Friday, June 7, 2024

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.


  1. Avraham BogachkovMay 27, 2010 at 6:15 PM

    I've been thinking about this problem for a number of years, and I think I might have finally come up with a solution for the Ramban:
    A simple explanation to help the Ramban is that there were a disproportionate number of women in the jewish population, which are simply not counted in the census - thus all the math for family size is completely thrown off, since it's certainly possible that there were a large number of bechoros which constituted a higher proportion than the 30:1 we see for the men. I am not trying to go against chazal with regard to the miraculous family growth in Egypt - just that a family size of 10 under those circumstances is quite miraculous too. In a similar vein, a disproportionate number of levi bechoros would explain why the levi's family's seem so large. Now, why would there be such a discrepency? I recently discovered a Nachalas Yaakov in shemos 1-10 (this is one of the mefarshay rashi in that special mefarshay rashi mikraaos gedolos chumash) who talks about how according to Rashi, the Egyptian decree to throw male children into the nile lasted for the remainder of Jewish exlie in Egypt, and not only for a short span of time. Thus, there were many more women than men in the population, and the low number of male levi bechorim exists because they were simply murdered by the Egyptians, and there were many more female levi bechoros, making the family size normal. Due to the miraculous family growth of yisroel, however, there was a much larger population, having more and larger families, which led to an aggregate larger number of bechorim and bechoros. Many of the bechorim were murdered by Egyptians, but some obviously survived. Thus, the very miraculous population growth allowed for more male bechorim to survive in yisroel, more so than the leviim. Therefore, the lack of females in the count skewes our perception of the family size and makeup of the Jews leaving Egypt.

    -Avraham Bogachkov