How Many Came Out Of Egypt?

 

Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni

Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).

כָּל הָאוֹמֵר דָּבָר בְּשֵם אוֹמְרוֹ מֵבִיא גְּאוּלָה לָעוֹלָם (אבות ו, ו)

David Ben-Gurion, the “father” of the state of Israel and its first prime minister, was also a noted scholar of the Bible. The bi-weekly study meetings held in his home attracted some of the greatest scholars, rabbis, and professors in Israel, representing a variety of approaches, from traditional interpretation to Biblical criticism and beyond.

This note summarizes his ideas on a topical question, namely, how many Israelites came out of Egypt in the Exodus [1]. His interpretation has many merits as a viable peshat explanation even if it also faces some challenges. (My own comments are given in parentheses).

His starting point is the exact number of those who went down to Egypt with Jacob. In Genesis 46: 2-8, we find a detailed list of names and that number, 70 families in all. He then proceeds to enumerate methodically the offspring of the latter, by names and numbers, together with a detailed discussion of the number of generations that elapsed from the arrival of those “70” until the Exodus.

(In doing so, Ben-Gurion cites numerous sources and commentators, from the Bible as well as from the Talmud and Midrash.)

Genesis 15:13 cites 400 years of slavery, with the 4th generation returning to Israel – in itself an inconsistency, which Rashi notes also and modifies to 210 years of slavery. Ben-Gurion quotes Rashi here, “… count Jacob’s generations: Judah, Peretz, and Hetzron (these 3 generations went to Egypt), but Caleb the son of Hetzron was among those who entered the Promised Land.” In other words, Rashi ‘allows’ only one generation born in Egypt.

But, notes Ben-Gurion, this is not true of most of the great-grandsons of Jacob: ten of Jacob’s sons — Reuben, Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali – went down to Egypt only with their sons; their grandsons were born in Egypt.

Further consideration includes the two generations of Pharaohs after the death of Joseph: The one “who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), and the Pharaoh of the Exodus (Exodus 2:23). Ben-Gurion concludes, therefore, that there were only two generations in slavery in Egypt.

A second major point raised by Ben-Gurion deals with the word אֶלֶף, as it appears in the first tally of the Exodus:

“…כְּשֵש מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הַגְבָרִים…” (שמות י”ב, ל”ז)

with the ‘usual’ translation, “…some 600,000 men on foot…”. (Allowing an average family of 5-6, say, plus the “mixed multitude” that accompanied them, we have here some 4 million people!?).

Ben-Gurion stresses that the word אֶלֶףhas also another meaning in the Bible, namely, “family” or “clan”. (This interpretation is found, for example, in [2] – [6]). The uses of this meaning include:

  • Exodus 12:37, 20:6, 34:7
  • Numbers 1:16, 10:36 — where the use ‘thousand’ for אלף yields the improbable number of Israel in the tens of millions!, 31:5.
  • Deuteronomy 5:10, 33:17.
  • Joshua 22:14, 22:30.
  • Judges 6:15, where the Aramaic translation (Yonathan) is, in fact, ‘family.’
  • I Samuel 10:19, 23:23
  • Micah 5:1

In summary: some 600 families ,or clans, left Egypt, consistent with the 70 that entered, the length of stay, and the births there.


References

[1] דוד בן-גוריון, “עיונים בתנ”ך” תל-אביב: עם-עובד, 1969 ע’ 243-252.

[2] Abraham Even-Shoshan, “A New Concordance of the Old Testament.”
Jerusalem: Kiryat-Sefer, and Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989.

[3] F. Brown, C. Driver, and C. Briggs, “The B-D-B Hebrew and English Lexicon.” Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1997.

[4] א.ב.ב. גברונסקי, “אוצר לשון המקרא”, מוסקבה-פריז: ל גברונסקי, 1918.

[5] יהודה גור, “מלון השפה העברית”. תל-אביב: “דביר”, 1945.

[6] Ernest Klein, “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for readers of English.” N.Y.: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987.

 

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111 Responses

  1. aiwac says:

    Fair enough, but how does one explain the subsequent censuses in Bamidbar that make similar numerical claims?

  2. Dov says:

    I wonder what the implications of this on the Kuzari argument would be.

  3. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    I would refer to Ben-Gurion as a noted sudent of the Bible, not a noted scholar of the Bible.

  4. Dov says:

    Shimon S – Seems to be happening a lot lately…

  5. RJM says:

    If אלף means family, then what does “כשש מאות אלף רגלי הגברים לבד מטף” mean? Were these same sex families? Moreover, does Moshe Rabbenu truly think that all the fish in the sea would be insufficient to feed 600 families? Many a catering hall would tell you otherwise.

  6. avi says:

    I’m a big fan of the gematria which says the value of the census, becomes the words “bnei Yisroel, Kol Rosh”. Meaning, there were 603,000+ people total. Not just men between the ages of 20 and 60. The torah specifies 20-60 to say that even the women, children, and elderly, were as precious to Hashem as the soldiers. (A slight modification of Ramban’s statement)

    Our Mesorah in general, always talks about 600,000 people in the Wilderness, and never talks about 2-4million. There are gemoras which say there were twice as many profits as peole in the wilderness (1.2 million), we have a drash about the eruv saying that a public space is where 600,000 people pass through, the zohar says there are 600,000+ souls, etc etc.

  7. avi says:

    “לבד מטף” just means inheritors. None of the people who came out of Egypt would inherent the land of Israel, only those born in the desert.

  8. Nachum says:

    Avi: Isn’t R’ Moshe’s definition of Reshut Harabim dependent on the three million number (which he then mistakenly says live in Brooklyn)? Is that his chiddush, and was it always 600,000 before?

