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 '19 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 Jun 23 '19 at 10:02
  • 180 billion! That is absurd! That is not what the Torah teaches at all! – Turk Hill Aug 25 '19 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 Aug 25 '19 at 0:17

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 '19 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 '19 at 4:21

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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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 Jan 18 at 20:01
  • You seem to have lifted your first paragraph from a paragraph in this answer to a different question. – robev Jan 21 at 13:03
  • Actually, I lifted it from this answer. – Jonathan Jan 21 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 Jun 4 at 17:11

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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