The posuk in Devorim (7:7) says, “Not because of your numerousness over all the peoples did Hashem desire you, for you are the least of all the nations.” Many people prove the truth of the Torah from this prophecy, because by now, the Jewish nation should be the most populous of all the nations.
According to some estimates, the world’s population reached one billion by 1804, doubled to two billion by 1927, surged to three billion by 1960, six billion by 1999, and is presently just below seven billion. Meanwhile, the Jewish world population is growing with stubborn sluggishness, grudgingly adding an extra million every few decades. Due to low birth rates and assimilation, the growth rate in the US is estimated to be zero. But there was one time in history when the Jewish population — according to some opinions — was truly colossal.
When did the Jewish population reach its high-water mark? Examining the sources leads to the astonishing conclusion that (according to some opinions) Jews were most numerous soon after the beginning of their history. At the beginning of parshas Vayishlach the Torah tells us, The Jews came out of the land of Egypt ‘chamushim.’ The Mechilta offers a number of interpretations of the word chamushim, including an explanation that only a fraction of the Jews left Egypt — one out of five, one of fifty, or one out of five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai maintains due to the Jewish women in Egypt having six children at once, the Jews in Egypt multiplied so rapidly that not even one out of five hundred Jews went out of Egypt.
Let’s examine the numbers. If 600,000 men (between 20 and 60 years old) left Egypt, the total number of Jews leaving Egypt must have been something like three million. Now, if four-fifths of the Jews died in Egypt, multiply three million by five and you get a result of fifteen million Jews living in Egypt, which is quite close to the Jewish world population prior to World War II. Extrapolating this calculation to the other opinions of the Mechilta gives us a Jewish population in Egypt that numbered 150 million, a billion and a half, and even more according to Rabbi Nehorai!
This is truly amazing considering that the world’s entire population never reached even one billion until the 19th century.
Is it surprising that the Jews in Egypt multiplied so rapidly? Not at all! Chazal tell us that Jewish women in Egypt had six children at once during the Egyptian servitude. Let’s say the Jews reached a population of ten thousand during their first century in Egypt before the servitude began. During the second century of servitude when women had six children at once at the rate of twenty children per couple for five generations, the population would have jumped to two billion (103 x 105 x 2). Now we can understand Rabbi Nehorai’s insistence that less than one out of five hundrend Jews left Egypt.
How did Jewish population growth proceed after Yetzi’as Mitzrayim? Not all that fast. By the time Dovid Hamelech organized a census of the Jews, seven centuries later, the increase was surprisingly small considering the time that had passed. The number of fighting men had more than doubled to fifteen million and seventy thousand warriors (I Divrei Hayomim 21:5) excluding Levi and Binyomin, so presumably the general populace now numbered about eight million, almost three times the number that left Egypt.
Decades before the last Churban (about a thousand years after Dovid Hamelech’s count) King Aggripas counted the Jews by collecting one kidney from every korban Pesach and receiving a total of a million two hundred thousand kidneys. (It has been estimated that the blood from the million Pesach sacrifices was enough to fill almost two Olympic size swimming pools!) Since no less than ten people shared each Pesach, the number of Jews celebrating in Yerushalayim that year was at least twelve million, not counting anyone who was impure or had not arrived for the Pesach sacrifice. Historians claim that at that time, seven million Jews already lived in the vast expanses of Asia and Africa belonging to the Roman Empire. So a generous estimate might place the Jewish population of Agrippas’ time at 20 million, a quadruple jump since the count of Dovid Hamelech.
A Great Crash
What happened after the Churban? Due to terrible oppression and forced conversions the Jewish population plunged to about one million by the end of the Medieval Ages (1500). Then things picked up and by 1800 the population had swelled to 2.5 million. After that, the Jews of Eastern Europe enjoyed a period of incredible growth, increasing their population fivefold from one million to five million between 1800 and 1880.
Due to pogroms and massive unemployment, East European Jews began flooding to the US. Even though 2.5 million Jews reached America’s shores within thirty years, so great was their natural increase in Russia that by the evening of World War I their population had held steady at the five million threshold in Russia in 1880.
Worldwide, the Jewish population reached 7,800,000 by 1882, and at the eve of World War II it had shot up to 16,728,000, not far from Aggripas’ count two thousand years earlier. This was the population peak in modern times. During the Holocaust the Jewish populace dropped to 11 million and it has not yet recovered.
