Population – Jewish over the centuries

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. 

High-Water Mark 
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. 

Latest Estimates 
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.)

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