How Many Israelites Actually Left Egypt?

This week we start reading the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, more commonly known as “Numbers” since it begins with a detailed census of the Israelites. The Torah concludes that there was a total of 603,550 men at this point in the Wilderness, implying a general population of about 3 million people. Or does it? While these are the numbers one generally hears when it comes to the question of how many Jews were present at the Exodus (about 600,000 men, and something like 3 million people when accounting for their families), there is an alternate way to read the Torah which might actually make far more sense.

(Please read the following with an open mind, and do not jump to any conclusions until you’ve read through to the end!)

The 600,000 Problem

If we take the classic figures of 600,000 men/3 million people at the Exodus, we are presented with a problem of immeasurable proportions. How could there have been so many people? (We will set aside for a moment the teaching that only a fifth of the Jews came out of Egypt, implying a population of 15 million slaves!) If we stop to think about it more carefully, what does it mean that 3 million people marched out of Egypt? How big was their camp? How did they interact with each other? How did Moses and Aaron address so many people?

Imagine for a moment the Splitting of the Sea: how many Jews walked in a row, side-by-side? Let’s say it was 100 Jews per row, with just 4 square metres of space for each person (ie. a square 2 metres by 2 metres, which is a conservative estimate since we know they came out with lots of possessions, animals, weapons, carriages, wood, and rechush gadol, “great wealth”). If the Jews walked a hundred to a row, that means their column was at least 200 metres wide, and the Sea must have split even wider—that’s reasonable, so far. Now, if we have 3 million Jews altogether, at a hundred per row, that means we would have a column of Jews stretching back at least 60,000 metres, or sixty kilometres! It would be impossible to even see the end (or even the middle) of that trail of people! How could Moses and Aaron possibly lead a column 60 kilometres behind them? How could they address so many people? How long would it take for 60 kilometres worth of people—including little children and frail elders—to cross the sea? Even if you assume they walked a thousand to a row, with the sea splitting over two kilometres wide, that still makes a column at least six kilometres long; not much better.

Furthermore, the Torah tells us that the Israelites were being pursued by 600 Egyptian chariots (Exodus 14:7). Somehow, this tiny military unit frightened all the Israelites to the point where some wanted to commit suicide or give up and go back to Egypt! Really? 600,000 fighting-age Israelite men were afraid of 600 chariots? They outnumbered them 1000 to 1! Don’t forget that the Torah says the Israelites were armed when they left Egypt—they had weapons! (Exodus 13:18)

‘The order of the Israelite camp in the Wilderness’ by Jan Luyken c. 1700. This is how we often visualize and depict the Israelite camp, yet such an image doesn’t really have room for 3 million people!

The nail in the coffin is the firstborn census. The traditional reading of the Torah is that there were about 22,000 firstborn among the 600,000 men (Numbers 3:42-43). That’s a ratio of around 1 to 27. It implies that for every one firstborn male, there were 27 other men who were not firstborn. When factoring in women, it suggests each family had something like 60 children! While there are Midrashim which make a case for that, the Torah clearly tells us how big families really were at the time, and they were pretty standard-sized: Moses came from a family of three children, and had two kids of his own; Aaron had four children, Tzelofchad had five daughters. No one comes close to having 60 kids!

In short, reading the Torah in a way that gives 600,000 men and 3 million people doesn’t work very well. Luckily, there is a better way to read the Torah’s census.

Chiefs and Clans

A century ago, the famous archaeologist and historian Flinders Petrie (who discovered the Merneptah Stele, the earliest archaeological document to mention “Israel”) suggested that the word אלף should not be read as elef, “thousand”, but as aluf, “chief”, or alef, “clan”. Such terms appear in Genesis 36, which recounts the Alufei Edom, “Chiefs of Edom”, and in multiple other places that discuss the tribal clans within Israel, for example “Bethlehem of Ephrath, the least among the clans [alfei] of Judah…” (Micah 5:1)

Dr. Ben Zion Katz takes this suggestion further and shows how we can use it to read the Torah verses differently. Take, for instance, Numbers 1:21: “Those counted from the tribe of Reuben, shishah v’arba’aim elef v’chamesh me’ot.” The classic way of reading it is “forty-six thousand, five hundred.” However, if we read elef as alef, then we instead get something like “forty-six clans, totalling five hundred.” In this way, instead of having 600,000 men, we have 600 clans, each led by an aluf, the chief of the clan. While this suggestion might be difficult to accept at first (especially since we’ve been raised with the notion of 600,000 and this is so deeply engrained in our psyche!) it beautifully makes sense of everything.