Last year, the “North American Jewish Data Bank,” an organization that describes itself as “the central repository of social scientific studies of North American Jewry,” published its world Jewish population estimates for the beginning of 2010. This begins by announcing that “at the beginning of 2010, the world’s Jewish population was estimated at 13,428,300 — an increase of 80,300 (0.6 percent) over the 2009 revised estimate. The world’s total population increased by 1.25 percent in 2009. World Jewry hence increased at half the population growth rate.”
The 2010 figure is only two and a half million more that the 11 million Jewish population count reported just after World War II. In fact, the Data Bank report points out that it took about fifteen years to add the first million to Jewry’s world population and decades more to reach 13 million. Since the world’s population meanwhile almost tripled from 2.315 billion in 1945 to 6.9 billion in 2010, Jews now constitute only 0.195 percent of the general population, down from 0.475 percent in 1945. Our representation on the world stage is more than halved.
Thanks to having the fastest growing Jewish population in the world, Israel has jumped from 600,000 in 1948 to 5,703,700 last year and outstripped the US Jewish population (5,275,000) whose growth rate has fallen to zero. Between the two of them, Israel and the US are home to about 82 percent of the world Jewish population.
All this contrasts sharply with the situation one century ago when the largest Jewish population was in Russia (and its subject countries). According to an 1897 census, Czarist Russia was home to 5,110,548 Jews. The US already had the second largest Jewish population in the world, a total of 1,558,710 Jews in 1905, and Austria-Hungary came next with 1,224,896 Jews in its 1900 census. Although the entire American continent housed less than 18 percent of world Jewry, it was clear that the tide was turning from east to west.
“Today, nearly one fifth of the Jews in the world speak English,” New York researcher Maurice Fishberg noted in 1911. “While the older generation as yet uses Yiddish among themselves, their children consider the English language as their mother tongue. If the migration of Jews from Eastern Europe keeps up for some time to come, there is no doubt that English will soon become the mother tongue of the majority of Jews.”
As for Palestine, one hundred years ago its population of 78,000 Jews constituted twelve percent of the general Palestine population of 650,000. Between 1946 and 1948 the population ratio altered drastically. Whereas in 1946 Palestine had 543,000 Jews who constituted 30 percent of the country’s population of 1,810,037, by the time 1948 came to an end the situation had flipped over. Due to massive immigration and fleeing of Arabs during the 1948 war, Israel had a population of 716,700 Jews who comprised 80.1 percent of a total population of 872,700.
Now that Israel has 42 percent of the Jewish world population, it may be only a matter of time until Israel has more Jews than the entire Diaspora. This situation could lead to a drastic halachic paradigm. Nowadays the obligation to separate challah and tithes from agricultural produce is only rabbinical (Shulchan Aruch Y. D. 331:2) since the Torah only commands us to separate challah and tithes when all or most Jews are present in Eretz Yisroel. But, once Eretz Yisroel gains a majority of Jews, we will once again merit to separate challah and tithe its fruits with the full force of Torah law. (However, there are two caveats to this optimistic scenario:
First, the high rate of assimilation in the Diaspora would make it difficult to ascertain whether Eretz Yisroel actual;y has a majority of Jews or not. Also, the Ramban holds that a majority of Jews in Eretz Yisroel is not enough – he requires a majority of every tribe to be present in Eretz Yisroel.
Since we have always been the smallest of nations, the old question is how we withstood the well known halachic rule that a minority is always nullified by the majority? What stopped us from being lost among the billions of the nations?
One answer is that the rule of bitul does not apply to something attached to its source. For example, orlah fruit becomes batel when mixed in a quantity of permitted fruits two hundred times greater. But an orlah tree never becomes batel even if lost in a vast orchard of thousands of trees; the fruit of the whole orchard is forbidden. In the same vein, our attachment to Hashem and his Torah has saved us from dissolution in the raging sea of the nations.
(Sources: The numbers of Jews in Israel was taken from: Israel in the Middle East: Documents and Readings on Society, Politics, and Foreign Relations, Pre-1948 to the Present., edited by Itamar Rabinovich and Jehuda Reinharz, Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Mass., 2008.)