    I’m not sure if this motivated Ben Gurion, but we know that three million- or even 600,000- is very difficult historically, because the total Egyptian population then was only about 1.5 million. On the other hand, 600,000 seems to have been the population at the beginning of the Bayit Rishon period.

  9. Nachum says:

    According to http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/people/index.html , it was about 2-5 million in that period, probably at the lower end. Less in the Delta, of course, and still too few for 3 million (or even 600,000) Jewish slaves. With Erev Rav, maybe?

    L’shvach Ben-Gurion, he was trying to prove a truth of Tanach; contrast those of today who would deny (or water down to nothing) the event entirely. There are middle grounds, of course, with even the Torah and Midrash hinting at some. (Those who remained in Canaan, stages of departure, etc.)

  10. avi says:

    Nachum, I don’t know about Rabbi Moshe, but I believe the Gemora, and most certainly rashi say 600,000.

    600,000 is the number that has been used since the gemora’s time, and it’s the number that I believe makes the most sense. Some of the census details don’t make sense to me otherwise. Whether that number is “problematic” from an archaeological point of view, I don’t think really matters. To me, the 600,000 (really a bit more than that) number has midrashic and philosophical value, and according to some people, Halachic. I believe that R. Aviner even used that number to say that you can’t give away any land from the Yehuda and Shomron area, because there are now 600,000 Jews there, and they now constitute a people. (whatever that means, my point was he used that number to define a people, my point is not his position on Yehuda and Shomron).

  11. Anon. says:

    The number 600,000 is symbolic. See Nahum Sarna’s discussion in Exploring Exodus. It is not to be taken literally. It is impossible that there were millions of bene yisrael in Egypt at that time. I think Rabbi Shamah discusses this in his new book and also explains the census numbers in line with this approach. Just like people today don’t believe that the world is only 5772 years old, and can reinterpret the pesukim, just like they don’t believe that people really lived hundreds of years old and they can reinterpret the pesukim, so too people do so with the number of bene yisrael.

  12. aiwac says:

    Two points:

    1) Ancient demography is a glorified guessing game that can only yield ranges of estimate or assesments along the lines of “bigger or smaller than period X or Y”.

    2) I never understood why people insisted that the number must be literal and not symbolic of the event. Ancient sources are full of such numbers. Nobody denies the events they describe because of it.

  13. Shimon S says:

    Nachum,

    What about Exodus 1:7-9?

    IIRC the oldest known source for R’shus HaRabim needing 600.000 is Rashi (Eruvin 6a), but it is probable that he had a Girsa in his Gemara stating so. Tosfos (ibid) mentions a version of BaHaG stating the same. If I’m not mistaken, even after all the research in Geonica, Cairo Geniza and Yemenite manuscripts we still don’t have anything older than Rashi.

  14. Nachum says:

    Avi: So if it’s 600,000, a lot of eruvin would be pasul, no?

    Shimon: You mean pasuk 7, I assume- I don’t see how 8 and 9 have anything to do with it. As for 7, nu? It doesn’t say anything in particular.

    As for taking numbers literally, there’s one in the very same parsha! The pasuk says they spent 430 years in Egypt, no ifs, ands, or buts. No one takes that literally- religious, secular, Chazal (210), Josephus (215). (Add to that that Hashem told Avraham 400. Ditto ditto, there.)

    I always wonder why “430″ can be dismissed so easily while the “480″ of Melachim Aleph can’t- let alone the “410″ and “420″ of Chazal, which are mentioned in no pesukim- or numbers like “930,” “969,” “175,” or “5772.”

  15. Shimon S says:

    Nachum,

    actually I mean pasuk 9. It can be understood that there were more Israelites than Egyptians.

  16. avi says:

    “Avi: So if it’s 600,000, a lot of eruvin would be pasul, no?”

    Depends where you live, but yes. Ofcourse there are people who say that Rashi is not literal :) (Just kidding, they just say it’s a different requirement) I think it also needs to be 16 amot wide for the place where the 600,000 pass. Like a freeway.

  17. Nachum says:

    Shimon: Or could mean not.

    Avi: OK.

  18. J. says:

    Shimon S – That is incorrect. ‘Shishim ribo’ appears in the Berlin edition of the Behag. See here:

    http://eruvonline.blogspot.com/2009/06/reprinting-of-berlin-edition-of-behag.html

    See also page 86 and onward in Rabbi Dr. Adam Mintz’s doctoral thesis, which can be accessed here:

    http://www.rabbimintz.com/wp-content/uploads/Mintz-Dissertation-Final.pdf

    As he writes there, “The Halakhot Gedolot, written by Rabbi Simeon Qayyara in the last quarter of the ninth century, identifies a reshut ha-rabbim as follows: The definition of a reshut ha-rabbim is a place which 600,000 men traverse every day just like the Israel encampment in the desert.”

  19. SS says:

    Since we have a principle from the rishonim that when confronted with prood (not theory) we can reinterpret the Torah, this is a perfect example. Every biblical scholar in the world (or demographer) will tell you that it is beyond any possibility that there were millions of Israalites.

    But I don’t think this is an issue. I asked a few friends, all talmide chachomim of different levels, and none of them had any religious problems with what Ben Gurion suggested, so I don’t know why it created such problems at the time. He was only offering a possible peshat to reconcile the Torah with what everyone in the world knows isn’t true literally.

  20. Shimon S says:

    SS:

    “Since we have a principle from the rishonim that when confronted with prood (not theory) we can reinterpret the Torah, this is a perfect example.”

    Can you please elaborate on this “principle from the rishonim”?

    “Every biblical scholar in the world (or demographer) will tell you that it is beyond any possibility that there were millions of Israalites.”

    Either incorrect or No True Scotsman fallacy.

  21. MDJ says:

    Shimon S
    You may be right (“Either incorrect or No True Scotsman fallacy”), but can you bring an example of a contemporary bible scholar (or demographer) who does think there were 2-4 million Jews in the midbar?

