original Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, changing it from remembering Creation, to remembering coming out of Egypt.)

The third commandment is to redeem the firstborn males. As we saw above, before the Golden Calf, all firstborn were priests; after, only the Levites and their descendants. Thus, each firstborn now had to be “redeemed”, since they would not be serving as priests. The fourth commandment is the only one to stay the same: keeping the Sabbath.

The fifth and sixth are celebrating Shavuot and Sukkot, the remaining two of three pilgrimage festivals (along with Passover, which was the second commandment). The seventh command introduces sacrifices, and the eighth deals with the Paschal offering. The ninth is about bringing first fruits, another type of offering. All of these fit under the Rambam’s explanation of God giving the Israelites something they were familiar with, since pilgrimage festivals and sacrificial offerings were the two major staples of pagan religion at the time.

The final commandment is not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, or the prohibition of consuming a mixture of meat and dairy foods. There are many explanations for this enigmatic mitzvah. One of the mystical explanations is once again tied to the Golden Calf incident. It is said that the incident occurred just six hours before Moses returned from Sinai. The nation had only to wait several more hours to avoid the catastrophe. Therefore, waiting six hours to consume dairy after eating meat is seen as a spiritual rectification for that bit of impatience.

Restoring the Ten Commandments

The words of the original Decalogue of Exodus 20 have precisely 620 letters. This is famously said to parallel the 620 commandments in Judaism, 613 being derived from the Torah, and an additional seven that were instituted by the Sages. All of the mitzvot were included in the original Ten Commandments. The entire Torah could be found inscribed on the first set of Two Tablets through those 620 letters. From a mystical perspective, these Ten Commandments were all that was necessary. The 610 commandments that followed only came as a result of the Golden Calf incident, and the need to repair the cosmos from the beginning.

For over three millennia, we have slowly been fulfilling the tikkunim once more. The events that surround Mashiach’s coming are the final steps of that process. Mashiach will come and usher in the grand finale. The Tanakh tells us that he will then establish a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:30-31):

Behold, days are coming, said Hashem, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 429) says Mashiach will bring a “new Torah”, and the current Torah will be “vain” compared to the Torah of Mashiach (Kohelet Rabbah 11:12). Midrash Tehillim 146:4 is even more specific, suggesting that all non-kosher animals will become kosher, and intimacy with a woman still in the state of niddah will be permitted. A better-known midrash teaches that all of the Torah’s holidays will be abolished (with only Purim—which is not a Torah holiday—remaining).

So, which commandments will be left? The original ten of the first Decalogue; the one that was intended for a Messianic Age to begin with. A simpler set of laws for all of mankind, in an era when (Zechariah 14:9) “Hashem will be king over all of the earth; in that day, God will be One, and His Name will be One.”

Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.

The Spiritual Significance of Sefirat haOmer

The Torah commands that each day between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot be verbally counted (Leviticus 23:15). Along with this counting, a bundle of barley was brought as an offering in the Holy Temple. The barley was measured in units of omer, with one omer being equal to approximately 3 litres. Today, we no longer have a Temple or barley offerings, but the mitzvah of counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot remains, and is referred to as Sefirat HaOmer, “the Counting of the Omer”. Since there are exactly seven weeks between the two holidays, there are 49 days which need to be counted. What is the deeper meaning behind this seemingly mundane practice?

The Fifty Levels

There are a number of spiritual explanations for Sefirat haOmer. Perhaps the most popular is the idea that in Egypt, the Jews were so deeply mired in the immoral and idolatrous Egyptian society that they had descended all the way down to the 49th level of impurity.

It is said that there are 50 levels of impurity, rooted in (or at least suggested by) the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “impure” (tam’e, טמא) which has a gematria of 50. The Jews had stooped down to the 49th level, and had they reached the 50th, there would have been no hope of salvation for them. Thus, God cut short the 400 year period of slavery that was decreed upon them, and immediately took the Jews out of Egypt before they could fall any further.

Corresponding to these, the Jewish mystics teach that there are 50 levels of constriction in the world. Egypt represented these 50 constrictions. Again, this can be illustrated through Hebrew and gematria: Egypt is Mitzrayim (מצרים), the root of which is tzar (צר, meaning “constrict” or “narrow”) and the suffix of which is ים, numerically equalling 50. Egypt is the land of 50 constrictions.

Following the Exodus, the task of the Jews was to cleanse themselves of the 49 levels of impurity which they had acquired, and to break free from all those constrictions that were imposed upon them. This is why they needed a 49-day period – one for each impurity and constriction – before they were ready for the Divine Revelation and reception of the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot.

