How Many Years Were Bnei Yisrael in Mitzrayim? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


In preparation for Pesach, we begin this week a series of three essays that discuss various critical issues in Chumash regarding Yetziat Mitzrayim.

The Problem

The Torah (Shemot 12:40) informs us that Bnei Yisrael spent a total of 430 years in Mitzrayim.  This number, however, is quite problematic based on information that appears in two other sources. Avraham Avinu was told at the Brit Bein HaBetarim that his descendents would spend four hundred years as strangers in a strange land (Bereishit 15:13).  Does Shemot 12:40 imply that Hashem deviated from His words to Avraham Avinu? 

A second problem, as Rashi (Shemot 6:18-20) notes, is that the genealogy of Moshe Rabbeinu seems to indicate that Bnei Yisrael were not in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years.  The Torah lists Moshe Rabbeinu’s ancestors as Levi, Kehat and Amram.  Kehat was one of the original seventy people who entered Mitzrayim (Bereishit 46:11) and lived for 133 years.  His son Amram lived for 137 years, and Moshe Rabbeinu was eighty years old when Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim (Shemot 7:7).  Accordingly, if we add these years together, it is evident that Bnei Yisrael could not have spent more than 350 years in Mitzrayim.  Moreover, it had to be considerably fewer than 350 years, as there was (most likely) significant overlap between the years of Kehat and Amram as well as those of Amram and Moshe.  Indeed, Chazal (cited by Rashi to Bereishit 42:2) assert that Bnei Yisrael spent only 210 years in Mitzrayim, the numerical value of the word Redu (go down).

Shadal’s (Shmuel David Luzzato) claim that Bnei Yisrael actually spent 430 years in Mitzrayim and that the Torah does not present a complete list of Moshe Rabbeinu’s pedigree seems untenable.  It seems that the purpose of listing these four generations is to show the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to Avraham Avinu that the fourth generation will return to Eretz Yisrael (Bereishit 15:16, see Radak ad. loc.).  It is necessary for the Torah to inform us of this fact, since many families were in Mitzrayim for many more generations, such as that of Yehoshua, which spent ten generations in Mitzrayim (Divrei HaYamim 1:7:20-27).  Indeed, the Ibn Ezra (commentary to Shemot 12:40) believes that the complete genealogy of Moshe Rabbeinu is presented in Shemot 6:18-20 without any omissions, even according to Peshuto Shel Mikra (the straightforward, non-Midrashic manner of interpreting the Torah).

Rashi – Chazal Solution

Rashi presents the solution of the Seder Olam (chapter one), Chazal’s understanding of history and chronology.   The chronology in this work is sometimes open to debate, and we shall see that the Ibn Ezra in fact questions some aspects of the Seder Olam’s approach to our issue.

The Seder Olam asserts that the four hundred years mentioned to Avraham Avinu are counted from the birth of Yitzchak Avinu until Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim.  The 430 years, in turn, refer to the time from the Brit Bein HaBetarim until Yetziat Mitzrayim.  According to this approach, Avraham Avinu entered Eretz Yisrael at age seventy to participate in the Brit Bein HaBetarim, and permanently moved to Eretz Yisrael five years later at age seventy five (Bereishit 12:4).  This is an astounding assertion, as there is no explicit indication in the Chumash that Avraham Avinu visited Eretz Yisrael prior to his Aliyah at age seventy five.  Perhaps the hint in the Chumash is that we find (Bereishit 11:31) that Terach did intend to move to Eretz Yisrael, even though Hashem did not command him to do so.  We see that there was interest in Eretz Yisrael even before the “Lech Lecha” command.  For further proof to the Seder Olam’s approach, see Seforno to Shemot 12:40 (noting Bereishit 15:7). 

For further discussion of the Seder Olam’s approach to Avraham Avinu’s “pilot trip” to Israel before his Aliyah, see the Rosh, Yevamot 6:12.  The Rosh even applies this approach of the Seder Olam in a practical Halachic context,  indicative of the extent of the acceptance of the Seder Olam’s approach.  Interestingly, the Rashbam, a devoted Pashtan (interpreter of Torah texts based on Peshat), also adopts the approach of Seder Olam is his interpretation of Shemot 12:40.

Rav Yaakov Meidan (in a Shiur that is available on-line on the virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion) suggests that the Brit Bein HaBetarim occurred in Charan.  He told me (when he visited TABC this week) that he visited Charan and although it is on the west side of the Euphrates river, the mountains that bound the Euphrates river are visible from Charan.  Thus Hashem could have shown Avraham Avinu the land he was to receive at the Brit Bein HaBetarim (see Bereishit 15:7) even when he was standing in Charan.    

