End of Slavery in Egypt

I’m trying to figure out the timeline of the Exodus. I know that our ancestors left Egypt on the first day of Passover, but at what point did the slavery end? Did it last until the very last day, after the plagues had been going on for so long?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s actually interesting, the Talmud answers this directly – that the slavery ended on Rosh Hashanah of the year of the Exodus (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 11a). This would be the first of the month of Tishrei, 6½ months before the actual Exodus. What isn’t clear is at what point during the plagues this was.

There is a Mishna which states, “The judgment of the Egyptians endured for 12 months” (Ediot 2:10). This means the plagues lasted quite a long time. See likewise Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 9:12, brought in Rashi to Exodus 7:25) that each plague lasted one month. For an entire three weeks Moses warned Pharaoh about the imminent catastrophe, and for the final week of the month the plague struck.

Putting the sources together, it is clear that the slavery ended somewhere in the middle of the plagues – perhaps at the point in which they had wreaked too much havoc on the country for the economy to function. (Perhaps by that time as well many of the Egyptians realized it was not in their best interests to oppress God’s nation.)

It isn’t clear, however, exactly at what point during the plagues this occurred. One month per plague implies 9-10 months total (since the final plague – the death of the firstborn – occurred instantly). Yet one of the commentators suggests that the plagues actually lasted somewhat more than a month each in order to total 12 months (Tiferet Yisrael to Ediot 2:10). At the same time there is a Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 5:19) that after Moses first approached Pharaoh and he made the slavery even harsher, Moses had to flee back to Midian for either 3 or 6 months. Thus perhaps the plagues themselves lasted shorter (some might not have had warnings before them), and perhaps the slavery ended with the first plague.

One interesting thing to note is that according to all opinions, the Jews were not serving the Egyptians for several months before the actual Exodus. And this makes Pharaoh’s adamant refusal to let us go – even for an (alleged) mere 3 day excursion in the desert – all the more inexplicable. We weren’t working for him anyway! What did he gain by refusing to bend – while his country fell to utter ruin? It thus demonstrates for us how self-destructive arrogance is. Pharaoh absolutely refused to give in – although he gained absolutely nothing from it – beyond an imagined psychological victory. He was so obsessed with not giving in that destroying himself and his entire country in the process meant nothing to him. And the echoes of such manically obsessive behavior can be found in many of the most megalomanic dictators throughout the ages (R. Yochanan Zweig).

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