  22. Shimon S says:

    MDJ,

    Would you agree that the category of Modern Biblical Scholarship includes Chareidi and other Jewish Orthodox (as well as many Fundamentalist Christian) authors?

  23. Shimon S says:

    Just to elaborate: Modern Bible Scholarship is not limited to academic critical Bible scholars or academic historians.

  24. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Shimon S: See Guide 2:25 re incorporeality

  25. er says:

    What about the calculation of the silver coins in the beginning of parshas Pekudai? It doesn’t make any sense if it’s much less than 600,000.

  26. Shlomo says:

    On the other hand, 600,000 seems to have been the population at the beginning of the Bayit Rishon period.

    Neviim rishonim several times give the figure of around 1.2 million, again adult males.

    Of course, estimates by demographers are not exact. To roughly quantify things: I would take note of a discrepancy of 300 or 400 percent, but not one of 50 percent.

    1) Ancient demography is a glorified guessing game that can only yield ranges of estimate or assesments along the lines of “bigger or smaller than period X or Y”.

    What about the half shekel?

    2) I never understood why people insisted that the number must be literal and not symbolic of the event. Ancient sources are full of such numbers. Nobody denies the events they describe because of it.

    Ancient sources typically contain significant amounts of truth as well as some falsehood; is that how we are to approach the Torah?

  27. shaul shapira says:

    I think S. had something about this recently at onthemainline.

  28. S. says:

    I think, but I could be wrong, that Ben Gurion (and others who accept a similar view) are not trying to say that the Torah does not posit 600,000. This would account for the census, the coins, etc. What I think they are trying to say is that there is a historical kernel to the Exodus, and the kernel is that it was a far smaller number which is inflated (by the Torah, by tradition) not unlike other ancient texts which play loose with numbers. The effect that the Torah intended was to play things up as big and grand. In the earlier thing which I linked to, Ben Gurion found an asmachta in the count of the Levites (25 in number, all male, x 2 to include the wives, x 12 for all tribes = 600), and there is a certain logic to it, that the actual number (600) should be increased a thousandfold in the glorified version. Whether this is heretical and/ or foolish I will leave to others, but I think that Ben Gurion and others are perfectly capable of seeing that the Torah is talking about 600,000 – or that the silver count is also exaggerated.

  29. Shimon S says:

    Lawrence Kaplan:

    Thank you. Just to quote Friedlander’s translation:

    “If, however, we accepted the Eternity of the Universe in accordance with the second of the theories which we have expounded above (ch. xxiii.), and assumed, with Plato, that the heavens are likewise transient, we should not be in opposition to the fundamental principles of our religion: this theory would not imply the rejection of miracles, but, on the contrary, would admit them as possible. The Scriptural text might have been explained accordingly, and many expressions might have been found in the Bible and in other writings that would confirm and support this theory. But there is no necessity for this expedient, so long as the theory has not been proved. As there is no proof sufficient to convince us, this theory need not be taken into consideration, nor the other one: we take the text of the Bible literally, and say that it teaches us a truth which we cannot prove: and the miracles are evidence for the correctness of our view.”

    There are many problems with this theory:

    1. It works only in the ultra-rationalist school (i.e. forget not only Kabbalah, but many obviously literal Chazal too).

    2. It begs the question: How much elasticity in interpretation does it provide before the whole thing becomes an obvious joke?

  30. SR says:

    Shimon S.

    What do you mean it works only in the ultra rational school? Does anyone believe that the sun revolves around the earth, even though the Torah says it does? Does anyone believe that the world is 5772 years old? People reinterpret when the Torah as understood literally doesn’t work with the facts as we know them. They are not ultra-rationalists. R. Saadiah Gaon says this as do many others.

    As to your other questions, modern biblical scholarship does not include ANY Orthodox writers if they from the start refuse to alter their preconceptions no matter what the evidence says. How can you regard someone as a scholar if they tell you right up front that no matter what the evidence says, they will never change their mind? It is this type of close-mindedness that forces people to deny the existence of dinosaurs.

    Real scholarship means that you have to be willing to change your position if presented with alternate evidence. No one who is willing to examine the evidence would ever, in a million years, agree that there were millions of benei yisroel. The only people who would say this are people who assume that you have to understand the torah literally. If the Torah said that there were billions or trillions of Jews living in Egypt they would also accept this. But this doesn’t mean that anyone else in the world will take them seriously.

    It is the same with the flood. Other than some fundamentalists and Orthodox Jews, no one in the world thinks that the flood destroyed the entire world, especially since we have cultures that we can document going back many thousands of years.

  31. MiMedinat HaYam says:

    “The pasuk says they spent 430 years in Egypt”

    specifically says 210 yrs. listen to kriyat hatorah this week.

    (unless you want to say the “population explosion” lasted 400 yrs.)

  32. SR says:

    Rav Kook already taught us that there is “myth” in the Torah, so we shouldn’t get caught up in literalism.

  33. Dov says:

    Shimon S. & Lawrence Kaplan

    The answer to Shimon’s problem of too much elasticity and thus the response to Lawrence, is the sentence – “But there is no necessity for this expedient, so long as the theory has not been proved.” I do not think that it can be said as a rule that the speculative theories of historians and bible scholars constitute “proof.”

  34. Dov says:

    Seriously, if you want to say it’s exaggerated, that is one thing. But six hundred? Come on. You’re telling me that ובני ישראל פרו וישרצו וירבו ויעצמו במאד מאד ותמלא הארץ אתם, הנה עם בני ישראל רב ועצום ממנו, and והיה כי תקראנה מלחמה ונוסף גם הוא על שנאינו ונלחם בנו ועלה מן הארץ are talking about six hundred people? How many Egyptians were there? Fifty?

