Duration of Slavery in Egypt
How long did the actual slavery of Egypt last? When the Children of Israel first descended to Egypt, they were treated with honor as Joseph’s family, and only after he died did the slavery begin. Do the Sages state anywhere exactly when that occurred, and how many years before the Exodus it was?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for raising the interesting issue. You are right that when we first descended to Egypt, it was as honored guests, as Joseph’s family. It was only much later when the slavery began. The Torah states: “And Joseph, all his brothers, and that entire generation died.… And a new king arose on Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his nation, ‘Behold the nation of Israel is greater and more powerful than we. Come, let us outsmart them…’” (Exodus 1:6,8-10).
Based on the above verses, it is clear that the slavery did not begin until Joseph’s entire generation died. When was this? Exodus 6:16 states that Levi lived until 137 (unlike Joseph who died at a youthful 110 (Genesis 50:22)). The Sages state that his age was recorded because he lived the longest of all the brothers. Thus, his death marked the beginning of the start of Israel’s enslavement.
How many years did Levi live in Egypt? Joseph was 39 when he was reunited with his brothers. (He was 30 when he first became viceroy in Egypt (Gen. 41:46), and his family came down after 7 years of plenty and 2 of famine.) According to the Sages, Levi was about 4 years older. Thus, if he was 43 when he arrived in Egypt, he died 94 years later. Since Israel’s entire stay in Egypt was 210 years (see Talmud Megillah 9a and Rashi to Exodus 12:40), this would mean the maximum the slavery could have lasted was 116 years.
Of course, the slavery did not start the day Levi died. The Sages (Talmud Sotah 11 and elsewhere) describe Israel’s descent into bondage as a gradual process – in which the Egyptians first pressured the Israelites to volunteer for public works (naturally to show that they’re good, patriotic Egyptians), and ultimately forced them into full slavery.
We do not have a clear tradition how long this process took. Seder Olam Rabbah (Ch. 3), a work on the chronology of Biblical events (2nd century), observes that together with the maximum of 116 years, the minimum the slavery could have lasted is 86 years. This is based on another statement in the Midrash (also found in Pesikta Zutrasa, Shemot 15:20) – that Moses’s older sister Miriam was so named because of the bitterness of the slavery (mar = bitter). The Seder Olam assumes Miriam was 6 years older than Moses. And since we know Moses was 80 at the story of the Exodus (Exodus 7:7), the slavery lasted somewhere between 86 and 116 years.
There is another seemingly contradictory statement in the Sages which bears mention. The final parsha (section) of Genesis, Vayechi, deals with Jacob’s death. Unlike all the other parshas of the Torah, Torah scrolls leave almost no space between the end of the previous parsha and the start of that one. The Midrash asks, why is that parsha “closed”? Because upon Jacob’s death, “the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed because of the suffering of the slavery, for [the Egyptians] began enslaving them” (Bereishit Rabbah 96:1).
Jacob’s death was only 17 years after the nation arrived in Egypt (Gen. 47:28). Thus, although the physical enslavement began only after 100 years or so, after 17 the process had begun. Without Jacob’s great merit, the Jews had become less welcome. The Egyptians began disliking them and viewing them as different. The discrimination, the subservience, and the antisemitism had begun – though it would take many years until it turned into full-blown bondage.