The Tree of Life

The Passover Haggadah reminds us that each Jew must envision themselves as personally coming out of Egypt. Though we are thankfully no longer literally slaves, the truth is that each of us is still mired in some kind of constriction, be it a constriction to time or work, money or health, stress, fears, and all those others things that “narrow” our lives and confine us into various forms of spiritual slavery. The Torah commands each of us to break free, to remove all of those impurities and boundaries, and to elevate ourselves over this special period of 49 days. Each day is associated with a unique energy to help us in this path.

The 49 energies stem from the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”. This Tree is composed of ten Sefirot (a term not coincidentally related to Sefirat HaOmer). These Ten Sefirot are regarded as the spiritual building blocks with which God created the universe (together with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet). It is said that all things in existence are permeated with these ten energies, and all things that are “ten” in the Torah correspond to the ten sefirot: the Ten Divine Utterances of Creation, the Ten Trials of Abraham, the Ten Plagues, the Ten Commandments, etc.

The top three sefirot are called the Mochin – the mental or intellectual faculties. The bottom seven are referred to as the Middot – the emotional and practical elements. During the time of the Omer, we are meant to focus on the purification of the bottom seven sefirot. Meanwhile, on Shavuot – having received the Torah – we are then able to rise further to the upper three mental sefirot and focus on intellectual development.

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”, Showing the 10 Sefirot and the 22 Lines that Unite Them (Corresponding to the Hebrew Alphabet), as Depicted by the Arizal

Therefore, each of the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot is associated with one of the seven Middot. The first week of the Omer corresponds to the sefirah of Chessed – kindness. The second to the sefirah of Gevurah – restraint and self-control. The third to Tiferet – balance (also called Emet – truth). The fourth is Netzach – “victory”, or persistence (often associated with faith). The fifth, Hod – gratitude, and the sixth, Yesod – literally “foundation”, referring to sexual purity. Lastly there’s Malkhut, “kingdom”, which is associated with the faculty of speech.

Each of the seven days of the week is further associated with one of these seven sefirot. So, the first day of each week corresponds to Chessed, and the second day of each week to Gevurah, and so on. This gives each of the 49 days a totally unique quality which one should be meditating on, and more importantly, attempting to rectify.

For example, tonight we will count the third day, with the corresponding sefirah of Tiferet sh’b’Chessed, “Balance (or Truth) in Kindness”. This suggests developing a harmonious approach to kindness: being a more giving person; charitable, helpful, sympathetic, but also making sure not to be taken advantage of or tricked into false kindness. Unfortunately, misplaced kindness has become a staple of Western society. (How often do we see well-meaning liberals supporting the “poor and disadvantaged” terrorists?) Tonight’s sefirah might be summarized well by the old Midrashic teaching that “those who are kind to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the kind.”

Similarly, each of the remaining 49 days has a powerful message to teach us, hence the tremendous importance of Sefirat HaOmer – counting and meditating upon each and every one of these very special days.

What is Freedom?

This evening we usher in the final day (or two days, in the diaspora) of Pesach. The last day of the holiday commemorates the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea, the point at which they were finally free of Egypt. Pharaoh’s armies were annihilated, and he abandoned his pursuit of his former slaves for good. The Israelites were now completely free.

Or were they?

The message that God instructed Moses to carry to Pharaoh was: “Let my people go so that they may serve me” (Exodus 7:16). The verb that is used is identical to that describing our service to Pharaoh; we were avadim l’Pharaoh and became avadim l’Hashem. Were we really freed from slavery, or did our slavery simply transfer from one master to another Master?

Defining Freedom

There are many ways to define ‘freedom’. The term might mean different things to different people at different times. A Talmudic definition of freedom is the ability to control one’s own time. A slave is told what to do and when to do it (for this reason, Jewish servants were exempt from time-bound mitzvot). A more modern definition of freedom – particularly in our capitalistic world – might be tied to amassing a vast fortune. There is a great deal of truth in this, as the Talmud (Nedarim 38a) tells us that all of our forefathers and prophets were exceedingly wealthy. For a child, freedom might mean staying up past their bedtime, or eating as many sweets as they wanted. For an adult, freedom might be a week off work or spending quality time with family.

To find a singular, all-encompassing definition of freedom, one has to zoom out and find a common denominator. The simplest (and most common) would be to say that freedom is the ability to do whatever a person wishes to do. Indeed, Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of freedom is “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action”. In other words, one is free to act as they wish.