Now we can understand, for example, why the Israelites were so frightened of just 600 Egyptian chariots. Maybe it’s because they only had 600 chiefs to counter them—a fair fight! It explains how 600 Egyptian chariots can capture the Israelites back into bondage, for they would only need to subdue 600 clans (ie. extended families), not a massive nation of 3 million. It would make much more sense in terms of the size of the Israelite camp, with Moses being able to address everyone directly. We can easily envision 600 extended families encamped together, k’ish echad b’lev echad, united “like one man, with one heart”, under Mount Sinai.

Conversely, it is very difficult to imagine how 3 million Jews could do so—a population equal to a major modern metropolis. And how would you fit a metropolis-sized group of people under a small mountain? And how would 3 million congregate to sin around a Golden Calf? Since we know 3000 sinned with the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:28), why punish 99.9% of the population—most of whom were too far away to even see the Golden Calf, since the camp would have stretched for miles—for a sin committed by 0.1%? And why would Korach’s Rebellion even be a threat if he only garnered 250 notable followers (Numbers 16:2)? (It would be a huge threat if he had 250 chiefs out of a total 600, though!)

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense of every narrative and statement in the Torah. God told us that he chose us “not because you were more numerous than any other people, but because you were the least of all people” (Deuteronomy 7:7) This verse would not make any sense if there were 3 million Israelites, for that would make them among the largest nations in the world at the time. (Scholars estimate a global human population of only about 14 million three thousand years ago!) The verse does make sense if the number of Israelites was in the thousands or ten-thousands, which would certainly make us the “least” of all peoples, a tiny newborn nation. Of course, this reading also explains the dearth of archaeological evidence in the Sinai: 3 million people would have left a treasure trove of clues to confirm their presence; several thousand wouldn’t.

Having said all that, we cannot simply sweep away the 600,000 number, for it is fundamental to Judaism. So much is built upon this concept, including matters of halakhah. So, how do we reconcile the apparent contradiction?

Souls and Bodies

One of the foundational teachings of Judaism is that all Jewish souls that ever lived (or will live) stood at Sinai during the Torah’s revelation. Mystical texts state that there are 600,000 Jewish soul roots (see, for example, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 17), and every Jewish soul somehow emanates from one of these roots. It is these 600,000 soul roots that were present at Sinai, encapsulating all future Jewish souls. This is a fact that cannot be contested or modified in any way.

Having said that, we can distinguish between souls and bodies. While there were certainly 600,000 Jewish souls at Sinai, there didn’t necessarily have to be 600,000 physical bodies (or 3 million for that matter). Upon further thought, it fits more neatly anyway: If we know that there were 600,000 souls at Sinai, how would we reconcile that with 3 million individuals at Sinai? Did those who were not men over the age of 20 not count as souls? Surely not. In some ways, the fact that there were 600,000 souls at Sinai actually supports the notion of less than that many people physically present there!

All of this is analogous to the parallel teaching that the Torah is made up of 600,000 letters. We know that the Torah actually has 304,805 letters, so why would our Sages say it has 600,000? [And even prove it by saying “Israel” (ישראל) stands for yesh shishim ribua otiot l’Torah (יש שישים ריבוא אותיות לתורה), “There are 600,000 letters in the Torah.”] The answer, as is well-known, is that the Heavenly Torah has 600,000 “spiritual” letters, written as “black fire on white fire”. The 600,000 spiritual letters parallel the 600,000 spiritual roots of the Jewish people. The Arizal adds that there are 600,000 different explanations for everything in the Torah—one for each type of Jew (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 17). So, just as we physically don’t see 600,000 letters to the Torah, we can draw the same conclusion about the 600,000 at Sinai who were certainly there spiritually, but not necessarily physically.

A reconstruction of ancient Alexandria, showing the locations of the famous Great Lighthouse and Serapeum, as well as the Jewish Quarter.