  35. S. says:

    “Seriously, if you want to say it’s exaggerated, that is one thing. But six hundred? Come on. ”

    Of course. Evidently Ben Gurion himself rejected it, since the book quoted in this post (דוד בן-גוריון, “עיונים בתנ”ך” תל-אביב: עם-עובד, 1969 243-252) adopted another theory.

  36. Shimon S says:

    SR:

    “Does anyone believe that the sun revolves around the earth, even though the Torah says it does? Does anyone believe that the world is 5772 years old?”

    Is the Pope Catholic?

    “Real scholarship means that you have to be willing to change your position if presented with alternate evidence.” I’m not saying that you are wrong but I hope your agree that many functionalists honestly believe they do match that criteria. At the end of the day you are just saying that whoever disagrees is not a “real scholar”. Also, you limit Biblical Scholarship to academic historical criticism. R’ MM Kasher or R’M Breuer are generally included in the broad term “Biblical scholarship”. So is the Pope (same as above).

  37. Shimon S says:

    *functionalists = fundamentalists

  38. Adam says:

    The main problem with this theory is Numbers Chapter 1. There, the Jews are counted a little over 1 year after leaving Egypt and lucky enough there are still about 600 Elephs (603 to be exact). However if you count up all the Elephs from the tribes (who are listed independantly there) you come up with only 598 Elephs (46+59+45+74+54+57+40+32+35+62+41+53=598). Where did those other 5 Elephs come from? Well, if we add up all the Meah’s which are listed there (5+3+6+6+4+4+5+2+4+7+5+4=55) you’ll notice there are 50 more than the total Meah’s given at the end. It certainly seems very reasonable to say that a Meah is one-tenth of an Eleph. This is very hard to understand if an Eleph means a clan, but makes a lot of sense if Eleph is a thousand. According to Ben Gurion’s version, he has to answer where the 50 extra Meah’s went (whatever a Meah is) and how 5 extra Elephs just showed up.

  39. Dov says:

    S. – Ooh yes I missed that. Thank you for correcting me.

  40. Shlomo Karni says:

    Needless to say, I am delighted with all the responses. Specifically:
    1. To “aiwac”: The later census in B’midbar is consistent with the
    ‘usual’ count of 600,000, if that’s the way you want to go.
    2. To Shimon S.: thanks for the contemporary political aspects of B.G.’s interpretation.

  41. Rafael Araujo says:

    From Parashah Potpourri (Rabbi Oizer Alport), Parashas Shemos, 5768:

    The Oznayim L’Torah recounts that a nonobservant Jew once approached his father-in-law Rav Eliezer Gordon, the Rav and Rosh Yeshiva of Telz in Europe. He argued that he although he believed whatever is explicitly written in the Torah, how could he, a modern and sophisticated intellectual, be expected to believe in apparently exaggerated Medrashim, such as Rashi’s comment that the Jewish women in Egypt miraculously gave birth to six children at a time?

    Without batting an eyelash, Rav Gordon answered him with a beautiful mathematical proof of the Medrash’s claim. In Parshas Bamidbar, the Torah (which the man claimed to believe in) records the results of the census conducted approximately one year after the Exodus from Egypt. The total number of first-born males was 22,273 (Bamidbar 3:43), which means that there were a total of 22,273 families. The total of men between the ages of 20 and 60 produced by these families was 603,550 (Bamidbar 1:46), and doubling this number to account for the men under 20 and over 60 yields a total of 1,207,100 men. Dividing 1,207,100 by 22,273 yields an average family size of approximately 54!

    It takes a woman almost one year to conceive and give birth to a child. In those times, it took a woman two years after giving birth until she was able to conceive again (Niddah 9a), meaning that each child required roughly three years. A woman normally has 27-30 child-bearing years during her life. If each child takes three years, she will be able to give birth a maximum of 9-10 times during her lifetime. Dividing the 54 children the average woman had by the roughly nine times she gave birth yields a result of exactly six children per delivery, a proof which left the nonobservant Jew stunned and speechless!

  42. ruvie says:

    rafael – your point being?

  43. S. says:

    “The total number of first-born males was 22,273 (Bamidbar 3:43), which means that there were a total of 22,273 families.”

    There were twice that number of families, unless somehow every Israelite family had a male child born first. (Math is not my strong suit, but I don’t see how it works out with twice the number of families?)

  44. Shimon S says:

    S.,

    Father AND minor son could be a bechor.

  45. Shimon S says:

    I’m not saying that this will make it work. Only in one out of cca 108 families the father was a bechor (according to their logic), so one out of 216 families had 2 bechorim (if girls:boys 50:50). The rest would be 50% with one bechor and 50% with none. So basically you were right. Unless: Here comes miracle.

  46. S. says:

    “Father AND minor son could be a bechor.”

    Nuch besser. Ein meshivin, etc. Of course that’s why derush is supposed to be for inspiring stories about shtuching incorrectly religious people. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  47. S. says:

    By the way, in Oznayim Letorah it doesn’t say the man was nonobservant. However, it does say that it is a mitzvah to publicize it, so I can see why Rafael Arujo posted it.

  48. MDJ says:

    Shimon S.,
    Actually, no. I consider that traditional bible scholarship, not modern. No because of their conclusions, but because of their methods.

  49. Yeedle says:

    ““Since we have a principle from the rishonim that when confronted with prood (not theory) we can reinterpret the Torah, this is a perfect example.”

    Can you please elaborate on this “principle from the rishonim”?”

    See hakdamah of Ibn Ezra to his Peirush Al Hatorah, (שיטה אחרת).

  50. Shimon S says:

    MDJ,

    I hear, but AFAIK there is no generally accepted definition. For many “traditional” and “modern” simply describes the era when that scholar lived.

