Sunday, January 31, 2010

How Many Jews Were In Egypt?

The Torah (Ex. 13:18) tells us that when the Jews left Egypt, they were "chamushim". Rashi and Rashbam translate this as "armed". Ibn Ezra (Peirush Ha-Arukh) and Chizkuni suggest that it means that they had sufficient money or provisions.

However, Rashi also quotes a Midrash to explain the word, based on its linguistic connection to the word "chamesh -- five":

An alternate explanation of chamushim: one of every five went out [of Egypt] and four-fifths died during the three days of darkness.
Click here to read moreIn other words, while 600,000 men left Egypt, that was only one-fifth of the people at the time. There were 3 million men (plus women, children and old people) in Egypt, 2.4 million of whom died during the plague of darkness. Rashi's source is the Mekhilta, which also has the views that one-fiftieth and one-five hundredth left Egypt. About this last view, that only one-five hundredth left Egypt, Ibn Ezra writes in his Peirush Ha-Katzar:
The Midrash that one-five hundredth left is a minority view that is disputed. It is not at all a tradition. We have enough problems with the Muslim scholars who ask how, in 210 years, 600,000 men above the age of 20 could descend from 55 men.
Ibn Ezra then proceeds to describe his debates with Muslim scholars who claimed that there is no way that Ya'akov's family could turn into 600,000 men in 210 years. Ibn Ezra did the math to show it could be possible. However, the suggestion that there were really 300 million men is beyond credulity.

Additionally, it seems that no Jews died during the plagues that Egyptians died. If so, how could we suggest that the vast majority of Jews died during the plague of darkness, when no Egyptians died?

Furthermore, if only a tiny portion of Jews were redeemed from Egypt, then it wasn't such a great salvation. The redemption was actually a terrible tragedy. That is the opposite of what the Torah tells us.

Instead, Ibn Ezra says, the Midrash is either unreliable or is based on a "secret," presumably meaning an allegorical meaning.

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