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19.05.2015 09:34    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  bamidbar  

"The total enrolled in the divisions, 603,550"

The book of Numbers, Be-Midbar in Hebrew (="in the desert") is appropriately named in English insofar as it is full of numbers. One of the problematic figures is the number of Israelites who left Egypt. The Israelites entered Egypt a mere 70 souls (Gen. 46) and left, six hundred thousand.

The census recorded in Parashat Be-Midbar tells us that the males over the age of twenty numbered 603,550, not including the tribe of Levi. Adding an estimated figure for the Levites over age twenty (not explicitly stated in the Torah), we come to some 620 thousand men leaving Egypt. This enormous figure demands an explanation, since it reflects an increase in population of close to 10,000-fold, something unparalleled in all of history. Our objective here is to suggest an explanation. Our argument proceeds in several stages.

The number of generations in Egypt

The Israelites were in Egypt for 210 years. The well-known figure of 400 years pertains to the period beginning with the birth of Isaac. Of these 400 years, only 210 were actually spent in Egypt itself (see Rashi on Exodus 12:46).

A woman is fertile roughly from age 15 to age 45. We compute a generation according to a woman's age at the middle of her period of fertility, namely thirty years. That gives us seventy generations of Israelites in Egypt. The members of the seventh generation were young at the time of the exodus and hence are not included in our computation, since the Torah only counted males "age twenty and over."

The size of a typical family

The main challenge is to determine the size of the typical family. A well-known legend on the verse, "But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them" (Ex. 1:7), says that "the women would bear six children in a single birth."[1] It seems, however, that the enormous population growth of the Israelites can be explained differently, in line with the general rule that "a verse cannot depart from its plain meaning."[2] Another advantage to our explanation is that it harmonizes with the absence of even a single example of a family with dozens of sons in all the households mentioned in Numbers.

Jacob had twelve sons, but these were born to him by four wives; therefore, his was not a typical family. Jacob's twelve sons had 55 sons in all (Genesis, chapter 46). Some of them in turn had many sons (Benjamin had ten [Gen. 46:21[) and some, few sons (Dan had only one son [Gen. 46:23]). The average comes out to 4.6 sons per father. This figure will provide the basis for our computations. Aside from 4.6 sons per family in every generation, presumably there were a similar number of daughters, so that an average family had 9.2 children. This number is in no way out of the ordinary. Among the Haredi community today families of nine children are all too common.

To sum up, 55 male descendants of Jacob went down to Egypt, and this number grew 4.6-fold in every generation. The table below shows the number of sons at the end of each generation, rounding off the figures.

Generation number

Beginning figure







Number of males








The table does not include the seventh generation, since they were not included in our computations because they were young and the Torah only counted males "twenty years or older." By the time of the exodus from Egypt, the first four generations had died off (since 120 years had gone by); so we must take into consideration only the fifth generation (110 thousand) and the sixth generation (520 thousand). According to our computation, the overall number of males aged twenty and over leaving Egypt was 630 thousand. This number is remarkably similar to that given in the Torah, namely 620 thousand.

Insofar as the population increased 11,300 times over the course of six generations (180 years) we must still ask why the rate of population growth was so great in comparison with the rates familiar to us? For example, between 1750 and 1930, the world population only increased three-fold (from 650 million to 2 billion).[3] How are we to explain the great difference between this small rate of growth (three-fold) and the tremendous rate reported in Numbers (11,300-fold), over a similar period of 180 years? The question should actually be reversed: why did the world population not grow 11,300-fold in 180 years, even though the typical number of births in that era was no less than nine?

This lower rate of population growth cannot be ascribed to a high figure for casualties of war during those years. Even the cruelest of wars, World War II—in which some 60 million people were killed, among them six million Jews—had almost no impact on the size of the world population. At the outbreak of the war, the population of the world was around 2.2 billion; so less than 3% of the world population perished in this war.

The real reason for the slow growth of the world population was the large percentage of pregnancies that did not result in the birth of children who survived to maturity, due to illness, epidemic, natural miscarriage, and still-birth. Before modern times the vast majority of children in any family died young. Therefore the world population grew very slowly even though a woman might have had many pregnancies in her lifetime.

In Guns, Germs and Steel,[4] Professor Jared Diamond describes at length the lethal impact of illness and plague on populations in the past. Thousands of years ago, during the time of the exodus from Egypt, due to terrible illnesses and plagues, it took 1000 years to double the population of the world. But in the twentieth century, with the effective cures discovered by modern medicine, the world population has doubled every forty years, notwithstanding extensive use of birth-control.


The Torah tells us twice that the Holy One, blessed be He, blessed the Israelites with numerous offspring in Egypt, both in the verse, "But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them" (Ex. 1:7), as well as the verse, "But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out" (Ex. 1:12). Since families of nine children were not exceptional, how did these blessings find expression? Their significance lay in that pregnancies resulted in the birth of children who grew to adulthood and themselves in turn brought children into the world.

We need not assume that there was no infant mortality whatsoever, rather, that of all the pregnancies a woman may have had during her fertile years, nine times her offspring survived and thrived. This was highly exceptional in the ancient world. Thus were the Israelites in Egypt blessed and transformed from a small clan of seventy souls to a very great and populous nation.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

[1] Rashi on this verse cites the homily in Exodus Rabbah, chapter 1, par. 8.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 63a; Yevamot 24a.

[3] Vaughn Aubuchon, World Population Growth History Tables, 2003 (Web Publishers: Soquel, California).

[4] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997 (Norton: New York).

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