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In Sanhedrin 111a, we read:

It is taught in a baraita with regard to the few that are destined to be redeemed: Rav Simai says that it is stated: “And I will take you to Me as a people” (Exodus 6:7), and juxtaposed to that verse it is stated: “And I will bring you into the land” (Exodus 6:8). The Torah compares their exodus from Egypt to their entry into the land; just as during their entry into the land only two of six hundred thousand entered the land, as they all died in the wilderness except for Caleb and Joshua, so too, during their exodus from Egypt, in terms of the ratio, only two of six hundred thousand left Egypt and the rest died there. Rava says: And likewise, that will be situation in the messianic era, as it is stated: “And she shall respond there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:17). The ultimate redemption and the exodus from Egypt are juxtaposed, indicating that in the messianic era too, only few will survive.

So, only two out of the 600,000 adult Jewish men entered the promised land (Joshua and Caleb). That's believable, after 40 years in the desert. But then we read that only 2 in 600,000 Jews left Egypt in the first place. This puts the number of Jews in Egypt at 600,000 x 300,000 = 180 billion. And that's just the adult males.

Now, I do not believe Rav Simai (supported by Rava) believed there were that many Jews. But I do believe that every statement in the Talmud is meant to teach us something. So what is the teaching here? (Other than the depressing thought that only 1 in 300,000 of us can expect to be redeemed in the future.)

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    FWIW this Gemara is in conflict with the Tanchuma at the beginning of Beshalach, which has opinions of 1/5 (the opinion quoted by Rashi), 1/50, 1/500, and 1/5000 of the Jews leaving Mitzraim, but none as small as 1/300,000.
    – DonielF
    Commented Jun 21, 2019 at 22:39
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    Why do those numbers surprise you? It is clear that the Limud is allegorical, to compare Exodus to entering the promised land. The whole Haggadah Shel Pesach is full of such exaggerations. 10-50-200-250 plagues for example.
    – Al Berko
    Commented Jun 23, 2019 at 10:02
  • 180 billion! That is absurd! That is not what the Torah teaches at all!
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 0:16
  • At best they were 4M Egyptians and 7M Africans in all of Africa at that time! At least 15M Jews are far better than 180 billion.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 0:17
  • Pedantically, the number is zero since the people were known as Israelites at the time. The term "Jewish" is derived from "Judah", one of the two tribes of Israel (the other being the tribe of Benjamin) who remained in Israel during (IIRC) Babylonian captivity. 9 of the other 10 tribes were scattered about, with Levites/Kohanim being distributed among them and within Israel itself.
    – Beefster
    Commented May 1 at 17:26

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R. Judah Loewe explains in his commentary to this passage that the Talmud is referring to all the people who died in Egypt over the entire course of time the Israelites were there:

והם כל הדורות שמתו במצרים כי כל הדורות שהיו במצרים היו סבורים לצאת היו שנים מששים רבוא

Thus, the Talmud never meant that there were 300,000 x 600,000 people at one time, but that over the entire period in Egypt (somewhere between 210-430 years) there were that many people.

This approach is more or less echoed by R. Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad in his commentary to the passage:

ונ"ל בס"ד דלאו על אותם שמתו בימי החשך קאי אלא על אותם שנולדו ומתו במשך רד"ו שנים שהיו במצרים שאם תחשוב כמה נפשות היו אז יעלו אלו היוצאים שנים מששים רבוא

Another approach is taken by R. Hayyim Bachrach, who explains in his commentary to this passage that the number was referring to all the people who would have been born to those who died in Egypt:

ובעלי התלמוד חשבו החשבון בדקדוק אשר אם לא מתו במצרים בשלשת ימי אפילה או אם לא נהרגו בעת חורבן הי' עולה מהם מתולדותיהם עד סוף כמספר המבואר בתלמוד ובמדרש

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    Thanks. Interesting! However, the number of people who ever lived has been estimated at about 100 billion (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population_estimates), or half the 180B Jews in Egypt according to my Gemara. Also, this does not answer the question: What is the teaching here? Commented Jun 23, 2019 at 4:17
  • @MauriceMizrahi According to these sources there would seem to be no need to seek "a teaching", since the numbers can be explained factually.
    – Alex
    Commented Jun 23, 2019 at 4:21
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I just came across this medrash and Gemara over Pesach, and I saw the three interpretations quoted by Alex above. I was thinking that there’s a tremendous lesson if you take R’ Hayyim Bachrach’s approach (which I’m wondering if you could squeeze into Rashi). His understanding was that the 180 billion is referring to all the offspring that would have been descended from those who died during makkat choshech. The lesson I was thinking was to keep in mind that the decisions you make (in this case to stay in mitzrayim instead of following Hashem) affect millions and millions of (as of now unborn) people and in a certain sense every single one of us is a “leader” of a nation. That perspective on life can help one conquer his yetzer hara. The mashal I gave was most people drive more cautiously with kids in the car, but in reality even when you are alone millions of people lives (your future descendants) depend on your caution and care.

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  • That's a stunning and beautiful lesson, thank you and welcome to Mi Yodeya. Do you have an exact citation for me to follow this up? I am very curious. 180 billion is a very large number, and given that one's descendants end up marrying each other, (one's great great great great granddaughter from one child would be almost unrelated to one's great great great great grandson from another child), so producing that number is going to be tough. Also the gemara that the Jewish people will continue to be born until all the souls in the "tzelem Elokim" have completed
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented May 1 at 18:28
  • It’s a Gemara in Sanhedrin 111a and a medrash in shmos raba Perek 5 pasuk 5 and the commentators that I saw (also quoted by Alex above) are the maharal, Ben yehoyada (both say similar ideas), and the zichron chaim who says that the Gemara was referring to the total Jews that would have been born. Thanks for the welcoming can’t wait to ask, answer, and most importantly learn:) and where is this Gemara that you were referring to? I’ve heard similar ideas but I’ve never seen it inside Commented May 2 at 1:58
  • Great! Looking forward :) it's mentioned twice in Yevamot, see this Q&A judaism.stackexchange.com/a/137478/31534. Thanks for the info
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented May 2 at 2:47
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If you want a figure that can be historically accurate while internally consistent, I'd go with around 50,000.