Lastly, I believe that at least some of our ancient Sages also held that there were not 3 million people at Sinai. For instance, we read in the Talmud (Sukkah 51b) how Rabbi Yehuda describes the Great Synagogue of Alexandria, which could hold “twice as many people as went forth from Egypt”. Could one ancient building fit 6 million people, or even 1.2 million people? This is absolutely impossible, even by today’s standards, so either Rabbi Yehuda was exaggerating to the extreme, or perhaps he understood that the number of Israelites that came out of Egypt was a far more conservative number. (It is worth noting that the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in ancient Alexandria around 60 BCE, wrote that its population was 300,000, Jews included.)

To conclude, while there were certainly 600,000 souls at Sinai, perhaps there were not that many Israelites there physically. Reading the censuses of the Torah in the alternate way presented above allows for a more logical understanding that is also truer to history, archaeology, demography, and the Torah’s own narratives. It is certainly far from perfect and comes with its own set of question marks, but overall it solves a lot more issues than it generates, so it might be worth some further consideration.

Happy Yom Yerushalayim and Shabbat Shalom!


From the archives: The Stones, Symbols, and Flags of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

How the Patriarchs Rectified Adam

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

This week we read a double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai. In its commentary on the first of the two, the Zohar states that the Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—each rectified one part of Adam (Zohar III, 221b, Ra’aya Mehemna). Through the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit and the aftermath of that event, the Zohar states that Adam was, in effect, guilty of three cardinal sins.

In Jewish law, one is supposed to violate any mitzvah if they are threatened with death—except for three: idolatry, forbidden sexual relations (giluy ‘arayot), and murder (see Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 5:2). When Adam and Eve consumed the Fruit, the sin was akin to idolatry: ignoring God’s command and taking the advice of the Serpent instead. Moreover, idol worship itself began in the generation of Enosh, Adam’s grandson (Genesis 4:26). Adam was alive and well at the time, and should have prevented this development. For these reasons, it is considered that Adam transgressed the sin of idolatry.

Similarly, he was held accountable for sexual transgression. We read in the Torah (Genesis 5:3) that Adam was 130 years old when he and Eve had their third son, Shet (or Seth). Why did the couple wait 130 years to have another child? The Sages explain that after the Forbidden Fruit, Adam and Eve were so dejected that they separated for 130 years. Unfortunately, during this time Adam was unable to control his urges and “wasted seed”. (We have addressed this issue and the 130-year period before in depth here.) This is where he was guilty of giluy ‘arayot, sexual sin.

Finally, the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit brought death to the world, as God had warned Adam and Eve. Without that, there would have been no murder. Adam and Eve experienced this firsthand when their eldest son slew his brother. Again, Adam failed to prevent history’s first murder. For these reasons, Adam was also guilty of bloodshed. The soul of Adam needed rectification, and this is where the Patriarchs stepped in.

Repairing Adam

The Zohar tells us that each of the Patriarchs contained a part of Adam’s soul. Abraham came first, and purified the part of Adam that was stained with idolatry. This happened when King Nimrod arrested Abraham for preaching monotheism and for making fools of the idolaters (see Beresheet Rabbah 38:13). Nimrod gave Abraham an ultimatum: bow down to the idols, or be thrown into a fiery furnace. Abraham refused in an incredible display of faith, so Nimrod threw him in. At this point, God miraculously saved Abraham from the flames. (Amazingly, this was actually the very first time God revealed Himself to Abraham.) This act rectified the sin of idolatry within the soul of Adam.

Next came Isaac. At the Akedah, he laid down his neck and was willing to die for a mitzvah. This was a rectification for bloodshed. (For more on this rectification, see ‘Secrets of the Akedah’ in Garments of Light.) Finally, it was Jacob who purified sexual sin. When Jacob blessed his eldest son Reuben (Genesis 49:3), he said that Reuben was the first of his “strength”, which can also be read “my first emission”. The Sages derive from this that Reuben’s conception was literally the very first time that Jacob had an emission—he was 84 years old at the time! Through his purity, Jacob rectified Adam’s sin of wasted seed.

In these ways, the Patriarchs repaired the soul of the first man, and merited to have their faces adorn the corners of the Merkavah, God’s Divine Chariot. Of course, a chariot has a fourth wheel. The fourth was reserved for the one who could complete the entire rectification—not just for Adam, but for all of mankind.

