How Many Israelites Died When the Lights Went Out in Egypt?

Jan 6, 2022

וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס סֻכֹּתָה כְּשֵׁשׁ־מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הַגְּבָרִים לְבַד מִטָּף׃

The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children.

Exodus 12:37

Exodus (12:37) is quite explicit in stating that 600,000 Hebrew men, more specifically men between the ages of 20-60, left Egypt. In his Aramaic translation of the Torah, Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel assumes that each man had an average of five children. Hence, 600,000 men + 600,000 women + 3,000,000 children = 4.2 million Hebrews left Egypt (not including the elderly). 

This was such an exponential increase from the 70 souls that followed Jacob as he descended into Egypt. But the commentaries expand this even more.

When the Children of Israel left Egypt, Exodus (13:18) states that they “went up armed”. But Rashi offers an alternative meaning of the word “armed”(וַחֲמֻשִׁים), explaining that since the root of the word is from the word ‘five’ (חמש), this verse hints that only one fifth of the Hebrews that were in Egypt actually left. According to the Midrash, eighty percent of the Jews, the ones who had assimilated and did not want to leave Egypt, disappeared during the plague of darkness

Mekhilta claims that even more Jews disappeared during the three days of the plague of darkness: 

Some say one in fifty. Some say one in five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: “[I swear by] the Temple Service! It was not one in five hundred that went out [but fewer]. It says, ‘I made you into myriads like the grass of the field’ (Ezekiel 15:7), and it says, ‘The Children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and became huge’ (Exodus 1:6) – a woman would give birth to six at one time. And you say that one in five hundred went out?! [I swear by] the Temple Service! It was not one in five hundred that went out [but fewer]. Rather, many Jews died in Egypt. When did they die? During the three days of darkness, as it says, ‘People could not see each other’ (Exodus 10:23). They were burying their dead, and they thanked and praised Hashem that their enemies could not see and rejoice at their downfall.”

Shemot Rabba explains, “There were sinners among the Jews who had Egyptian patrons, and they had wealth and honor there, [so] they didn’t want to leave.”

This seems extreme and even cruel, however Rabbi Shimon Schwab (1908-1995, the leader of the Breuer’s community in Washington Heights, Manhattan) explained that in actuality, only a few Jews were eradicated in the darkness before redemption. But those few represented a dire threat to the rest of the nation. The dispute in Mekhilta is really about how many descendants these people would have had, and the percentage of the nation they would have made up.

“You can say that only a few people died. Among the Jews there were several completely evil people, who did not deserve the redemption, and they died in the three days of darkness. However, had they remained alive, they could have been the ancestors of millions of people through the generations. This is what the opinions in the midrash are arguing about: whether these descendants would have numbered four times 600,000, or forty-nine times 600,000, or 500 times 600,000.”

Such a small percentage of Jews returning from Egypt is disheartening, but the return from the Babylonian exile was even less impressive. II Kings 24:14-16, which refers only to the first deportation in 597 BCE, records that 10,000 men were taken into exile. Scholars estimate the total population of the Kingdom of Judah during this time at 120,000-150,000. According to the numbers reported in the Book of Kings, less than one-quarter of the population was actually taken into exile. Though this seems insignificant, the exiles constituted the majority of the cultural elite of the nation.

When Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem in 537 BCE, The Book of Ezra reported that 42,360 availed themselves of the privilege, including women, children, and slaves. Most of the Jews chose to remain in exile.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the global Jewish population stood at 16.7 million. After the devastation of the Holocaust, that number dropped to 11.5 million. Despite the horrors they had suffered, Jews did not come flooding back to their historic homeland. In 1948, when the modern state of Israel declared its independence, the Jewish population of Israel was 716,000. Today, almost seven million Jews live in Israel, representing a majority of the world’s 15 million Jews.

It can now be said that the ingathering of the exiles is firmly under way.

New immigrants land in Israel

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