Confused? Read this essay by Michael Bar-Ron. His essay argues that the Torah purposefully and intentionally exaggerated the number of people during the exodus. The author demonstrates why this may have been done and offers compelling evidence (in my opinion) from the text that this inflation was intentional. Joshua Berman, a leading bible scholar at Bar-Ilan university takes the same approach in his essay titled "but is it history?"

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I think that this Midrash, and the similar Midrash that only 1/5th or 1/50th of Klal Yisrael are meant to teach the same lesson: redemption is not guaranteed.

This is difficult to hear. We wait for Moshiach every day. We teach our children to wait for Moshiach. We talk about how wonderful everything will be when Moshiach comes as if it is just a matter of time. It isn't. Only the Bnei Yisrael worthy of leaving Egypt were redeemed.

The redemption must be earned and if it comes and you haven't earned it, you will be left behind. It isn't easy. Our goal should be to earn our redemption every day. We need to work on ourselves that so that we are among the worthy when the time comes, פֶּן־אָב֕וֹא וְהִכֵּיתִ֥י אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ חֵֽרֶם (Malachi 3:24).

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    +1 upvote because I 100% agree with you.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 18:52
  • This seems inconsistent with זכו אחישנה לא זכו בעתה - Sanhedrin 98a.
    – Harel13
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 19:05
  • @Harel13 I don't think it is inconsistent at all. We can earn it and have it come early. If it is בעתה however, only those worthy--however small that number--will be redeemed. Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 15:59
  • If they were worthy, then that means they earned it. And if they earned it, that means it's coming early. If it's late, it means they didn't earn it. And if it came despite them not earning it, it means they aren't worthy.
    – Harel13
    Commented Mar 18, 2021 at 16:22
  • People are not uniform. If the majority (or everyone?) earn it, it can come early. But if the majority do not earn it, then only the minority that are worthy will be redeemed when the time comes. The purpose of the aggadah is to teach this point. Even if though some kind of redemption is guaranteed, it might be a tiny minority that are actually redeemed. Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 2:18
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A Midrash says they were 1 billion Jews in Egypt. Out of that 800 million Jews were killed from the ten plagues. See Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael, Beshalach, Masekhta deVayehi Beshalach, petichta, s.v. vayasev Elokim. Also See Tanchuma on Exodus 13:18.

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  • @Harel13 See Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael, Beshalach, Masekhta deVayehi Beshalach, petichta, s.v. vayasev Elokim. Also See Tanchuma on Exodus 13:18.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 21:49
  • Can you clarify where you are getting your numbers from? I looked at both Mechilta and Tanchuma and neither of them say 1 billion with 800 million killed as far as I see (the largest numbers were 1 in 5000 surviving, which given the 600,000 who left, gives a number of 3 billion in Egypt and 2.9994 billion killed). Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 2:13
  • @Salmononius2 I did the math but your math may be more accurate. It may be 3 billion.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 17:01
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Midrashim do not tell true events

In his work called Chelek, Maimonides writes that those who take Midrashim literary are "fools," while those who reject them out of hand are also "fools." Midrashim are imaginative parables, sermons designed to teach moral lessons. People should mine Midrashim for lessons about proper behavior.

Rashi quotes a Midrash for verse 13:18: “And the Israelites left Egypt chamushim.” Some translate the word chamushim to mean “a fifth,” or “armed,” or even “five.” As a result, they explain that only a fifth of the Israelites mitered the reward to leave Egypt. Actually, this could simply be rabbinic hyperbole. The Torah tells us that 600,000 males between the ages of twenty and sixty left Egypt. If we calculate this number of males by the rest of Israelites, including women and children, and cattle, the number reaches 3,000,000, an impossible number since only seventy Israelites entered Egypt two centuries ago. But the Bible always exaggerates numbers and uses hyperbole for impact or to make a point. Thus, the total number of Israelites, with spouses, might have been far less than 600,000.

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  • Does this answer the question?
    – Mordechai
    Commented Jan 18, 2020 at 20:01
  • You seem to have lifted your first paragraph from a paragraph in this answer to a different question.
    – robev
    Commented Jan 21, 2020 at 13:03
  • Actually, I lifted it from this answer.
    – Jonathan
    Commented Jan 21, 2020 at 16:45
  • A Midrash may be, but do you have any evidence that the verses themselves are intended metaphorically? Say what you will about 1/5 leaving, but you can’t get around the verses explicitly saying that about 600,000 men left Egypt excluding women and children, plus the two censuses in Numbers counting only men between 20 and 60 yet getting a figure over 600,000.
    – DonielF
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 17:11
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I am convinced that the Bible always, not just sometimes, exaggerates numbers to make an impact. I think the total number of Israelites that left Egypt with some Egyptian spouses were far less than 600,000.

Rabbi Gil Student acknowledges that there is zero evidence, none, to support the theory of mass-exodus. At best he estimates 600k or blind faith if you still want to accept that it was 6M. Besides, they were only four million Egyptians and 7M Africans at a whole in Africa at the time. It is illogical to assume that they were 15M Jews in slavery at that time. That is absurd. The rabbis of the Talmud simply did not have the statistics that we do now. But this does not dilute religion at all. Sinai Revelation is still valid, even if small in numbers. For numbers mean not a thing. If so, why aren't you Muslim?

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