  51. Ruvie says:

    S. – don’t we assume multiple wives? Per male? Many more bechor possibilities?What is the avg. marriage age btw?

  52. MS says:

    This obviously can’t be peshat in Chumash – Bamidbar 1:46 lists the number as 603,550. How is this approach relevant for an orthodox Jew?

  53. H says:

    I’d love to see how this could be made as a valid approach for those who believe in Torah min hashamayim, but I just don’t get it. Even given that in those times exaggerated symbolic numbers were par for the course, as pointed out the Torah in beginning of Bamidbar and especially in the half-shekel counting in Ki Tisa and Pekudei seems to take the numbers so literally. And the Torah takes the trouble to make it clear in the beginning of Shmos that they did multiply to an unusual extent and Egypt was full of them. Given that, how could even the Rambam (as quoted by Prof. Kaplan) have explained all this away? Has anyone managed to explain this in a reasonable way? I’d honestly love to know…

  54. avi says:

    “From Parashah Potpourri (Rabbi Oizer Alport), Parashas Shemos, 5768:”

    I once did that math myself, and I came to two conclusions.

    1. Ahh, so thats the basis of the Midrash!
    2. Why are there people who take this numbers literally, to the point that they feel they can “extrapolate” 2-4 million Jews? Have they looked at the actual data!? You get an average “family size” of 54 if you say that no daughters were ever born!

  55. avi says:

    “I’d love to see how this could be made as a valid approach for those who believe in Torah min hashamayim,”

    I don’t know about ben gurions approach of 600 people, or even 600 military units. However, stating that there is an unkown number of Israelites leaving Egypt, and that the numbers here are all symbolic, I believe is perfectly reasonable and plausible, as Torah Min Hashamyaim.

    The numbers are not just exaggeration, but “gematriot” which teach lessons and ideas about nationhood, personal responsibility, the preciousness of each Jewish soul, etc etc. The precision in the Torah teaches us these lessons, while the numbers tell us that the exact numbers truly are not important. We even have the Torah telling us that counting the Jews is a bad idea, and here we will count the Jews. If that statement is to have any real meaning, it must mean that the census is not accurate! (Sure you can say how counting coins means you get a good count of people, but if that was true, then the US wouldn’t have a census every 10 years, they would just look at tax returns.)

    I am sure one could write a book explaining all the various lessons and teachings, both explicit and implicit on the Jewish psyche with these numbers, and the details provided.

    There is no question in my mind that the Torah wants the average Jew to believe and think and imagine a desert filled with 603,000+ people traveling through the Desert on the way to take over Israel. And there is no question in my mind that the Torah also wants the thinking person, the person who delves into the Torah for more than just the societal background story to know and recognize that these numbers are not accurate, and are therefore used to teach us insights and morality.

  56. Nachum says:

    MS: 600 “elefs” equaling about 3,000 people.

    Rafael: Come on. Do you believe that story is true? It’s full of logical holes.

    MeMedinat: I have no idea what you’re talking about. The Torah *never* says 210. This week’s parsha explicitly says 430. Listen to it. Perek 12, pesukim 40-41.

    Shimon: The Catholics are actually pretty flexible on Biblical literalism. They accept Darwin and the Big Bang.

    Dov: Maybe the Egyptians were paranoid?

  57. avi says:

    “S. – don’t we assume multiple wives? Per male? Many more bechor possibilities?What is the avg. marriage age btw?”

    According to the Talmud, average marriage age is 20. As for multiple wives, not that many are listed. You can probably assume multiple wives for the princes and leaders of each Tribe, but not for the average person.

  58. avi says:

    ” The Torah *never* says 210.”

    Please don’t make me look this up, I don’t have time right now. But the Torah definitely gives a number in the 200 range, at some point.

  59. avi says:

    Brief search makes me think that maybe its a pasuk in Nach, but I see the number of 210 comes from the Midrash and doing the math of the numbers provided, so maybe it’s just the math and not a straight pasuk somewhere. But I remember reading it in Tanach and being shocked by it.

  60. Sholem says:

    Just a general comment on the discussion (I only read the post now… good post and nice discussion!)

    When faced with an issue of literal accuracy in the Torah (peshat) it can be ‘problematic’ (for me, anyway) in three different realms.
    1. The Peshat itself – if we try and explain elef here as something other than thousand, then we are going to have to deal with the Torah recording something that contradicts this understanding. As was stated above, the census in Bamidbar of each tribe and then the total tally almost certainly speak of literal tens, hundreds and thousands.

    2. Midrashim – while clearly the Midrashic literature is not to be taken literally, the homiletic expositions are based in the peshat, indicating how Chazal understood the peshat. There are many midrashim that use the number שישים ריבוא when speaking of the Giving of the Torah or Am Yisrael in the desert. Clearly Chazal translated this detail in the Torah of שש מאות אלף into 600,000.

    3. Halachah – Rashi’s opinion about the 600,000 regarding what is defined as the public domain. This is shared by other Rishonim and is even recorded as an alternate opinion in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 345:7).

    So, when looking for a way to understand the peshat I find myself battling in these three levels…

    (The number 600,000 is ‘problematic’ because while much of the historic ‘evidence’ is more theory than empirical proof, our understanding of other periods in history, medicine, illness etc. make the theories claiming far less than millions upon millions of people living in Ancient Egypt very reasonable. Certainly enough to consider them…)

  61. Nachum says:

    “Redu” is gematria 210. Josephus says 215, which happens to be half of 430. (The difference is made up by his having the brit ben habetarim five years earlier, I think.) Of course, four generations isn’t enough for 430 years.

  62. IH says:

    For the avoidance of doubt, I meant the numbers and not the 1978 PC verbiage at the bottom.

  63. Shimon S says:

    Avi,

    With 54 children per family you would have the postulation multiplied by 27 in each generation. Even if you take high numbers for new generation as 30-40 years, in 210 (not to mention 400) years you would reach ridiculously high numbers.

