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Topic: Desert Wandering, Exactly how Long?

Brandon Raff wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

How long did the Jews wander in the Desert? Silly question, 40 years, as the Torah says. It also says that at the end of these 40 years Moses died at age 120. That makes Moses 80 when he led the people out of Egypt.

Now my question: At the beginning of Moses's mission, the verse says "And Moses was 80 years old, and Aaron was 83 years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh." But didn't the plagues take place over the course of an entire year? Moses must have had a birthday some time during that year. That would make him 81 when he led the Jews out of Egypt. So back to my original "silly" question: How long did the Jews wander in the desert?

Dear Brandon,

Good question. Now I'll ask you one.

How can the verse list Moses's age when he spoke to Pharaoh? Didn't he speak to Pharaoh over the course of an entire year? He had a birthday during that year. How, then, can the verse give a definitive figure for Moses's age 'when he spoke to Pharaoh.'

Obviously, the verse refers to his age either at the beginning of the year or the end. Your question assumes the verse refers to the beginning.

But it's more logical to assume that the verse refers to Moses's age at the end of the year. After all, the end of his mission was the essential part, including the warning of the 'death of the first-born.' And a careful look at the verse's context reveals it to be part of an overview of the year's events:

Hashem tells Moses:

"You will say everything I will command you...and I will take out My people, the Children of Israel, from the land of Egypt ... And Moses and Aaron did as Hashem commanded them ... and Moses was 80 years old and Aaron was 83 in their speaking to Pharaoh."
Nowadays it's common to retire at 65. Golfing, lolling, and relaxing are major activities during what are sometimes called the 'declining years.' The Torah tells us Moses's age to show that the great leaders of the Jewish People never lose their zeal for growth and accomplishment. At an age when most are long retired, Moses and Aaron attained their history's greatest achievements.


  • Exodus 16:34, Deuteronomy 1:3
  • Deuteronomy 34:7, 31:1 and Rashi
  • Exodus 7:7, see Moznaim L'Torah

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