A potential problem with the Seder Olam’s approach is that Shemot 12:40 seems to state that Bnei Yisrael lived in Mitzrayim for 430 years.  According to the Seder Olam - Rashi approach, Bnei Yisrael were not in Mitzrayim for that long.  Rashi solves this problem by filling in a few words that he believes are implicit in the Pasuk.  The Pasuk reads, “And Bnei Yisrael lived in Mitzrayim for 430 years.”  Rashi writes that the words “after having lived as strangers in other lands” should be added after the word “Mitzrayim.”  A proof to this approach, as Rashi notes, is that Hashem informed Avraham Avinu at the Brit Bein HaBetarim that “Your descendents will be strangers in a land not their own for four hundred years,” and not that we will be strangers in Mitzrayim per se for four hundred years.  In addition, the Gemara (Megillah 9a; cited by the Ibn Ezra in the short version of his commentary to our Pasuk) recounts that when the Septuagint was written, the words “and in other lands” were inserted in the translation of Shemot 12:40, indicating that this was the accepted interpretation of this Pasuk.  For a variation of this aspect of Rashi’s approach to Shemot 12:40, see Rashbam’s commentary ad. loc.


Ibn Ezra

The Ibn Ezra contributes two major points to this discussion.  He cites an opinion that explains that the Torah states that Bnei Yisrael were in Mitzrayim for 430 years despite the fact that they were not in Egypt for that long because they lived under Egyptian sovereign control for that many years.  This opinion believes that Egypt controlled Eretz Yisrael during these years, so that even the time Bnei Yisrael lived in Eretz Canaan can be described as time spent in Egypt.  The Ibn Ezra comments that this approach “requires evidence” to support its contention.

Rav Elchanan Samet writes (in a different context, in his Iyunim BeParashat HaShavua 1:190) that there is in fact evidence gathered by secular historians that seems to support this view.  Furthermore, he believes that it is implicit in Sefer Bereishit (47:13-15). The Torah there records that Yosef controlled the food supply and money of both Egypt and Canaan.  There seems little reason for the Torah to record what was occurring in Canaan then, since there was no Israelite presence there.  Rav Samet suggests that perhaps the Torah mentions Canaan in this context to teach us that Yosef’s control of Canaan’s economy reflects the fact that Canaan was under Egyptian sovereign control.  For further discussion of living in Canaan under Egyptian control being equivalent to living in Mitzrayim proper, see Rav Yoel Bin Nun’s essay in Megadim 3:31.

Another significant contribution of the Ibn Ezra to the understanding of Shemot 12:40 is his assertion that the 430 years are counted from the time that Avraham Avinu left Ur Kasdim with Terach.  Terach’s intention was to reach Canaan, but he settled in Charan instead.  Avraham Avinu can be described as a wanderer and having been living in a strange land from the time he left Ur Kasdim.  This approach is especially poignant if one understands that Terach was forced to leave Ur Kasdim due to Avraham Avinu’s challenge of Nimrod and the idolatrous beliefs prevalent in his time and milieu.  An advantage of the Ibn Ezra’s approach is that it does not require us to believe that Avraham Avinu was actually in Eretz Yisrael before Hashem issued the Lech Lecha command.  It assumes that Avraham Avinu left Ur Kasdim at the age of seventy.


The Ramban proposes a very powerful resolution to our problem.  He suggests that Hashem planned for the Brit Bein HaBetarim to be completed four hundred years after the birth of Yitzchak.  However, due to Bnei Yisrael’s spiritual degeneration, Hashem felt compelled to extend the suffering for an additional thirty years.  According to this approach, we left Mitzrayim four hundred and thirty years after the birth of Yitzchak and spent 240 years in Mitzrayim.

There are numerous advantages to the Ramban’s resolution.  It explains why the Pasuk records the fact that we were in Mitzrayim for 430 years, as it teaches us that we will not be redeemed even at the appointed time if we are not worthy of such redemption.  This idea is presented by Chazal (Berachot 4a), who state that the redemption from Galut during the time of Ezra was destined to be as grand as the exodus from Mitzrayim.  This expectation was not fulfilled since Bnei Yisrael were unworthy of such a grand redemption.  This approach may also explain why many predictions made for the arrival of the Mashiach have failed to materialize.  It could be that these periods had the potential to serve as times of redemption, but we were unworthy and therefore the redemption did not take place.

The Ramban’s approach also provides a source in the Chumash for Yechezkeil’s assertion (20:7-9) that we had sinned before the redemption from Mitzrayim to the extent that Hashem considered eliminating us prior to the exodus.  It also serves as an explanation for why members of the tribe of Ephraim left Mitzrayim prematurely (as recorded by Rashi to Shemot 15:14).  It is possible that they thought that the time for the redemption had arrived, since four hundred years had passed since the birth of Yitzchak.  Similar explanations have been offered for the Bar Kochva revolt; many thought that the time for redemption had arrived since approximately seventy years (the number of years Yirmiyahu had prophesied that we would spend in Galut after Churban Bayit Rishon) had passed since the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash.

Finally, another advantage of the Ramban’s resolution is that it helps solve the mystery of how a family of seventy people could emerge as a nation of two to three million people in the course of 210 years.  The Ramban’s “addition” of thirty years provides an opportunity for an additional generation or two (recall that in the ancient world girls often married at a very young age), allowing Bnei Yisrael to reach such a large population.


An analysis of Shemot 12:40 has the potential to unlock a number of mysteries of the Chumash.  It also has the potential to teach us a lesson about redemption which is especially relevant in our time, when the establishment of Medinat Yisrael has the possibility of the final redemption looming before our eyes in a most concrete manner.  This Pasuk teaches us that there are no proverbial “free lunches,” and Medinat Yisrael will be transformed into the Messianic age only when we are worthy of such an awesome event.

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