Tuesday, May 31, 2022

No Population Increase

I was discussing the census numbers with someone one שבת. An interesting question was posed regarding the lack of an increase in population over the different censuses that were taken throughout the years in the מדבר. This question is really better suited for פרשת פינחס which takes place towards the end of their journey with still no increase. 

One obvious question is that there should have been many children born over the course of the first 20 years in the מדבר who would be counted by the last census. I've heard some answers to that question which I'd rather not go into at this juncture. The less obvious but more difficult issue is the children that came out of מצרים. As we've pointed out in a previous post, the first born made up approximately 4% of the population which means each family was exceedingly large. It would probably be a gross understatement to suggest that each family consisted of at least 10 male children. Let's even go so far as to say 5, to take into account children who were already counted in the original census. Even though the original 600,000 included a number of different generations it still seems that by all accounts, there should have already been millions of male children not counted in the first census. So where did all these millions go?

Tens and Ones

In Biblical Hebrew, numbers containing both tens and ones are usually written with the ones first, followed by the tens. To cite one of many examples in Bemidbar, the census figure for Reuven is 46,500, written in pasuk 1:21 as "ששה וארבעים אלף וחמש מאות", literally "six and forty thousand and five hundred", in contrast to the usual English way of speaking, which would be "forty-six thousand".

The first question is, why is this the case.

Furthermore, I noticed something this week that I don't recall ever noticing before: In one instance in the parasha, this style is violated. Pasuk 2:9 gives the total of the Eastern Camp, including the tribes of Yehuda, Yissachar, and Zevulun. The number is 186,400, written as follows:

כָּל-הַפְּקֻדִים לְמַחֲנֵה יְהוּדָה, מְאַת אֶלֶף וּשְׁמֹנִים אֶלֶף
וְאַרְבַּע-מֵאוֹת--לְצִבְאֹתָם; רִאשֹׁנָה, יִסָּעוּ.

"... a hundred thousand and eighty thousand and six thousand and four hundred ..."

This is a clear departure from the usual style, which would have been "ששה ושמנים אלף", "six and eighty thousand". I am not aware of any other such departure from the usual style. Any ideas why this is?

Rounded numbers

An interesting article on the use of rounded numbers in the census:
This article was originally found at the following location:
However, with Bar Ilan's rearranged site, I was unable to locate it. So I rescued the text from the web archive:

Parashat Bemidbar 5759/1999

The Census of the Israelites in the Wilderness

Prof. Eli Merzbach

Department of Mathematics and Computer Science

Several censuses of the Israelites are mentioned in the Torah. It is interesting that almost all the numbers listed in these censuses appear to be round numbers, i.e., without units and even mostly without tens. Of course this can be ascribed to miracle or viewed as an inexplicable random occurrence (as some have tried to do). The great commentators have rejected interpretations of this kind on the simple grounds that there are no miracles that do not have significance or purpose.

Another question arises when we consider all the censuses that appear in Numbers: why does the Torah have to relay the subtotals both for the various tribes and also according to their banners? Nine sums appear in Numbers, each and every one of them accurate; but what did the Torah wish to say by relaying these sums? On this question Nahmanides wrote (Num. 1:45):

Scriptures had to say what the total was after giving the detailed figures because Moses and Aaron were commanded to know the census of the entire people and the census of each tribe, for that is the way of kings when counting the people. But the reason underlying this commandment--why the Lord commanded it--escapes me. I do not know why they had to know the number; why were they commanded to know it?

Here are the detailed figures and the totals of the censuses recorded in the Torah:

Numbers 1 Numbers 2 Numbers 26

(on the Plains of Moab)

Reuben 46,500 43,730

Simeon 59,300 151,450 22,000

Gad 45,650 40,500

Judah 74,600 76,500

Issachar 54,400 186,400 64,300

Zebulun 57,400 60,500

Ephraim 40,500 32,500

Manasseh 32,200 108,100 52,700

Benjamin 35,400 45,600

Dan 62,700 64,400

Asher 41,500 157,600 53,400

Naphtali 53,400 45,400

Total 603,550 603,550 601,730

Census of the Levites Numbers 3 Numbers 4

(1 month and up) (age 30 and up)

Gershon 7,500 2,630

Kohath 8,600 2,750

Merari 6,200 3,200

Total Levites 22,300 8,580

These are all the census figures given in the Torah (with the exception of the enumeration of first-borns, whose number is very small in comparison to these figures).

