Tag Archives: Bamidbar

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

The Divine Anatomy of the Human Body

This week we conclude the fourth book of the Torah (Bamidbar) with the double parasha of Matot and Massei. The latter lists the 42 stops that the Israelites made during the course of their forty year sojourn in the Wilderness. While we know that this forty year period was a “punishment” because the Israelites failed to enter and settle the Holy Land as commanded, there are deeper reasons as well. One of these is that the Israelites spent those four decades learning the Torah for the first time. In some ways, it was like their gestation period.

The Sages compared the 40 years in the Wilderness to the 40 weeks of pregnancy, and pointed out that the gematria of Bamidbar (במדבר) is 248, equal to rechem (רחם), “womb”. This number is not random, for the Sages enumerated precisely 248 parts of the body, which first develop in the womb. The number agrees with modern science, the human body having 206 bones and about 42 major organs (though the latter number is subject to some controversy, depending on how one defines “organ”). The 42 stops that the Israelites made in the Wilderness neatly parallel the 42 organs. The number 206, meanwhile, is the gematria of davar (דבר), literally “word” or “thing”, and is the root of Bamidbar, “In the Wilderness”. The Wilderness was where Israel first heard the Word of God, and where Israel was officially born as a people.

So, there was something of a “divine anatomy” to the time and place of the Israelite wandering. In a similar—and far more amazing—way, there is a “divine anatomy” to the human body.

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The Stages of Life According to the Sefirot

This week we begin reading the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar), named after the many demographic statistics found within it. The text opens with God’s command to take a count of the Israelites. We read that only those over the age of 20 were included in the census, as this was the age of eligibility for military service (Numbers 1:3). This may explains why there was a need for a census to begin with. After all, we see in other places in Scripture, and in Jewish law, that taking a count of Jewish people is highly frowned upon. If so, why take a census? By telling us that God instructed to number only those eligible for military service, the Torah suggests this was a necessity for the purposes of military organization and planning. The Israelites had to reconquer their Holy Land, and as we go on to read throughout the Tanakh, face off against many foes. Therefore, as with any army to this day, it would have been absolutely vital to know exactly how many soldiers there were.

‘The Numbering of the Israelites’ by Philippoteaux

The bigger question here is why are only men over the age of 20 eligible for military service? In a related note, Rashi explains (on Numbers 16:27, based on Sanhedrin 89b) that a person is only judged in Heaven for sins committed after the age of 20. It is only at this point that a person is considered a full-fledged adult, and entirely responsible for their actions. The Heavens are well aware of those hormonal, experimental, rebellious teenage years, and do not hold a person responsible for their actions until they are 20. The Zohar (I, 118b) suggests that the young person will, of course, suffer the consequences of their own poor choices in this world, but will not be judged for it eternally.

The Mishnah (Avot 5:22) further confirms that 20 is the age of adulthood, saying that this is the age “to pursue” a livelihood. This Mishnah states that until 20, a young person should be wholly focused on Torah study and mitzvot: at 5, to start learning Scripture; at 10 to start learning Mishnah, and all the laws that this entails; at 13 to start observing the commandments; at 15 to start learning Gemara, and delving further into Judaism; at 18, to get married. At 20, they are ready to enter the real world. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 14:7) wonderfully ties it all together by stating that God created Adam and Eve as 20 year olds. Based on this, it may be reasoned that in the World of Resurrection—like in Eden—people will inhabit their 20 year old bodies, at the peak of their beauty and vitality.

The Arizal provides a deeper, mystical perspective (see, for instance, the introduction to Sha’ar HaGilgulim). While we often think of the soul as a singular entity, it is actually composed of several parts. The lowest is called nefesh, the basic life force, common to all living things (at least those with blood, as the Torah states in Leviticus 17:11). The next level is ruach, “spirit”, which encompasses one’s good and evil inclinations, along with their drives and desires. The third and, for most people, highest level of soul is neshamah. This is associated with the mind.

A newborn baby is imbued with nefesh, and little else. As it grows, it attains more and more of its ruach, and hopefully has achieved it in full by bar or bat mitzvah age. By this point, a child has learned right from wrong, and understands their good and evil inclinations. It is only at age 20 that a person can access their full neshamah. This is when their mental faculties have developed, and when they can truly overcome their evil inclination. This is why 20 is the minimum age of judgement in Heaven. It is also why 20 is the age of adulthood, and the age at which priests (and soldiers) can begin their service.

The Arizal often notes how, unfortunately, most people never really access their entire neshamah. Many are trapped at the level of ruach for much of their lives—constantly dominated by their evil inclination, with their mental faculties never properly developed. These people have never truly delved into their soul, and might end their life never having realized its purpose. Some are not even at this level, and spend their whole life in the realm of nefesh alone, no different than animals (and newborn babies)—entirely selfish, and mostly just instinctual. Such a person has extremely limited mental-spiritual abilities, regardless of their apparent knowledge or how many PhDs they may have defended. This is called mochin d’katnut, which is all a person has until age 13. From then on, they can develop their higher mental faculties, mochin d’gadlut. Only at age 20 can a person access all levels of their intellect (see Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan shel Pesach, derush 2).