    If we consider low marriage age for girls and the length of the whole period somewhere in the middle of the estimates, you will reach something around 10-12 children per family (or per 1 woman).

  64. S. says:

    For those who haven’t seen the Oznaim Letorah inside, it’s worth pointing out that what is left out (even if implied) in the Parashah Potpourri synopsis is the repeated inveighing against those who are not skeptical of the claims of statisticians, but are skeptical of Chazal.

  65. Hirhurim says:

    S: I think Oznaim LeTorah on Shemos is on HebrewBooks. Can you link to the page?

  66. Rafael Araujo says:

    Mea culpa. I should have checked out the original. I also didn’t post to “stutch” anybody. Ah well, that’s what happens when I post before I leave and came back to this….” :)

    At least it served as food for thought. :)

  67. Rafael Araujo says:

    Someone raised the question above – on a simple level, is the repeated verbs used to describe the increase in BY’s population in the beginning of Parashas Shemos shtim with 600 leaving Mitzrayim? Does Ben Gurion address this point? Anybody know?

  68. S. says:

    “S: I think Oznaim LeTorah on Shemos is on HebrewBooks. Can you link to the page?”

    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=39722&st=&pgnum=9

  69. ruvie says:

    rafael – can you clarify what point you were trying to make when you quoted oznaim letorah?

  70. Shalom Spira says:

    Ye’yasher kochakha, R. Karni.

    To offer my agreement to the sentiments that Mori ve-Rebbi R. Kaplan expressed yesterday, it seems to me that RMF did not feel Orthodox Jews should determine their theology based on the analysis of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion (with all due respect to Prime Minister Ben Gurion, who performed many wonderful kindnesses for the Jewish People). See IM OC 1:46 (lines 5-6 of the righthand column on p. 106) for evidence of this, where RMF implicitly rebukes Prime Minister Ben Gurion. [Of course, only a tzaddik like R. Feinstein would have the stature to be able to offer a rebuke to so great an individual as Ben Gurion.]

  71. Shalom Spira says:

    In a somewhat related manner, in IM YD 3:114 (second paragraph on p. 359), RMF writes that to attempt to scientifically rationalize the way the Jews miraculously voyaged through the desert is not permitted for an Orthodox Jew.
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14677&st=&pgnum=362

  72. Nachum says:

    What did R’ Moshe say to those who suggested that a part of the Torah was put into Tehillim? Oh, yes.

  73. Rafael Araujo says:

    ruvie – no point. Just food for thought and what I believe is a perspective on point. I see, as S pointed out, some polemics there.

  74. SE says:

    1) this analysis fixes a number of years per generation, which is not at all obvious. Two Pharaohs do not give you a number of years or the number of actual intermediate generations. Likewise, “fourth generation” shall return or that Caleb was Jacob’s great-great grandson does not tell you how many actual generations existed along other family lines or how many descendants he may have had at the time of Exodus. In fact, take that last example: according to the midrash, Caleb married Miriam, the older sister of Moshe and Aharon who were 80 and 83 when they appeared before Pharaoh. Even assuming everyone of Caleb’s “generation” (i.e., Jacob’s great-great grandchildren) was the same age, you have to allow the possibility that Caleb’s generation had at least 3 subsequent actual generations of descendants who left Egypt. Furthermore, if you assume Caleb was only 80-90 at the time, you still don’t know how many generations existed among other families during the span of the single generation separating Hetzron and Caleb.

    2) A quick check of some of the citations given purporting to show that “elef” means “family” rather than “one thousand” or a unit of a thousand, shows that either a) they are in an obviously non-literal or not strictly numerical context so prove nothing. Which do you prefer: God shows mercy for thousands or for families?; שׁוּבָה ה רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל does not tell you elef means family just because the math would otherwise give you tens of millions, since it has nothing to do with an actual numerical count, unlike, say, a numerical count of people who left egypt. (Besides maybe question the translation of רִבְבוֹת, maybe pay attention to the break between רִבְבוֹת and אַלְפֵי) and b) little else indicating that elef does in fact mean family rather than thousand.

  75. Shlomo says:

    Dividing 1,207,100 by 22,273 yields an average family size of approximately 54!

    It’s been suggested a million times already that many Jewish firstborns died in the 10th plague after not sacrificing due to fear of the Egyptian response. If so then the “original” number of firstborns was much higher and the family size much lower.

    (Sure you can say how counting coins means you get a good count of people, but if that was true, then the US wouldn’t have a census every 10 years, they would just look at tax returns.)

    There were US censuses for over a century before the federal income tax was invented.

    2. Midrashim – while clearly the Midrashic literature is not to be taken literally,

    That is clear to many people but not to me. I find that much about midrash, both halachic and aggadic, both its derivation and its subsequent usage, is best explained by the theory that Chazal believed every crown on every letter in the Torah (so to speak) has an understandable meaning and that they were confident in their ability to identify that meaning.

  76. Nachum says:

    “There were US censuses for over a century before the federal income tax was invented.”

    Just the opposite, in fact- taxes were based on the census.

  77. pg says:

    “(Sure you can say how counting coins means you get a good count of people, but if that was true, then the US wouldn’t have a census every 10 years, they would just look at tax returns.)”

    what do you think is the proportion of people counted in the census who file tax returns?

  78. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Rabbi Spira: I don’t want to shock you, but, in my view, Rav Moshe also cannot be considered a biblical scholar.

    I would not rush to cite Rav Moshe’s teshuvot re the commentary of R. Yehudah he-Hasid. It was not one of Rav Moshe’s stronger moments, particularly his embarrassing attack on the Tziyoni–Menachem, not David!

