Erev Rav: A Mixed Multitude of Meanings
The Meaning of the Term ʿErev Rav
When the Israelites left Egypt, Exodus 12:38 states:
וְגַם עֵרֶב רַב עָלָה אִתָּם
An ʿerev rav also went up with them.
עֵרֶב—Starting with the first word, ע.ר.ב, Shaul Bar, professor of Bible at the University of Memphis, notes that in a number of biblical contexts (Jer 25:20, 50:37, Ezek 30:5), the term ערב seems to refer to soldiers. Similarly, Israel Knohl, professor emeritus of Bible at Hebrew University, suggests that it may be a cognate of the Akkadian urbi, which refers to a type of soldier.
Whether or not Bar and Knohl are correct here, this is certainly not how the term has been interpreted traditionally. Instead, the common understanding assumes that ʿerev derives from the root meaning “to mix,” and that it refers to the nature of the group as being a mix of peoples.
רַב—The second word, rav, is an adjective meaning “great or many,” and thus the standard translation of the term ʿerev rav as “a mixed multitude.” William Propp notes that Exodus 12:38 “gives no indication of how numerous the [ʿerev rav] was conceived to be,” nevertheless, the midrash, as is its want, takes this very far. Thus, the Mekhilta of R. Ishmael (Pascha 14) glosses the term ʿerev rav:
מאה ועשרים רבוא דברי רבי ישמעאל. רבי עקיבא אומר מאתים וארבעים רבוא. ר' נתן אומר שלש מאות וששים רבוא:
“1,200,000”—the words of Rabbi Ishmael. Rabbi Akiva says: “2,400,000.” Rabbi Nathan says: “3,600,000.”
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan has a similar idea, translating: סגיאין מנהון מאתן וארבעין רבוון, “More than them, 1,400,000.” The number he chooses makes the ʿerev rav more numerous than the Israelites, whose numbers the Torah gives as 600,000 men (Exod 12:37).
A Reduplicative Term
And yet, many scholars are skeptical that the word רב here really means “many.” The term has reduplicative quality, with the letters resh and bet being repeated, ערב רב. Thus, Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951) writes in his commentary on Exodus:
Apparently the correct view is that which regards the expression עֵרֶב רַב ʿerebh rabh [‘mixed multitude’] as a single word, from the stem עָרַב ʿarabh, formed by the repetition of the last two radicals…
In fact, in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the term is written as one word, ערברב (ʿaravrav). If this is the origin of the term, then the Torah is making no comment at all on the size of the group.
The ʿErev Rav and the ʾAsafsuf
Reading ʿerev rav as reduplicative strengthens the traditional argument that this group is the same one that is referenced in Numbers 11:
במדבר יא:ד וְהָאסַפְסֻף אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבּוֹ הִתְאַוּוּ תַּאֲוָה וַיָּשֻׁבוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ מִי יַאֲכִלֵנוּ בָּשָׂר. יא:ה זָכַרְנוּ אֶת הַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם חִנָּם...
Num 11:4 The ʾasafsuf in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 11:5 We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt…”
The story tells of how the Israelites, spurred on by an obscure group called the ʾasafsuf, complain about the lack of meat, which leads to God bringing quail, and eventually to the deaths of many of the complainants. The term ʾasafsuf is reduplicative; it comes from the root א.ס.ף, meaning “gather.” The impulse to equate ʾasafsuf with ʿerev rav is easy to understand, as these are the only references in the Torah to a group of outsiders accompanying the Israelites in the wilderness.
The difficulty with linking the two terms ʿerev rav/ʿaravrav and ʾasafsuf is that each appears only once in the Bible, hence it is a case of using one obscure term to interpret another, assuming from context that they refer to the same thing. In fact, even if the term ʿerev rav is reduplicative, this does not prove that the two groups are one and the same, though it is suggestive.
The identification of the two groups with each other goes back to the Second Temple period, since the Greek LXX translation renders both ʿerev and ʾasafsuf with the term ἐπίμικτος (epimiktos), “mixed crowd.” Similarly, traditional commentators such as Midrash Tanchuma (Buber ed., Num 11:16), Midrash Aggada (Buber ed., Num 11:4), Numbers Rabbah (15:24) and Abraham ibn Ezra (Exod 12:38) all connect the two groups.
All of these traditional commentators (as well as LXX) follow the MT in understanding the word rav as a separate term, meaning “many.” In the 19th century, however, Shadal (Samuel David Luzzato, 1800–1865) noted the reduplicative reading to clinch the connection between ʿerev rav and ʾasafsuf (Exod 12:38):
והנה תרגום האספסוף ערברבין, וכן כאן בס' השמרונים וגם ערברב עלה אתם מלה אחת, ולפי זה תהיה המלה כפולה כמו ירקרק אדמדם... והוא ממש כְּמִלַת אספסוף,
The Aramaic translation of asafsuf is aravravin, so too, the Samaritan Pentateuch reads “and the aravrav also came up” as one word. According to this, it is a reduplicated term… and it is literally like the word asafsuf.