In the literature of the rishonim, or early commentators, I did not find any direct attempt to deal with the two questions which I raised (why the figures are rounded, and what use there is in the totals or sums). Aharonim, or later commentators, however, struggled with these questions. In Meshekh Hokhmah Rabbi Meir Simha ha-Cohen of Dvinsk addressed the first issue as follows (Num. 3:16):

Perhaps Scripture says regarding the number of Israelites, "You ... shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms" (1:3), because they were counted not in units, but only by tens. Therefore, none of the numbers has units, because each head of Israelites gave his number of men, and they were heads of tens. Every small number was rounded, and fewer than ten did not have a head over them alone. Therefore it says "by their groups," for no camp has fewer than ten, as explained in the Jerusalem Talmud, at the end of the first chapter of Eruvin.

Regarding the number of Levites, from age one month up--Moses entered the Tent and a divine voice called out and said, "Thus and so many babes," also not counting by individuals, for the count was "as he was bidden" regarding the number of Israelites [no less than ten]. But this was not the case with the list of first-borns, where each individual was reckoned.

According to this commentary, the smallest unit counted consisted of ten (heads of tens), and therefore only groups up to ten were counted and numbers smaller than that were rounded down. This explanation only accounts for part of the difficulty, since almost all the numbers are rounded to hundreds, not tens. Indeed, Rabbi Aharon David Goldberg relates to this question in his book, Shirat David (Num. 26):

Above, in Parshat Bemidbar (1:25) we cited Imrei Noam to the effect that the reason "units and tens" were not mentioned in the counting, and each tribe was reckoned in hundreds except for the tribe of Gad (45,650), is that Scripture is not strict about the few. There we explained that the reason must be that the Torah completed the counting to the nearest hundred, and that one should not interpret that it rounded to the nearest ten, for if so how does one explain the improbable fact that no tribe had a number ending in tens save for the tribe of Gad? As for the tribe of Gad not being rounded to a hundred, that is because their number came exactly to fifty, and it was not possible to round it to a hundred since it falls just in between.

But our explanation is problematic, since here in chapter 26, all the numbers are rounded out to the nearest hundred save for Reuben (43,730) ending with thirty. Clearly in the reckoning here the Torah did not complete to the nearest hundred. If so, it is wondrous how they all ended with hundreds save for one; so this must be studied further.

At least a partial resolution of the problem is provided in Emet le-Ya'akov, written by Rabbi Jacob Kaminetsky:

In my humble opinion, the counting was done by the chieftains of fifties, since we see in Parshat Jethro that the leaders were divided into heads of tens, heads of fifties, heads of hundreds, and heads of thousands, and apparently the army was divided into heads of fifties. Likewise, we see in the beginning of II Kings (1:9-10) that there were captains of fifty with their fifty men. It was by these captains that the Israelites were counted, and hence there were either complete hundreds or fifties. Except that this theory encounters a problem in Parshat Pinehas (26:7), where the tribe of Reuben totals forty-three thousand, seven hundred and thirty. Possibly the Torah subtracted those of Korah's followers who were swallowed in the earth from the rounded-out fifty, and since their number was twenty that left exactly thirty, and this accounts for the exact number in 26:7, but nevertheless the matter needs more thought.

In my opinion both questions can be answered by relying on the following general rules that pertain to fairly large numbers (certainly to numbers greater than 5,000).

1) When the number obtained was in tens (with no units), then it was registered as is and the Torah did not round it.

2) When the number obtained was not in complete tens, it was rounded to the nearest hundred.

There is a simple logic to these rules: if you round a number that ends in units, then it is rounded to hundreds (the error being less than a hundredth), but a number that ends in tens is left as is. It should be noted that the simple notion which we understand of rounding numbers to the nearest hundred was totally foreign to science until the end of the Middle Ages. Otto Neugebauer, in "The Astronomy of Maimonides and its source," HUCA 22 [1949], p. 340, notes that also ancient astronomers who were expert in complicated computations and who regularly used rounding did not generally round to the nearest whole number. Rounding was generally done downwards, unless the number was very close to the larger number (e.g., greater than 0.75). Neugebauer stresses that Maimonides in his astronomic computations to determine when the new moon occurs rounded to the closest integer and that this was a major innovation in comparison with his predecessors such as Ptolemy or even Al-Battani.