Those who have delved into their neshamah and have attained these higher states of mind are capable of going even further. The fourth level of soul opens up to them, called chayah, sometimes associated with the aura. The fifth and highest level is the yechidah, a sort of divine umbilicus that connects a person directly to God and the Heavens. Indeed, the name “Israel” (ישראל) can be split into yashar-El (ישר-אל), “straight to God”. Every Jew has the potential to tap into their inner yechidah, together with the untold spiritual powers it brings along. A person on this level has access to Heavenly secrets, can receive Ruach haKodesh, a “Holy Spirit” or “divine inspiration”, or even attain true prophecy.

Sefirot of Life

In most years (like this year), parashat Bamidbar is read right around the holiday of Shavuot. This holiday commemorates the divine revelation at Mt. Sinai, an event traditionally compared to a “wedding” between God and Israel. The Torah does not specify a date for this holiday, instead saying that one should count 50 days from Passover. In fact, the Sages call Shavuot “Atzeret”, as if it is the conclusion of Passover, just as the holiday of Shemini Atzeret is the conclusion of Sukkot (yet still a standalone holiday in its own right).

The mochin above (in blue) and the middot below (in red) on the Tree of Life

While Shavuot is likened to a marriage, Passover is described as a new birth. The Sages see the Israelites emerging out of the split Red Sea like a newborn baby coming out of the waters of the womb. There are exactly seven weeks between the first day of Passover and Shavuot, and each week corresponds to one of the seven middot, the seven “lower” sefirot of the mystical Tree of Life. By putting these ideas together, we can conclude that the transition from the first sefirah to the seventh—from Passover to Shavuot—represents the development from birth to marriage. Fittingly, one can draw a very close parallel between the qualities of these sefirot and the major stages of life.

The first sefirah is Chessed, kindness, and is always associated with water. Chessed represents the time in the life-giving waters of the mother’s womb. This is a stage of life that is entirely chessed, requiring no effort on the part of the person at all. They are completely sustained by their mother. Just as the Israelites emerged out of the Red Sea at the end of Passover—at the end of the Chessed week—the embryonic phase ends with birth.

This thrusts the person into Gevurah: severity, restraint, difficulty, the very opposite of Chessed. The newborn phase is the most difficult. The baby is unable to express itself, and has no power to do anything on its own. It spends much of its time in pain and discomfort, crying and misunderstood. Every little ache is literally the worst pain it ever felt in its short life. But that phase soon ends and opens the door to a much better world.

Early childhood is the easiest time of life. A child has all of its needs taken care of, and spends most of his or her time in play. There is no need to work, study, or struggle. A child is showered with constant affection and attention. They are full of energy, curiosity, and innocence. The third sefirah, Tiferet, is also associated with this kind of youthful innocence. (The forefather Jacob, who embodied Tiferet, is described in the Torah as tam, “innocent”.) Tiferet is “beauty” and it is also known as Emet, “truth”, apt descriptions for childhood.

Then comes Netzach: persistence, competitiveness, ambition. This sefirah corresponds neatly to the pre-teen and early teen years, the first half of puberty. The negative quality of Netzach is, naturally, laziness and a lack of motivation—especially common in this age group. But there is also a great deal of competitiveness and a need to win (having not yet learned to lose gracefully). Most of all, there is a sense of immortality (netzach literally means “eternity”), and the carelessness and poor choices that come with that attitude.

The second half of the teen years, up until age 20, is when the young person finally starts to mature. The worst part of puberty is behind them, and the beauty and splendour of youth emerges. This is Hod, “majesty” or “splendour”, the fifth sefirah. Hod is associated with humility and gratitude (lehodot is “to thank”). In these years, the youth start to develop some inner modesty, and begin to understand a little bit about how the world works. Because of that, they are full of ideas, and full of idealism. Being social is very important, and the first real feelings of love for others is here. Fittingly, the fifth sefirah is embodied by Aaron, whom the Mishnah describes above all as a most loving person (Avot 1:12).

At 20, one enters adulthood. This is the sefirah of Yesod, “foundation”. It contains the most difficult qualities to rectify, namely sexuality. Yesod is where most fail, and the Sages describe the final (and most difficult) era before Mashiach’s coming as the one where Yesod is a particular problem, as we see all around us today. There is heavy judgement in this sefirah, too, just as one begins to be judged in Heaven at age 20. Yesod is the last step before the concluding sefirah of Malkhut, “Kingdom”, where everything comes together. Yesod is therefore quite literally the last and greatest test. Most of us spend much of our lives struggling in Yesod more than in any other sefirah. Our entire generation is struggling with this sefirah in particular more than any other. Only with the proper rectification of Yesod—in a holy, wholesome, unified marriage; a true reunion of soulmates—can one enter the Kingdom.

And it is only following all of this that one can ascend ever higher in the sefirot, for they do not end with these lower seven. There are three more “higher” sefirot: the mochin. First comes the pair of Binah, also called Ima, “mother”, and Chokhmah, also called Aba, “father”. On the simplest of levels, being parents is essential to achieving these rectifications. In fact, the Arizal teaches that Aba has an even deeper face (and phase) called Israel Saba, the “grandfather”. At the very end, we reach Keter, the “crown”, the highest sefirah. It corresponds to the highest soul, yechidah, and to the highest universe, Atzilut. This is the face that Daniel described as Atik Yomin, “Ancient of Days”. A holy, ancient human being whose hair is like “pure wool” (Daniel 7:9). This is a completely rectified person, a transcendent being. Such a person is like a projection of pure Godliness in this world. This is the stage of life we should all yearn to one day experience.

‘The order of the Israelite camp in the Wilderness’ by Jan Luyken c. 1700


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