William Foxwell Albright (1891–1971), considered to be the greatest American biblical scholar and archaeologist of the first part of the twentieth century, makes the point clearly:
In one passage they are called ʿrbrb, in another ʾspsp (disregarding the somewhat questionable transmitted vocalization in each case). Both terms are reduplicated collectives… derived from verbs meaning, respectively, “to change, mix,” and “to gather.”
This interpretation has also been adopted by the HALOT dictionary.
Robert Alter, although translating “motley throng” in the main text (and thus ignoring the sound-effect of the doubling), accepts the reduplicative interpretation in his gloss, explaining that such reduplication is “a Hebrew formation for pejoratives.” He further notes in parentheses that “The English “riffraff” comes close.” Everett Fox also uses the word “riffraff” in his commentary, to highlight the reduplicative aspect of the term, which works for both ʿerev rav/ʿaravrav and ʾasafsuf, and ties them together.
Whether the ʿerev rav is riffraff or a mixed multitude, it seems clear that they are non-Israelites. But who are they specifically, and why do they join the Israelites leaving Egypt?
Foreigners Who Join the Exodus
One possibility is that they are meant to be a group of Egyptians and/or other ethnic groups who were living among the Israelites and decided to leave with them.
Those who see the ʿerev rav as a mercenary force—such as Bar and Knohl referenced above—interpret this as a military alliance. This, however, is a modern solution, not reflected in the traditional commentaries.
Gerim (Ideological Interpretation)
Rashi (Shlomo Yitzhaki 1040–1105) interprets them as local Egyptians and other foreigners who align themselves with the Israelites for ideological reasons:
ערב רב – תערובת אומות של גרים.
ʿErev rav—A mix (taʿarovet) of nationalities who converted.
In a similar vein, the 10th/11th century midrash, Exodus Rabbah (18:10) envisions a split among the Egyptians between those who joined the Israelites and those who faced the wrath of God:
משל למלך שעשה שמחה לבנו והרג שונאיו אמר המלך כל מי ששמח לי יבא לשמחת בני וכל מי ששונא לי יהרג עם השונאים, כך האלהים עשה שמחה לישראל שגאלן אמר האלהים כל מי שאוהב את בני יבא וישמח עם בני, הכשרים שבמצרים באו ועשו פסח עם ישראל ועלו עמהם, שנא' (שמות יב) וגם ערב רב עלה אתם, וכל מי שרצו שלא יגאלו ישראל מתו עם הבכורים, שנאמר (תהלים עח) ויך כל בכור במצרים.
It is analogous to a king who throws a party for his son and kills his enemies. The king says: “Anyone who is happy for me, come to my son’s party. And anyone who hates me will be killed with my enemies.” Thus did God throw a big party for the Israelites when he redeemed them. God said: “Anyone who loves my son should come and celebrate with my son.” The good Egyptians came and participated in the Paschal offering with the Israelites, and left with them, as it says (Exod 12:28), “and an ʿerev rav went up with them.” All those who did not want Israel to be redeemed died with the firstborn, as it says (Ps 78:51), “and he struck down all the firstborn among (i.e., along with) the Egyptians.”
William Propp, who translates ʿerev rav as “many foreigners,” offers a variation on this approach, suggesting that these “might be foreigners living among Israel as temporary or long-term sojourners.” Propp is making use of the same category as Rashi, gerim, though in the biblical sense of “resident aliens” and not the rabbinic “converts.”
Taking Advantage (Opportunistic Interpretation)
In contrast to this interpretation, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Joseph Hertz (1872–1946), in his classic commentary The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, writes a “mass of non-Israelite strangers, including slaves and prisoners of war, who took advantage of the panic to escape from Egypt. They were not a desirable class of associates, as appears from Num. xi, 4, 5.” The contemporary philosopher, Kenneth Seeskin, expresses a similar sentiment about the ʿerev rav, writing that “slaves, political prisoners, thieves, and anyone else who might benefit from [the] social chaos accompanied the Israelites in the Exodus.”
Foreigners Who Were Intermarried with Israelites
An alternative possibility is that the term reflects not a group of people that joined the Israelites at the time of the exodus, but people who had become part of the Israelites already, through intermarriage. As the Bible envisions Israelites living among Egyptians for decades or even centuries (depending on the source), it is not hard to imagine their marrying locals, whether Egyptians or other foreigners.
Thus, Shadal writes:
והנה מצאנו בנחמיה (י"ג:ג') ויבדילו כל ערב מישראל שהכוונה עירוב ע"י חיתון; ע"כ נ"ל כי ערב רב זה היה מעורב עמהם מלפנים והם מצרים שנשאו ישראליות ומצריות שנישאו לישראלים
Now we find in Nehemiah (13:3), “they separated all the alien admixture (ʿerev) from Israel,” and the intention there is to intermarriage. Therefore, it seems to me that the ʿerev rav was mixed with them from earlier times, and that they are Egyptian men who married Israelite women, and Egyptian women who married Israelite men.
This reading was adopted by Benno Jacob (1862-1945) and is also found in the New American Bible translation, which includes the note “Mixed ancestry: half-Hebrew and half-Egyptian” and calls attention to the story of the blaspheming son of Shelomit bat Dibri and an Egyptian man.
