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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 Jun 21 at 22:39
  • 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 Jun 23 at 10:02
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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? – Maurice Mizrahi Jun 23 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 Jun 23 at 4:21

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