The problem with this definition is that it is difficult to separate from simple instinct. For example, if one suddenly has a desire to consume a large piece of cheesecake, and does so, is this really freedom, or just a submission to their inner compulsion? What if this person is lactose-intolerant and grossly overweight – would eating that cheesecake be an act of freedom, or an act of slavery to their body’s desires?

It appears that we need to refine the above definition of freedom. Instead of phrasing it in the positive – the ability to do whatever one wishes – a better way to look at it might be in the negative: the ability to restrain one’s self from doing whatever they wish, even though they are completely free to do so.

The wise sage Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is the great person? The one who can overcome his inclinations.” (Avot 4:1) Ben Zoma bases this teaching on the words of King Solomon in Proverbs (19:32), “Better is one who is slow to anger than one who is mighty, and [better is] one who can conquer his own spirit than one who can conquer a city.”


Ultimately, it is very easy to say “yes” to one’s self; it is far more difficult to say “no”. The latter is the real test of free will, and often the truest expression of freedom. It is only when a person has developed the ability to overcome their inner instincts and their base bodily desires that they are truly free. Otherwise, although they may not be slaves to a Pharaoh, they are still slaves to themselves.

And so, when God freed the Israelites from Pharaoh’s slavery, He did not simply let them “go free”, but rather, gave them a Torah full of mitzvot, to “serve God”, so to speak. Of course, God requires no service – He is infinite, eternal, needing absolutely nothing at all. When we “serve God”, we are really just serving ourselves.

The mitzvot were given only to refine the individual; to perfect one’s character and to free a person from the confines of their body, making them as Godly as possible. God commanded the people: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). We are meant to be like God, for in God’s image we were fashioned. And this is the key to true freedom, since the ultimate source of freedom is God – who is infinite and limitless – and we are commanded to become like Him – infinite and limitless. The potential is seeded deeply within all of us, for we were all made in God’s image.

Next week, we begin reading Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of the Fathers”, as is customary between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. One of the most profound maxims in these pages was spoken by Rabban Gamliel (2:4), who reveals the secret to definitive freedom. Every person who is serious about attaining true freedom should meditate upon these words every day:

“Make your will like His will, and He will make His will like your will; nullify your will to do His will, and He will nullify the wills of others to do your will.”

Chag sameach!

How Long Were the Israelites Actually In Egypt?

This week’s Torah reading is Bo, chronicling 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

'Departure of the Israelites' by David Roberts (1829)

‘Departure of the Israelites’ by David Roberts (1829)

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 30 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 literally means “very bitter”. Moses was born 6 years later, and liberated the Israelites when he was 80.

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 30 years before that was when Abraham envisioned 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 30 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.

(Over two millennia ago, Ptolemy gathered 70 rabbis, put them in separate guarded rooms, and forced them to translate the Torah into Greek. Despite their separation, all 70 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 70 rabbis. According to Yalkut Shimoni, there were 72 rabbis, and they made 15 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 30 years before Isaac was born, which means Abraham was 70 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 70 years old! 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 Metaphysical Answer

In characteristic fashion, the Arizal sees the 430 figure not necessarily as a literal number of years, but as a figure hinting at something deeper. It is well-known that God has two primary names (among many others): the ineffable name of Hashem, which represents God’s kindness, and the name Elohim, which represents God’s judgement and severity. When it comes to the Exodus, God expressed His strict judgement. The Arizal (in Sha’ar HaPesukim) points out that there are five major expressions using the name Elohim with regards to the events of the Exodus. The numerical value of the name Elohim (א-ל-ה-י-ם) is 86. Multiplying 86 by 5, one arrives at 430. This figure, therefore, represents all of God’s severity, which was revealed in this time period. It was only after “430 years” – ie. only after God had fulfilled all of His plans – that the Israelites were finally liberated.

There is one final answer that may be the best of all, allowing us to take the 430 year timespan literally. The full passage in the Torah reads: “And the habitation of the Israelites that dwelled in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years, and it was at the end of four hundred and thirty years, on that very day, that all the legions of Hashem came out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:40-41). The Torah tells us that it was God’s legions of angels that finally left Egypt after 430 years. Thus, 430 years earlier, God had sent his angels to Egypt to prepare the way for the arrival of the Israelites. It was 430 years earlier that God had put His plan in motion. The Arizal might add that the souls of the Israelites destined to be born in Egypt were already dwelling there, so to speak, 430 years earlier. Whereas the Israelites physically dwelled in Egypt for 210 years, their spiritual habitation there – together with God’s Heavenly legions – spanned 430 years.

Beautifully, at each Passover seder we drink four cups of wine, and pour a fifth for Eliyahu. The numerical value of cup (כוס) is also 86. And so, the five cups total 430.