  79. SR says:

    Shalom Spira wrote

    “Of course, only a tzaddik like R. Feinstein would have the stature to be able to offer a rebuke to so great an individual as Ben Gurion”

    Ben Gurion was a ochel nevelos and treifos, a mechalel shabos befarhesya. You don’t need to be a R. Moshe to offer rebuke to a chote umachti es harabim, even if as in the case of Ben Gurion he had certain zechuyos.

  80. Y. Aharon says:

    Rav Yaakov Meidan, a proper torah scholar, has an article on this subject which may have even appeared here once in a post. Unfortunately, I don’t recall any details. My own viewpoint is that the torah clearly takes the count seriously. Indeed, if eleph/alaphim means a clan, what about the 550 in the count of 603 eleph 550? What about the 100 adonim in the mishkan each of which consisted of one kikar of silver (3000 shekalim) made from 600,000 half-shekels that each adult Israelite male was supposed to present at the census (the 275 shekels from the 550 was used for silver hooks and trim)? While there are instance in Tanach where eleph may refer to a clan (certainly the reference to Gideon’s statement, “..my alpi is the least in Menashe..” is most easily translated as ‘my clan..’ (Jud. 6:15), it primarily refers to 1000s.

    In order to better understand the numbers involved, one can speculate that there were many Semites (Asians) in Egypt who joined the Israelites prior to the Exodus and were adopted by individual tribes.
    Those adopted men were not part of the bechorim count, nor, apparently, were they adopted by the Levite tribe. Hence the relatively low numbers of each.

    This is also a way of understanding the status of Caleb ben Yefuneh called the Kenizi (Remember, there was a people of that name who inhabited part of the territory promised to Avraham). Caleb was adopted into the Judah tribe and rose to be an important leader. The Caleb of Moshe and Yoshua is presumably not Caleb ben Chetzron ben Peretz. The latter Caleb was the son of a man who was brought to Egypt as a child/infant, while Moshe’s Caleb was 40 at the time of the Exodus.

    The sojourn in Egypt was more than 2 generations (‘and the 4th generation shall return here’). While only 2 pharoahs are alluded to after the death of Yosef, there was, presumably, a long hiatus between Yosef’s death and the rise of a king who didn’t know or acknowledge the contribution of Yosef to the Egyptian economy and life.

    In sum, the post is hardly convincing, whether or not it is the considered view of Ben Gurion and/or Prof. Karni.

  81. Nachum says:

    SR: I think of what Kilgore Trout said about Eliot Rosewater. :-)

    Y. Aharon: Very nice! One other possibility: The 600,000 includes those who were already in Israel (or who had never left)- the “Apiru” who were the “nefesh” that Avraham and Sara made.

  82. Steve Brizel says:

    Simple question-the article in question noted the use of “alef” in Shmos 20:6, 34:7, and elsewhere. Yet, can it be argued that the unadorned pshat of “Alef” refers soley to families or clans ( Breishis 36: 15? I would suggest that the key is context, which is in Shmos 18:21 is the judicial system proposed by Yisro . Can it be seriously maintained that Yisro was proposing a court system for families or clans, as opposed to a court system that differentiated the adjudication of cases based upon the degree of difficulty and complexity of the case? A young budding scholar suggested that the absence of the words “Mateh” or “Mishpacha” means that “Aluf” or “Alef” should not be construed as referring to the family unit, as opposed to other contexts such as Breishis 36:15 ( clans of Esau).

    For those interested in how Yisro envisioned the court system, see the views of Rashi, Ibn Ezra in the Perush HaAruch v HaKatzer, Chizkuni, Malbim on Shmos 18:21.

  83. Shlomo Karni says:

    To “MS”:

    The tally in B’Midbar is consistent (or: close enough) to the ‘usual’
    (read: orthodox) literal meaning. One can accept it, of course, if one is so inclined.

  84. Chaim Caran says:

    In the Pesach seder hagada we are told that we have to consider ourselves as if we left Egypt. Could it be that the 600.000 is the number of Jewish souls that left Egypt, including those (heads of family?) that participate in the Pesach seders ?

  85. avi says:

    “Could it be that the 600.000 is the number of Jewish souls that left Egypt, including those (heads of family?) that participate in the Pesach seders ?”

    The number is much too low for that.

  86. mycroft says:

    “Nachum on January 26, 2012 at 6:16 pm
    “There were US censuses for over a century before the federal income tax was invented.”

    Just the opposite, in fact- taxes were based on the census.

    pg on January 26, 2012 at 6:25 pm
    “(Sure you can say how counting coins means you get a good count of people, but if that was true, then the US wouldn’t have a census every 10 years, they would just look at tax returns.)””

    According to the original Constitution and unchanged is a requirement to have a census every 10 years in order for reapportionment of the House of Representatives. The first income tax wasthe Civil War one. There was an 1895 Supreme Court decision which ruled the ten income tax unconstitutional because it was not apportioned amongthe states. That decision means less than people realize because even before the 16th amendment-1913- which permits an income tax not apportioned among the states because of population there was a corporate income tax ruled constitutional in 1911.
    The Civil War Tax BTW already had a regime for withholding on certain types of payments to foreigners ruled constitutional in an 1880s or so SC decision-basically an in rem analysis-even though UK citizens never stepped foot in theUS theUS had a right to tax them on interest received from railroad bonds.

  87. mycroft says:

    “Lawrence Kaplan on January 26, 2012 at 7:47 pm
    Rabbi Spira: I don’t want to shock you, but, in my view, Rav Moshe also cannot be considered a biblical scholar”
    Were there any 20th century American gdolim who you would considerto be a “biblical scholar”?

  88. avi says:

    “The first income tax wasthe Civil War one.”

    The point is, nobody suggested that they save time and money by counting tax returns to get a number for the census.

