Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Parsha Analysis: Why So Few First Born?

I admit this topic would have been more relevant to the Torah reading of two weeks ago (Parshas Bo), but I was inspired by a related posting yesterday in Maven Yavin. In his article there, lamedzayin provides a mathematical analysis of how the 70 individuals who came to Egypt with Jacob could have grown, in a span of only 210 years, to 600,000 adult males - implying a total population of at least 1.5 million. LZ demonstrates convincingly that given a new generation born every 20 years or so, and with just a moderately high birth rate comparable to that in the developing world today (even leaving out a literal view of the midrash about every woman having sextuplets), the population would easily have grown to a couple of million or higher in that time.

A similar question, which my father and I discussed many years ago, was why there are so few bechorim [male first born] in proportion to the total number of people. As per the counts given in Bamidbar (Numbers), there were about 22,000 bechorim and, as stated above, 1.5M total population. Assuming a male child was born first about 50% of the time, this would imply that only about one in 34 children was a bechor. And the existence of polygamy doesn't help here, since a bechor is defined as first born of the mother.

The theory we came up with was very straightforward. Namely, the reason there are so few bechorim at the time of the Exodus is that many Jewish first born died during makkas bechoros [the 10th plague]. After all, the Torah never says that Jews as a group were unaffected by that plague, as in fact it does state for several of the other plagues. Rather, it provides a conditional: those Jews that put the blood on their doors would have their first born spared. Quite possibly, many families ignored this requirement and their first born died, thus leaving relatively few bechorim per capita.

Although I have never seen this theory in any of the meforshim [classical commentaries] , the concept that Jews were not necessarily immune to makkas bechoros is implied by the famous statement in the haggadah shel pesach concerning the rasha [wicked son]. We are told that "if he were there, he would have not been redeemed". This is odd, for we know that many known reshaim were in fact redeemed from Egypt - e.g., Korach, Dathan, Aviram. However, the particular sin of this rasha was scoffing at, and excluding himself from, the Passover ritual. Therefore, if he were there, he would have refused to put the blood on his door and would have been lost during makkas bechoros!


At 2/17/06, 1:58 AM, Blogger Soccer Dad said...

And if one interprets "chamushim" as meaning 1/5, then 4/5's of the males died in choshech. Their particular sin was that they didn't want to leave. Perhaps first borns were disproportionately susceptible to dying during choshech. If you choose to go this route. Why? I don't know.

At 2/17/06, 10:41 AM, Blogger Elie said...


Interesting point. But even if the deaths occurred during choshesh and not makkas bechoros, it can still be assumed that the bechorim, as leaders, would have mainly been the ones to be punished.

I do have difficulty (supported by Ibn Ezra and others) accepting a literal meaning of the "4/5 of the Jews dying" midrash, since that would quintuple the population increase issue discussed in the Mavin Tavin article. However, I think we're on to something here!

Based on the above, if we can reinterpret 4/5 dying as 4/5 of the leadership dying, then this would exactly take care of the "too few bechorim" problem. If there were on average 6 kids per family, and 80% of the bechorim died, then there would end up being only 1 bechor per 30 people, instead of per six people! QED.

At 2/17/06, 10:53 AM, Blogger Ezzie said...

As nice as that would be, it doesn't read well into the Ibn Ezra. Plus, at this point, were the bechoros the leaders anymore?

The Makas Bechoros pshat solves that, except it sounds like most Jews did in fact put blood on the doorways.

Interesting ideas, though!

At 2/17/06, 10:56 AM, Blogger Elie said...

Ezzie: Agreed - Ibn Ezra certainly doesn't say that the bechorim died during choshesh, just that the idea of 4/5 of the population dying is not literal.

I do still prefer the original idea that the rebelious Jewish bechorim died during makkas bechoros itself. I think that if no Jews were affected by this makka, the Torah would have made mention of this, as it did for dever and others.

At 2/17/06, 10:57 AM, Blogger Elie said...

Plus, at this point, were the bechoros the leaders anymore?

I assume so; didn't they get replaced after the chait ha'eigel?

At 2/19/06, 3:25 AM, Blogger Jerusalemcop said...

interesting idea. never really thought of it that way.

thanks Elie.



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