Now let us return to the census in the Torah. As we have said, the numbers were rounded according to the two rules I mentioned above. If we look at the figures in the Torah, this is patently clear. In each of the two censuses of the Israelites in the wilderness, 11 out of 12 figures are multiples of hundreds, whereas one (in the first census the tribe of Gad, and in the second census the tribe of Reuben), is a multiple of ten. The probability of any number ending in zero but not being a multiple of one hundred is 9/100, therefore if one takes any 12 numbers, the expectancy of such a number appearing is equal to 12 x 9/100 = 1.08. In other words, on the average, out of 12 nu, one will be a multiple of ten (but not of a hundred). Moreover, if we compute the different probabilities (according to binomial distribution), it turns out that the greatest probability is obtained when exactly one out of twelve numbers has this form. The probability of this equals 12 x (1-9/100)11 x 9/100, and all the other probabilities are smaller.

Examining both censuses together also yields the same results: out of 24 figures, the average number of occurrences of the specifically desired form is close to 2, and the maximal probability is obtained when k=2, which is indeed what happened.

As for the censuses of the Levites, similar results can be obtained, but with a small number of figures (there being only three families) no statistical analysis can be made.

The rules that we used enable us to answer the question about the sums. Now it is clear why the Torah had to write down the total sums of Israelites in both censuses. Since all the numbers were rounded, one could have had a situation where the grand total obtained would be far off from the actual number in the census. In theory, for the census of the Israelites the deviation could be as great as 588 people. For example, if the number of people counted in each tribe ended in 49, then the numbers would be rounded down to the nearest hundred, so that after totalling all twelve tribes one would have a figure smaller by 588 (actually by 600, after rounding) than the actual census count. Of course this is a rather extreme example, and actually there is a mathematical theorem stating that as the number of figures being summed increases, the deviations resulting from rounding are more likely to offset one another. Actually that is precisely what happened with the census of the Israelites. All the deviations, both upwards and downwards, counterbalanced so that the sum matched the total census taken (of course, to the nearest 50), and therefore it was very important that all these figures and sums be reported in the Torah.

Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.

Discrepency in לוי's Population

One of the points of interest concerning the census is the discrepancy between the population of the tribe of Levi as compared to all other tribes. The tally of the tribe of Levi was 22300, almost 10000 short of the lowest tally amongst the other tribes, Menasheh's 32200. But the Leviim were counted from one month old whereas the rest of the nation was counted from 20 years old so their numbers are even more unusually low.

Ramba"n notes this point and offers two explanations: 1) B'nei Yisroel's dramatic increase in population was a result of the subjugation in Mitzrayim. As the pasuk (Shemos 1:12) "But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad." Since, as we know, the tribe of Levi was not subjected to the same hardships as the rest of the nation, they did not multiply at the same rate. 2) When Yaakov Avinu expressed his anger with Shimon and Levi over the incident in Shechem, Levi was cursed with being less in number than his brothers.

Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh takes issue with both of these offerings from Ramba"n. First, he argues that B'nei Yisroel's miraculous rate of reproduction was not a result of the subjugation. The pasuk stating, (Shemos 1:7) "And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them," comes before any mention of slavery. As far as Ramba"n's second suggestion, Ohr HaChayim cites a census in Divrei HaYamim in which the tribe of Levi was great in number, implying that there was no such curse on Levi.

Ohr HaChayim and Klei Yekar offer an alternative suggestion. The gemara (Sotah 12a) recounts that when Par'oah issued his evil decree on all Israelite males, Amram divorced Yocheved and everyone else followed suit. Although Amram eventually did take Yocheved back, this move had a drastic effect on population growth, and most drastically on his own tribe, Levi. Over 80 years later this was reflected in the census.

R' Sander Goldberg (Baltimore) in Nachal Chayim, shows mathematically how Ramba"n's first answer does not seem to work. B'nei Yisroel totalled 603,550 of which 22,273 were first born. That would mean the first born made up less than 4% of the population. But the first born were also counted from one month. It can be assumed that the total population of B'nei Yisroel counting from one month would be far greater than 603,550. As there is only one first born per family, that means the families had an average size of over 30. This is impossible under natural circumstances and is therefore a testimony to the statement of Chaza"l that the Israelite women would give birth to six babies at a time

When we observe the tribe of Levi we find similar numbers. The population of Levi was 22300 of which 300 were first born. That amounts to even smaller percentage of first born and thus, an even larger average family size! Clearly, when the tribe of Levi multiplied, they did so at a similar if not greater rate than the rest of the nation.