  89. mycroft says:

    From http://2010.census.gov/news/releases/operations/cb10-cn93.html

    The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that the 2010 Census showed the resident population of the United States on April 1, 2010, was 308,745,538
    from
    http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0481.xls

    Year Returns filed 1 (1,000)

    1995 114,683
    1996 116,060
    1997 118,363
    1998 120,342
    1999 122,547
    2000 124,887
    2001 127,097
    2002 129,445
    2003 130,341
    2004 130,134
    2005 130,577
    2006 132,276
    2007 134,543
    2008 137,850
    2009 4 138,950
    2010 142,823
    Of course it would be interesting to find out number of people who are represented onthe various returns eg 1 return filing jointly with 3 dependents would show 5 people.

  90. mycroft says:

    “avi on January 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm
    “The first income tax wasthe Civil War one.”

    The point is, nobody suggested that they save time and money by counting tax returns to get a number for the census”
    Because of the constitutional requirement the Census must use an actual count rather than using statistical methods which would give a more accurate count than the census.

  91. Hirhurim says:

    Mycroft: Were there any 20th century American gdolim who you would considerto be a “biblical scholar”?

    R. Yaakov Kamenetsky, unless you want to redefine the term scholar.

  92. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Mycroft: Rav Hayyim Heller.

    Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky is a borderline case.

  93. mycroft says:

    “Hirhurim on January 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm
    Mycroft: Were there any 20th century American gdolim who you would considerto be a “biblical scholar”?

    R. Yaakov Kamenetsky, unless you want to redefine the term scholar”

    Fair enough-Emes leYaacov-

    “Lawrence Kaplan on January 29, 2012 at 1:35 pm
    Mycroft: Rav Hayyim Heller.

    Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky is a borderline case”
    I am intrigued Prof Kaplan by “borderline case” and Rav YaacovK.
    Could you elaborate-frankly-I can guess of a number of reasons depending on terms used-curious as to your meaning.

    Re RH Heller clearly a Rabbinical schola and talmid chacham-for better or worse gdolim are those who get listened to by hamon am. I doubt many people would call R Hayyim Soloveitchik a gadol and yet clearly he is a world class talmid chacham. when he came to RIETS in the late 60s some left his fathers shiur to attend his shiur.

  94. mycroft says:

    ‘Could it be that the 600.000 is the number of Jewish souls that left Egypt, including those (heads of family?) that participate in the Pesach seders ?””

    THERE ARE MUCH MORE THAN 600,000 THAT PARTICIPATE IN SEDERS EACH YEAR.

  95. mycroft says:

    “Further consideration includes the two generations of Pharaohs after the death of Joseph: The one “who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), and the Pharaoh of the Exodus (Exodus 2:23). Ben-Gurion concludes, therefore, that there were only two generations in slavery in Egypt.”
    Why can’t there be Pharoahs between Shemot 1:8 and Shemot 2:23?

  96. mycroft says:

    “Numbers 1:16, 10:36 — where the use ‘thousand’ for אלף yields the improbable number of Israel in the tens of millions!,”

    Strong argument-but of course problem Bamidbar and listing of numbers in hundredes down to exact amount ie number of bechorim etc.

  97. Albert Madansky says:

    My paper, “On Biblical Censuses,” published in Vol.2, No. 4 1986 issued of the Journal of Official Statistics, covers this and other computations, including my own estimate of 49,152.

  98. Y. Aharon says:

    Mycroft, the 2 references cited (Num. 1:16 and 10:36) do not present a problem. ‘Rashei alfei Yisrael’ (Num. 1:16)is one designation of the heads of the tribes. They are also called ‘rosh lebeit avotav’ and ‘nasi’. In their capacity they were certainly the heads of thousands. The second reference, ‘rivevot alfei Yisrael’ doesn’t mean tens of millions (it’s not rivevot times alfei). Rather, it means myriads and thousands of Israelites. I believe that Moshe had primarily his own shevet Levi in mind which numbered 2×10,00 + 2×1000.

  99. Rafael Araujo says:

    Interesting note: in this week’s sedrah, 600 chariots chase (according to Ben Gurion) 600 leaving Mitzrayim.

  100. avi says:

    “Interesting note: in this week’s sedrah, 600 chariots chase (according to Ben Gurion) 600 leaving Mitzrayim.”

    Yeah, thats one thing I could not figure out how the expansionists are supposed to understand this. Are 600 chariots really going to be able to get 2-3 million people to cower and turn back?

  101. Rafael Araujo says:

    Expansionists? I guess that includes the HKBH? Lol!

  102. Y. Aharon says:

    Avi, if a large army of raw recruits armed with rifles were confronted today with 600 enemy tanks, they would very likely run for their lives. Chariots were the tanks of the ancient world. They had mobility, and firepower (archers) in addition to their fear inducing presence. The Israelites had spears and swords, at best. They had no training in the use of weapons, nor any experience in fighting. Besides, the 600 chariots mentioned were the ‘heavy duty’ ones (‘rechev bachur’). In addition, all the other chariots were marshalled for the chase (‘vechol rechev Mizraim’)(Ex. 14:7).

  103. Raymond in DC says:

    Avi writes, “Are 600 chariots really going to be able to get 2-3 million people to cower and turn back?”

    How many Nazis with machine guns did it take to cow hundreds, if not thousands, of hapless Jews to get on the trains? Just a handful.

    And who says there were only 600 chariots? Alter’s translation reads: “And he [Pharaoh] took six hundred picked chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over it all.” The foot note clarifies: “That is, Pharaoh took not only the elite chariots [that is, the 600], but in fact the entire Egyptian chariot corps.”

  104. Shlomo Karni says:

    To Y. Aharon:

    “Rivevot alfei” is in the construct form (s’michut), and it means “ten tousands of thousands”. Your “myriads and thousands” would read “r’vavot va’alafim”.

 
 

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