After the tenth plague, the Pharaoh lets the Israelites go into the wilderness, just as God predicted to Moses.1 What God did not predict is that many non-Israelites leave Egypt with them. Near the end of this week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come”), we read:
And the children of Israel pulled out from Ramses toward Sukkot, about 600,000 adult men on foot, aside from non-marchers. And also an eirev rav went up with them, and flocks and herds of very impressive property. (Exodus/Shemot 12:37-38)
eirev rav (עֵרֶב רַב) = “mixed multitude” (King James version), motley crowd. From the words eirev (עֵרֶב) = mixed or mingled (used for people or thread in fabric) + rav (רַב) = numerous, abundant, great.
Words from the same root as eirev include:
- erev (עֶרֶב) = evening, sunset (when day and night mix); a weaving term, possibly for the woof.
- arav (עֲרַב) =Arabs, Bedouins.
- the hitpael form of the verb arav (עָרַב) = associate with, mingle with.
A negative view of the Eirev Rav
The noun eirev in reference to people (rather than to weaving) occurs only rarely in the Hebrew Bible. In Jeremiah ha-erev (הָעֶרֶב = the eirev) refers to people of mixed race who are living in other lands, not to those living with Israelites.2 But in Nehemiah, eirev refers to people from Ammonite or Moabite stock who live in Judah:
On that day they read to the people from the book of Moses, and they found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite could enter the congregation of God, ever … And they heard the teaching, and they separated all the eirev from Israel. (Nehemiah 13:1, 3)
In the books of Nehemiah and Ezra, the men who returned to Judah from exile divorce the wives they took from the local population.3 Their leaders sign a written oath “that we will not give our daughters [in marriage] to the people of the land, and their daughters we will not take for our sons.” (Nehemiah 10:31)
Another indication that eirev rav in this week’s Torah portion may be a pejorative is the duplicative rev-rav sound, like “riffraff” and “ragtag” in English, or asafsuf later in the Torah:
And the asafsuf who were in their midst craved a craving, and they sat down, and even the Israelites wept, and they said: “Who will feed us meat?” (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4)
asafsuf (אֲסַפְסֻף) = riffraff, rabble. Literally, “gather-gathered”, from the verb asaf (אָסַף) = gather.
This is the only occurrence of asafsuf in the Bible, and there is no indication here whether the riffraff are of Israelite or foreign descent. Yet 12th-century rabbi Ibn Ezra assumed that the asafsuf in Numbers were the eirev rav in Exodus, and that the foreign riffraff gathered in order to make trouble.4 Kli Yakar agreed, explaining: “But the mixed multitude, who had originated in the licentious Egypt, did not learn their lesson, and continued to sin, uttering outwardly whatever thoughts arose within them.”5
A lack of discretion and self-control is only one of the failings that commentators have attributed to the eirev rav. The Talmud quotes Rabbi Natan bar Abba as saying that the wealthy Jews of Babylon “… came from the eirev rav … Anyone who has compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he is of the descendants of Abraham, our father, and anyone who does not have compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he is not of the descendants of Abraham, our father. Since these wealthy Babylonians do not have compassion on people, clearly they are not descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”6
In other words, the descendants of the eirev rav who converted to Judaism in Exodus are not compassionate like people with a pure Jewish bloodline. This is ironic, since judging people by their bloodline is anything but compassionate; that kind of thinking led to the Nazi genocide, with Jews as the victims.
One of the earliest biblical commentators, Philo of Alexandria, wrote that there were two kinds of people in the eirev rav: fellow slaves looking for a better life, and those who wanted to change their allegiance to the God of Israel after witnessing the plagues and recognizing God’s power.8
But the Zohar, the 13th-century C.E. kabbalistic opus, claimed: “In fact, however, the mixed multitude consisted entirely of … all the sorcerers of Egypt and all its magicians … for they wanted to oppose the wonderful works of the Holy One, blessed be He. When they beheld the signs and the wonders which Moses wrought in Egypt they came to Moses to be converted. Said the Holy One to Moses, “Do not receive them!” Moses, however, replied, “Sovereign of the universe, now that they have seen Thy power they desire to accept our Faith, let them see Thy power every day and they will learn that there is no God like unto Thee.” And Moses accepted them.9
According to the Zohar, the new converts let Moses down by instigating rebellions during the journey through the wilderness—and their souls are still being reincarnated in people who make trouble for the Jews.10
In Modern Hebrew eirev rav still means “motley crowd”, and in some circles eirev rav is a pejorative referring to the “wicked that scheme and plot against us”10 and “individuals who do not show their loyalty to the Jewish people.”11
A positive view of the Eirev Rav
In short, much commentary has painted the eirev rav as impulsive and selfish troublemakers who may even be deliberately trying to bring down the Israelites of old and the Jews of today.