Explaining the Uncounted לויים

This week’s parsha makes it perfectly why this book is commonly referred to in English as Numbers. After counting all of B’nei Yisrael, Moshe is instructed to conduct a ceremonial swap of first-born for Levi’im, a procedure signifying the consecration of the the descendants of Levi as the performers of the service of HaShem, a position previously held by the first-born. First, Moshe counts up all of the Levi’im and the Torah (3:39) reports a total of 22000. The first-born are subsequently counted and their total is 22273. The procedure for the extra 273 does not concern us for now. What is of importance is the point made by Rashi on the tally of the Levi’im. If you add up the figures that the Torah gives us – 7500 for Gershon, 8600 for Kehas and 6200 for Merari – you get a total of 22300!! That would have avoided the need for a special procedure for the extra 273. However, Rashi tells us, based on the gemara (Bechoros 5a) that those 300 extra Levi’im were first-born themselves and therefore, they redeemed themselves, so to speak, and could not be used to redeem other first-born.

Ibn Ezra quotes a complicated calculation from Yehudah HaParsi (whom I believe was a Kaarite,) which he then proceeds to take apart. This is how I, with the help of a friend and the sefer Be’er Yitzchok, understood the give and take in the Ibn Ezra:

Yehudah HaParsi attempts to show how Chazal’s “assumption” that the 300 uncounted Levi’im were in fact first-born is a mathematically sound one. The proposed number of first-born of the Levi’im, three hundred, is approximately 1/73 the size of the general Levite population of 22000. The first-born among the rest of B’nei Yisroel, 22273, were 1/27 the size of the general population. The proportions seem way off at first glance. However, there is one catch. The general population was counted from 20 years old and up. But the first-born were counted from one month and up. Of the Levi’im, however, both the general population and the first-born were counted from one month.

Yehudah HaParsi proposes the following adjustment: Beginning at the end of this week’s parsha and spilling over into next week’s, the Levi’im of the age of service are counted. The total given (4:48) is 8580. Subtracting the 300 first-born, we are left with 8280. The Levi’im of the age of service therefore make up a mere 38% of the total Levite population (8280/22000=0.38). If we were to take only that percentage of the first-born of the rest of B’nei Yisroel, there would be only 8383 first-born of the age of service ((8280/22000)*22273=8383). This is remarkably 1/73 of the general population of B’nei Yisroel which was initially tallied based on service age, an astonishingly accurate correlation with the Levite figure of 1/73. This is truly a brilliant calculation.

However, Ibn Ezra didn’t think so. He strikes down the entire calculation with one very simple fact that I deliberately avoided exposing until now. The age of service for the Levi’im was from 30 to 50. The counting of B’nei Yisroel began at 20 years old without any upper bound. Thus, there is no rationale for comparing the two figures. [There are other mathematical flaws as well. It is foolish to subtract all 300 first-born Levi’im from 8580. Either the first-born should be subtracted proportionately (117) or the 8580 should simply be divided by 22300, ultimately resulting in 1/71 as the proportion of regular first-born.] Rather than trying to come up for some “proof” for the validity of the words of Chazal, we must accept them as truth with full faith that that is what was passed on to them.

What are the odds?

Since this week's parsha deals at length with first-borns, I thought I'd share a rather interesting family fact:

I have an aunt and uncle who have six children (בלי עין הרע) and every single one of those children made a פדיון הבן!

I once tried to calculate the odds of that happening. To calculate the odds of anyone making a פדיון הבן there are a number of factors that must be calculated. We can try to approximate:
  1. Let's assume that the child themselves is a ישראל, otherwise it's a non-starter. So we need to know the odds of their spouse not being a Levite (80% based on my snooping of our shul's membership database.)
  2. The first fetus has to be male (let's just say 50%)
  3. The baby must be delivered and not miscarried (let's use 90%)
  4. The baby must be born without a Cesarean (again, 90%)
So the odds of any non-Levite making a פדיון הבן are only about 32%. The odds of going 6-for-6 are a mere 0.12%

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Ironic Observation

Well, I guess it's more an observation of irony. We are rapidly approaching ספר במדבר which is known as the book of Numbers. And for good reason. But it is interesting to note that we find numbers and counting as a recurring theme in the פרשיות leading up to במדבר. First, we cover ספירת העומר in אמור. Actually, we already began dealing with counting at the end of מצורע with the הלכות of זב and זבה. Then, בהר begins with the counting for שמיטה and יובל. The ensuing הלכות all involve calculations based on the proximity to יובל. We end of ספר ויקרא discussing the laws of ערכין which involve considerable calculation as well as a brief mention of מעשר which also involves numbers.