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.

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

The First Pesach: Did the Patriarchs Celebrate Passover?

The holiday of Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt over three thousand years ago. The Torah tells us that because of their hasty departure, the dough of the Israelites did not have time to rise, hence the consumption of matzah. Yet, the term matzah appears in the Torah long before the Exodus! We read in Genesis 19:3 that Lot welcomed the angels into his home and “made them a feast, and baked matzot, and they ate.” Since the angels came to Lot immediately after visiting Abraham and Sarah to announce the birth of Isaac at that time next year (Genesis 18:10), the Sages learn from this that Isaac was born on Passover. Of course, the Exodus only took place four hundred years after Isaac’s birth! How is it that the patriarchs are already eating matzah?

An Eternal Torah

Although the Torah was given to the Israelites following the Exodus, Jewish tradition affirms that the Torah is eternal, and even predates existence. A famous verse in the Zohar (II, 161a) states that “God looked into the Torah and created the universe.” Adam knew the whole Torah, and was taught its deepest secrets by the angel Raziel. Many of these teachings were passed on by Adam to future generations, down to Noah, then his son Shem, and eventually to the Patriarchs who, according to tradition, studied at Shem’s academy. So, while the Torah tradition officially dates back to Sinai, in some ways it dates back all the way to Creation! It’s also important to keep in mind that the Patriarchs were prophets, which means that even though they did not have a physical, written Torah, there is no reason why they could not have received the Torah’s wisdom directly from God.

As such, it is said that the Patriarchs kept the entire Torah and fulfilled all the mitzvot. When Jacob sends a message to Esau after his sojourn in Charan he tells him “I have lived [garti] with Laban” (Genesis 32:5). On this, Rashi says that garti (גרתי) is an anagram of taryag (תרי״ג), the 613 commandments, meaning that despite living under the oppressive Laban for twenty years, Jacob still observed all 613 commandments. Yet, this is impossible since Jacob married two sisters—a clear Torah prohibition! Similarly, when Abraham meets Melchizedek (ie. Shem) following his victory over the Mesopotamian kings, he tells him that he will not take any reward whatsoever, not even “a thread or strap” (Genesis 14:23). For this, the Sages say, Abraham’s descendants merited the mitzvah of tzitzit (the threads) and tefillin (the straps). In that case, Abraham himself did not wear tefillin or tzitzit. From such instances we see that the patriarchs did not keep the Torah completely, at least not the Torah as we know it.

Emanations of Torah

While Kabbalistic texts often point out that the Torah is eternal and served as the very blueprint of Creation, they also go into more detail to explain that this primordial Torah was not quite the same as the Torah we have today. Each of the four mystical universes (Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, Atzilut) has an ever-more refined level of Torah, with the highest being the Torah of Atzilut. Our Torah is the one of Asiyah, and is full of mitzvot only due to Adam’s sin and the corruption of mankind. In Olam HaBa, the Torah of Atzilut will finally be revealed, which is why Jewish tradition holds that many mitzvot will no longer apply in that future time. This is said to be the meaning of Isaiah 51:4 where God proclaims that in the messianic times “a Torah will go forth from Me”; and of Jeremiah 31:30 where God says He will forge a brit chadashah, a “new covenant”, with Israel. (This latter term was usurped by Christians for their “New Testament”.)

An even more intriguing idea is that the “New Torah” will be composed of the exact same letters as the current one we possess, just rearranged to form new words! Yet another is based on the well-known principle that the Heavenly Torah is composed of “black fire on white fire”. This is often used to explain the fact that the Torah actually has 304,805 letters, even though it is always described as having 600,000 letters (one for each Israelite at Mt. Sinai)—there are 304,805 letters of “black fire” and the rest are the invisible letters of “white fire”. Gershom Scholem cites a number of Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts suggesting that these currently-invisible “white fire” letters are the true eternal Torah! (See Scholem’s Kabbalah, pgs. 171-174, for a complete analysis of these concepts.)

It is this primordial Torah that was originally taught to Adam, and was passed down through his descendants to the Patriarchs, who carefully observed it. As such, it appears that eating matzah is an eternal mitzvah that already appeared in the primordial Torah before the Exodus and the revelation of the current Torah of Asiyah. What was the meaning behind that consumption of matzah?