Who was Enslaved in Egypt?


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A National Experience

The Egyptian bondage is such a central and formative part of the Children of Israel's history that it is natural to assume that the whole nation was enslaved.  Indeed, the entire nation is instructed to always remember and retell the story of the redemption from Egypt, Hashem introduces himself at Mt. Sinai as the One who took the Israelites out of the "house of bondage", and numerous other commandments recall the Egyptian experience.  All of these aspects would seem to imply that at least the vast majority of the Children of Israel, if not all of them, were enslaved in Egypt.

Were there Exceptions?

On the other hand, there are several details in the Shemot narratives which make us question whether or not all Israelites were enslaved at all times:

  • In Shemot 4, Aharon is able to go greet Moshe in the wilderness.  If he was enslaved, would he have had such freedom of movement?1 
  • If Yocheved was a slave, how was she available to nurse baby Moshe?2  And why did the daughter of Paroh hire Yocheved to be Moshe's nurse rather than simply compel her to do so, as one would a slave?
  • When would the Israelites have had the time to amass and care for personal homes and cattle?3

These details raise the possibility that perhaps there were some exceptions and not all Israelites were enslaved in Egypt.  But if so, how did this work and what were the criteria?