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Parashat Vayigash

January 6, 2017
Do Numbers Really Matter?
by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

This week’s parashah includes a detailed reckoning of all of the Israelites who went down to Egypt. In the midst of this list the following is written: “These are the sons of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob in Paddan-aram, together with his daughter Dinah; in all his sons and his daughters numbered thirty-three.” (Genesis 46:15) This seemingly innocent verse was the cause for much exegetical discussion.

Before we speak about this verse, how about the following verse that also raised some eyebrows: “And Joseph’s sons who were born to him in Egypt were two in number. Thus the total of Jacob’s household who came to Egypt was seventy persons.” (Genesis 46:27) It was simple mathematics, or maybe not so simple mathematics, that was the catalyst for so many comments on these verses. In his Hagut be-Parshiyot ha-Torah, Yehudah Gershuni brings a number of commentators who addressed the apparent problem with these verses. Already in the Talmud the rabbis noticed that something just didn’t seem right.

“Abba Halipa of Qeruya asked R. Hiyya bar Abba, “When the summary-figure of those who entered Egypt with Jacob is given, they are counted as seventy, but when they are named one by one [Gen. 46:8ff.], they number seventy minus one!” He said to him, “There was a twin-girl with Dinah: ‘With his daughter Dinah’ (Gen. 46:15).” (Bava Batra 123a, trans. Jacob Neusner)

Abba Halipa of Qeruya went back to the basics, the Torah said that seventy people went down with Jacob to Egypt, but if you actually count the people listed in the Torah the number only comes to sixty-nine. So too when it came to the children of Leah. The Torah says “in all his sons and his daughters numbered thirty-three.” But if you count them, guess what, there are only thirty-two. What’s going on here? The Talmud continues with a different answer.

“Well then, there should have been a twin-girl with Benjamin, for it is written, “With Benjamin, his brother, his mother’s son’ (Gen. 43:29).” He said to him, “I had a valuable pearl in my hands, and you want to take it away from me! This is what R. Hama bar Hanina said, ‘This refers to Jochebed, who was conceived on the way [down to Egypt] and was born between the walls of Egypt: ‘…who was born to Levi in Egypt’ (Num. 26:59), meaning, her birth was in Egypt but not her conception.”

The Talmud was acutely aware that both of these verses presented difficulties and its solution was to read them both in dialogue with each other. One solution was to claim that Dinah, who was a daughter of Leah, was actually one of a set of twins and for some reason the other twin was not counted in the total of thirty-three. So add one more person and you’ll get thirty-three children of Leah, instead of thirty-two, and a total of seventy people who went down to Egypt, instead of sixty-nine. Another solution was that Jochebed was conceived on the way to Egypt and eventually born in Egypt, explaining why there were only sixty-nine names but the total number of seventy who went to Egypt.

Numerous other solutions to this demographic challenge have been offered. Rabbeinu Asher (14th century, Germany/Spain) offered maybe the easiest answer, the Torah rounded up to the nearest ten. That was a pretty simple answer, but not necessarily enough for other Biblical commentators.
The Rashbam (12th century, France) claimed that Joseph was left out of the counting, so if you add in Joseph, Leah had thirty-three children and there were a total of seventy Israelites who went down to Egypt. This might be the most common interpretation that has been offered.
Rashi (11th century, France) in his commentary just quoted the Talmud.

“But in the enumeration above you will find only thirty-two. The one whose name is omitted is Jochebed who was born “between the walls” just as they entered the border city, as it is said (Numbers 26:59) “Jochebed, the daughter of Levi, whom her mother bore to Levi in Egypt — she was born in Egypt, but she was not conceived in Egypt.”

Was it all that important for all of the numbers to be exact? Would it have been so bad if each was off by one person? All of the answers brought above attempted to bring the gap between the Biblical claim and Biblical counting. Today many people in the Jewish community are occupied with counting Jews. Are there 5.5 million or 6.5 million Jews in the United States? Whether there were sixty-nine or seventy Jews, they still went down to Egypt. With the exception of Rabbeinu Asher, all of the commentators brought above solved the problem by claiming that there was someone whose existence was missed by the counting. There was someone who was overlooked or who was just not yet ready to be counted. Numbers are important, but behind numbers are people whom we may not have noticed or who aren’t ready to be counted and let’s not forget about them.


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator at AJR.