Yet the bible only says: “And also an eirev rav went up with them”. That particular phrase is not used again. And although the rest of the journey from Egypt to the Jordan River features many complainers, whiners, and panickers, the Torah itself does not identify any of these troublemakers with the eirev rav.
In fact, the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy take pains to distinguish resident aliens who choose to live in Israel or Judah from the foreigners in other nations. The bible dictates fair and compassionate treatment for resident aliens 52 times. This week’s Torah portion says that resident aliens may participate in Passover rites as long as the men are circumcised, because:
There will be one teaching for the native and for the geir residing with you. (Exodus 12:48)
geir (גֵּר) = resident alien; convert. Plural: geirim (גֵּריִים).
Later in Exodus, God gives the order that:
You must not wrong a geir, and you must not oppress him, because you were geirim in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:20)
The book of Leviticus/Vayikra goes so far as to say:
The geir residing with you shall be like a native for you, and you shall love him like yourself, because you were geirim in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:34)
Although passages in Ezra and Nehemiah oppose intermarriage, in the book of Ruth a virtuous Moabite woman converts and becomes the great-grandmother of King David. His great-grandfather, Boaz, is descended from the union of Jacob’s son Judah with Tamar, an Adulamite.12
After northern Israel secede, its kings come from the tribe of Efrayim, who is one of the sons of Jacob’s son Joseph and Asenat, the daughter of an Egyptian priest.13
How did the single remark in this week’s Torah portion that “an eirev rav went up with them” lead to so much vilification of those who joined the Israelites on their exodus from Egypt? Perhaps it is human nature to seize any excuse to shun people who seem foreign, any apparent “proof” that outsiders are bad people and bad people are outsiders.
Yet some of us learn to overcome our primitive fears, recognize the humanity in strangers, and treat them fairly. This is what the Hebrew Bible urges when it tells us not to oppress a geir residing among us, and even to love the geir without prejudice.
I converted to Judaism several decades ago, when I was 32. I have experienced both prejudice and welcome from people who were born Jewish. I did not have the same childhood experiences as those born Jewish, but I am a Jew as well as a stubborn member of the eirev rav.
May everyone treat converts to their own in-groups with fairness, respect, and a little love. And may everyone treat outsiders as human beings who deserve the benefit of the doubt. There is no virtue in prejudice.
- During the era of the New Kingdom in Egypt, when the exodus story is set, the Egyptian Empire included not only the area around the Nile, but also the Sinai Peninsula and Canaan. Moses did not ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of the Egyptian Empire, but only to go “a three-day march into the wilderness” (Exodus 5:3), which would get them to the Sinai Peninsula, an area with only scattered Egyptian outposts.
- Jeremiah 25:20, 50:37.
- Ezra 9:10-14, 10:2-12; Nehemiah 10:31, 13:1-3.
- Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, in Michael Carasik, editor and translator, The Commentators’ Bible; The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Exodus, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2005, p. 89.
- Shlomo Ephraim of Luntshitz (1550-1619), Kli Yakar, translated in Brachi Elitzur, “You were Rebellious or The Kindness of Your Youth: Parashat Beshalach”, etzion.org.il/en/you-were-rebellious-or-kindness-your-youth#_ftn3.
- Talmud Bavli, Beitzah 32b, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Beitzah.32b?lang=bi.
- Philo of Alexandria (circa 30 B.C.E.-50 C.E.), De Vita Mosis, cited in Munk, pp. 147-148.
- Zohar, Exodus, Section 2, 191a-b, Soncino translation, quoted in Gerald Aranoff, “The Mixed Multitude According to the Zohar”, Jewish Bible Quarterly, http://jbqnew.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/402/jbq_402_firstborn.pdf.
- Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, translated by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1994, p. 148.
- Professor Gerald Aranoff, “Who Were the Mixed Multitude?”, 2015, Arutz Sheva, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/16386.
- Rabbi Kenneth Cohen, “What Is Erev Rav”, 2016, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/what-is-erev-rav/.
- Genesis 38.
- Genesis 41:25, 41:50-52, 48:8-21.