A Gift of 70 Years

The Torah tells us that Adam lived 930 years. This is a peculiar number. Could he not have lived a round 1000? After all, God had told Adam that if he eats from the Forbidden Fruit, he would die that “same day” (Genesis 2:17), and a day for God is equal to 1000 years (Psalm 90:4)! Indeed, Adam should have lived 1000 years. However, when God gave Adam a preview of all the future generations, Adam saw that David was destined to be stillborn. Adam decided to give up 70 years of his own life to David, which is why Adam lived 930 years, and David lived exactly 70 years. The Zohar relates this narrative (see I, 55a), yet later on it also says that David received his 70 years from each of the Patriarchs! (I, 168a-b) How can this be?

When factoring in the above, we can easily find the solution: Each of the Patriarchs received a part of Adam’s soul first, and after being rectified within the Patriarchs, those parts then moved on to David. The Zohar explains that Abraham gave 5 years of his life to David, since Abraham should have lived a complete 180 years, but we see in the Torah that he lived 175 years. Jacob gave up 28 years to David, since he should have lived at least as long as his grandfather Abraham (175 years), but we read that he only lived 147 years. Finally, Joseph gave up 37 of his own years to David, since Joseph should have lived at least as long as his father Jacob (147 years), but we read that he only lived 110 years. In total, David received 70 years (5+28+37).

You might be wondering why David got 37 years from Joseph, and not Isaac. Isaac did live a full 180 years, and gave up nothing to David. The Zohar states the reason for this, but it is beyond the scope of our present discussion. It suffices to say that instead of Isaac, David received a piece from Joseph. Through this, Joseph and David became forever linked. This is another reason why the messiah has two elements: Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben David. In fact, David was the first potential messiah. He had the opportunity to rectify the cardinal sins for all of mankind. Unfortunately, he hit a bit of a snag.

Rectifying the World

Although our Sages warn that one shouldn’t conclude that David sinned in any way (Shabbat 56a), in another place they affirm that David did sin on some level (Yoma 22b). Not surprisingly, the Sages list three sins of David, and it isn’t difficult to see how they neatly parallel the three cardinal sins. First on the list is arranging the death of Uriah the Hittite, then taking a census of Israel, and finally the incident with Batsheva. The first is, of course, bloodshed. The second came as a result of heeding Satan, as we read “And Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to number Israel.” (I Chronicles 21:1) Like with Adam and Eve, this was under the category of idolatry. Finally, the incident with Batsheva was a case of a forbidden sexual union (although our Sages explain how it wasn’t technically forbidden for a number of reasons).

While David did sin, he undoubtedly repented for these sins. He also suffered tremendously for them, as recounted in detail in the Tanakh, and ultimately repented to such a great extent that our Sages say he completely eliminated his yetzer hara, the “evil inclination”. We read that “David succeeded in all his ways; and God was with him.” (I Samuel 18:14) The Sages point out that if God “was with him”, David must surely have been entirely free of sin (Shabbat 56a). Meanwhile, other verses show us how dearly God loved David (his name literally means “beloved”). David reached such a high level that he merited to became the fourth face of the Chariot (Zohar I, 60b).

Having said that, David was still unable to fulfil the role of Mashiach in his generation. This is why the soul of David will return in Mashiach. As we’ve explained in the past, the Arizal points out that “Adam” stands for Adam, David, Mashiach—the first, middle, and “last” being of history. This is why Mashiach himself has to go through a set of rectifications for the three cardinal sins.

Once those tikkunim are affected, the cardinal sins will be defeated for good and expunged from the world. There will be no more bloodshed, as Isaiah famously prophesied: “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares…” (Isaiah 2:4) There will be no more sexual sins, as prophesied by Daniel: “They shall purify themselves, and make themselves white, and be entirely refined…” (Daniel 12:10) And there will be no more idolatry, as Zechariah prophesied: “…in that day God will be one, and His name one.” (Zechariah 14:9)

Shabbat Shalom!


Shavuot is just two weeks away! Make your all-night learning meaningful and do it right with Tikkun Leil Shavuot – the Arizal’s Torah Study Guide.

End of Days Secrets from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai

Monday evening is the start of Lag b’Omer. This special day commemorates a number of important events in the history of the Jewish people. One of these is the revelation of Jewish mystical teachings by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (or Rashbi), who had fled from the Romans and spent a total of 13 years hiding in a cave with his son. As is well-known, the teachings that he revealed would later be expanded upon and compiled into the Zohar, the primary textbook of Kabbalah. What isn’t as well-known is that there are several other ancient texts attributed to Rashbi. Perhaps the most enigmatic is Nistarot d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the “concealed matters” or “secrets” of Rashbi.

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