The Economic Catalyst of Shi’abud Mitzrayim by Tani Greengart


Sefer Shemot is the Sefer HaGe’ulah, the book of redemption, the book that tells the story of Bnei Yisrael’s exodus from Shi’abud Mitzrayim (servitude in Egypt). But why were Bnei Yisrael slaves in Egypt in the first place? The concise answer given in Shemot 1:10 is that Pharaoh feared that the massive nation of Bnei Yisrael would revolt against Egypt. But as we shall see, the cause of the servitude runs much deeper than this, and its seeds were planted decades earlier, by the Pharaoh in the days of Yosef.

Before going any further, it must be noted that Egyptian society in Biblical times was racially prejudiced against “Ivrim,” people who come from the east (lit. “people from the other side”), including Bnei Yisrael. The Torah testifies that it was considered a “To’eivah,” “abomination,” for Egyptians to eat with Ivrim (BeReishit 43:32), and when the wife of Potifar accuses Yosef of attempting to rape her, she calls him an “Ivri,” implying a negative connotation (BeReishit 39:14). This racism certainly affects the enslavement of Bnei Yisrael, but there are economic factors that need to be taken into consideration as well.


Back in Parashat MiKeitz, the Pharaoh has a dichotomous dream in which seven skinny cows devour seven fat cows, and seven thin stalks of wheat consume seven healthy stalks. Yosef is brought out of jail to interpret the dream, and he predicts that Egypt will witness seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. He suggests that Pharaoh appoint a man to tax the Egyptian people (“Chimeish Et Eretz Mitzrayim”; cf. 41:34) during the seven plentiful years and store the grain for the coming famine, a job that Pharaoh grants Yosef (41:1-40).

Rashbam (41:34 s.v. VeYafkeid Pekidim VeChimeish) interprets the line “Chimeish Et Eretz Mitzrayim” as “he should divide the land of Egypt into fifths,” meaning that that Yosef’s proposed grain tax rate is 20%, 1/5 of the wealth of Egypt. Rashbam further notes that this 20% tax is twice the customary tax rate of 10%. For example, when Shmuel HaNavi warns the Jews about the consequences of having a king, he tells them that a king can take 10% of their produce (I Shmuel 8:15). There are numerous other instances in Tanach of one person giving a tenth of his wealth to another person as a form of patronage: Avraham gives a tithe to Malki-Tzedek (BeReishit 14:20), Yaakov promises a tithe to God (BeReishit 28:22), and the Jews are commanded to give a tithe to the Leviyim (BeMidbar 18:21). It seems that 10% is the standard tax rate in the time of the Torah, yet Yosef’s tax is twice this.


During the seven years of plenty, Yosef collects a massive amount of grain and stores it in cities (BeReishit 41:48). When the famine hits, he sells the grain on behalf of Pharaoh, eventually acquiring all of Egypt’s money (47:14), livestock (47:17), and land (47:20), as well as plenty of money from neighboring countries (41:57). He also acquires all the people of Egypt as slaves to Pharaoh, relocating them to cities and requiring them to work the fields and give 20% of their crop to Pharaoh (47:24). Yosef establishes the 20% tax for posterity (47:26).

It is important to note that Yosef does all this not of his own volition but because Pharaoh commands him to do so. We know this because in the thirteen Pesukim that describe Yosef’s actions during the famine (47:14-26), Pharaoh’s name is mentioned a whopping eleven times. Everything Yosef does, he does on behalf of Pharaoh. But this is not how the Egyptians, especially Egyptians of subsequent generations who do not personally know Yosef, see it.[1] Yosef is a convenient scapegoat upon whom to blame all the hardships of the famine. He was the one who foresaw the famine, he was the one who collected high taxes, and he was the one who bought all of Egypt as slaves.

The result of this is that by the time the new king comes to power in Egypt, Yosef’s only remaining legacy in the minds of the Egyptian people is the high taxes and slavery that were established under his rule, whether they were truly his fault or not.[2]

The Pharaoh of Yosef’s days is sly; he appears to embrace Yosef and his family with open arms, even offering Yosef’s brothers positions in the government as royal shepherds (BeReishit 47:6), but he sets them up for failure in the minds of the Egyptian public.

The next king, a populist,[3] takes advantage of the popular sentiment and molds it to fit his desires.

He begins with a seemingly reasonable proposition: the family of Yosef has become so large that their numbers threaten to take over Egypt. And he suggests a seemingly reasonable solution: treat the family of Yosef the same way that Yosef treated the Egyptians in his day. 

The new king’s first decree upon Bnei Yisrael is to make them slaves, just as Yosef made all of Egypt slaves to Pharaoh. The structures that the New King forces his newly-acquired Jewish slaves to build are “Arei Miskenot,” translated by Rashi and Ibn Ezra as “storage cities” (1:11), cities akin to the ones in which Yosef stored the grain he taxed from Egypt (BeReishit 41:48). And just as the priests of Egypt were spared from slavery to Yosef (BeReishit 47:22), the Midrash attests that Shevet Levi, which later becomes Bnei Yisrael’s priestly tribe, is not enslaved (Rashi Shemot 5:4 s.v. Lechu LeSivloteichem). It seems that the New King is trying his best to treat Bnei Yisrael “Midah KeNeged Midah” to how he perceived Yosef treated the Egyptians.

However, as we mentioned earlier, the suffering of the Egyptians under Yosef’s rule was not Yosef’s fault—it was decreed by the then-Pharaoh, who appointed Yosef as his proxy in order to deflect blame onto an outsider.

Thus, we return to where we began—anti-Semitism. Ultimately, though the immediate catalyst of Shi’abud Mitzrayim, or at least the excuse for it, was the economic situation in Egypt, the root cause of it was racial prejudice against Bnei Yisrael. This was not the first time in Jewish history that anti-Semitism reared its ugly head,[4] nor was it the last time. We must be continually vigilant to limit its consequences now and in the future of Am Yisrael.

[1] This, I believe, is what is meant when the Pasuk says that the new king of Egypt “does not know Yosef” (Shemot 1:8).

[2] A careful examination of Yosef’s proposed 20% tax reveals exactly how much was Yosef’s fault and how much was Pharaoh’s plan. When Yosef interprets Pharaoh’s dream, he suggests a 20% tax to be enforced only during the seven years of plenty. The extension of this tax into the years of famine and beyond is done only because Pharaoh commands it.

[3] We know that the new king is a populist because he consults with the Egyptian people on his plan to enslave the Jews (Shemot 1:9) and later delegates the job of throwing Jewish baby boys in the river to the people (1:22). By contrast, the Pharaoh of Yosef’s time never consulted with the people or relied on them to do his work; if he wanted something done, like the creation of a massive grain storage, he had one of his own men do it.

[4] The Pelishtim’s actions towards Yitzchak Avinu during his sojourn in Gerar (BeReishit 27:14-27) come to mind as an example of anti-Jewish prejudice prior to Sefer Shemot.

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