The Magicians: The Zohar’s Mystical Reading
The 13th century mystical work, the Zohar, which blames many evils on the intermixing of Israelites with the ʿerev rav, argues that the term cannot refer to a mass of peoples who joined the Israelites but instead refers to a specific shift of Egyptian magicians who worked from midday to early afternoon דהיינו ערב רברבא, “which is called ‘the great evening’ (erev ravrava).” These magicians have a change of heart (2.191a):
דבעו למיקם לקבל פליאן דקודשא בריך הוא, כיון דחמו נסין ופליאן דעבד משה במצרים אהדרו לגבי משה, א"ל קודשא בריך הוא למשה לא תקבל לון, אמר משה מאריה דעלמא כיון דחמו גבורתא דילך בעאן לאתגיירא, יחמון גבורתך בכל יומא וינדעון דלית אלהא בר מנך, וקבל לון משה,
They tried [at first] to stand against the Holy One’s wonders. Once they saw the miracles and wonders that Moses performed in Egypt, they turned to join Moses. The Holy One said to Moses: “Don’t accept them.” Moses said: “Master of the world, now that they have seen your power, they wish to convert. They will see your power manifest daily and they will know that there is no God but you.” And Moses accepted them.
In the end, when Moses is late coming down the mountain, God is proven right since this is the group (עם) that sees that Moses is late coming down the mountain and forces Aaron to build the Golden Calf (Exod 32:1). In explaining the Zohar passage, Gerald Aronoff writes that these “Egyptians …never truly joined the Israelites and [further, that they] were a source of trouble during the years of the wandering in the wilderness.” He explains that “the message of the Zohar is that not all evil can be turned to good.”
ʿErev Rav as a Slur in the Talmud
Despite the existence of some positive evaluations, the tendency to view the ʿerev rav with a jaundiced eye can already be seen in the rabbinic period. Thus, the Babylonian Talmud recounts (b. Beitzah 32b):
ואמר רב נתן בר אבא אמר רב: עתירי בבל יורדי גיהנם הם. כי הא דשבתאי בר מרינוס אקלע לבבל, בעא מנייהו עסקא - ולא יהבו ליה. מזוני מיזן - נמי לא זינוהו, אמר: הני מערב רב קא אתו, דכתיב ונתן לך רחמים ורחמך, כל המרחם על הבריות - בידוע שהוא מזרעו של אברהם אבינו, וכל מי שאינו מרחם על הבריות - בידוע שאינו מזרעו של אברהם אבינו.
Rav Nathan bar Abba said in the name of Rav: “The wealthy [Jews] of Babylonia will be going to Gehennom.” When Shabtai bar Marinus came to Babylon, he looked for work but could find none. He asked for food, but no one fed him. He (Shabtai) said regarding them: “They must be descendants of the ʿerev rav, for it says (Deut 13:18), ‘and show you compassion to make you compassionate’—anyone who has compassion on people, it is known that he is a descendant of our father Abraham, and anyone who does not have compassion on people, it is known that he is not a descendant of our father Abraham.”
The Frankist Controvesy
In the middle to late 18th century, during the controversy over the messianic claims of Jacob Frank (1726–1791), the Frankists denounced their opponents as descendants of the ʿerev rav; those who regarded the Frankist movement as apostasy labeled it as descendants of that very group. Here we see that the sobriquet ʿerev rav became a weapon or slur that some Jews used to delegitimize other Jews with different views, or to accuse them of being disloyal.
This same usage of the term as a slur continues in our day. In modern Jewish, and especially Israeli, parlance, ʿerev rav is translated as riffraff or rabble, sometimes even traitors. Describing the late 20th century actions of Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, Motti Inbari of the University of North Carolina notes that “Meshulam identiﬁed the Israeli left with the erev rav, thus demonizing it.”
Representing the other end of the political or religious spectrum, a group of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in 2016 published an online Haggadah titled, Mixed Multitudes: Nobody’s Free ‘til Everybody’s Free. A Racial Justice Haggadah for Pesach. There the phrase “mixed multitude” is understood in a positive sense. Early in the Haggadah it states, “we are the mixed multitude,” and “We have always been a mixed multitude.”
Perhaps the most famous example of such a slur occurred with the sister term, ʾasafsuf. In 1999, during the Israeli election campaign with Ehud Barak of Labor and Bibi Netanyahu of Likud competing for the premiership, actress Tiki Dayan called the Likud supporters of Netanyahu אספסוף מהשוק “rabble [ʾasafsuf] from the markets.” In response, Netanyahu said אני אספסוף גאה, meaning “I am a proud [member of the] rabble,” and Likud even handed out stickers with this meme.
Thus, whatever their original meaning, the biblical terms ʾasafsuf and ʿerev rav live on in Jewish parlance, not as a positive description of outsiders who throw in their lot with Israel, but as a slur against fellow Jews.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
January 30, 2020
July 31, 2020
Dr. Rabbi David J. Zucker is an Independent Scholar. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham (UK), and Ordination and an M.A.H.L. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He publishes regularly (see www.DavidJZucker.org) and his latest book is American Rabbis: Facts and Fiction, Second Edition.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series