Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
The Meaning of “Erev Rav” (Ex. 12:38)
When the Israelites left Egypt, Exodus 12:38 tells us that an “erev rav” also went with them. One of the meanings of the root ערב is “mix,” so a common translation here (following the King James Version) is “mixed multitude.”
Can we say anything more about them? Let us review some interpretations:
-Onkelos: “nuchrain sagiin”= many strangers
-Rashi: “taarovet umot shel gerim.” Another view is that the reading in the last word here is “Mitzrim.”
-Ibn Ezra: people from Egypt who mixed themselves in with them.
-R. Aryeh Kaplan: “a great mixture [of nationalities]”
Now let us review some of the commentators who write more expansively:
1. S.D. Luzzatto (“intermarriage” interpretation): He cites to Neh. 13:3: “They separated all the ‘erev’ from Israel.” From Neh. 9:2, it seems likely that “erev” at 13:3 is referring to an intermingling by way of intermarriage. (See also Ezra 9:2.) Luzzatto concludes: “It seems to me that this ‘erev rav’ had previously mixed with the Israelites, and that they were Egyptian men who had married Israelite women and Egyptian women who had married Israelite men…”
My comment: While “erev” with this meaning fits the context in Nehemiah, it does not fit the context at Ex. 12:38. (Note that there is evidence of such intermarriage at Lev. 24:10.)
2. Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz (“riffraff-opportunist” interpretation): “The mass of non-Israelite strangers, including slaves and prisoners of war, who took advantage of the panic to escape from Egypt...”
My comment: This approach sounds reasonable. See similarly Daat Mikra, first interpretation.
3. Daat Mikra, second interpretation: Non-Israelites who came now in support of the Israelites, to join them. The Daat Mikra does not elaborate but cites to Philo (1st cent.). Here are his words at Life of Moses I, sec. 147: “There also went forth with them a mixed multitude…collected from all quarters, and servants, like an illegitimate crowd with a body of genuine citizens. Among these were those who had been born to Hebrew fathers by Egyptian women, and who were enrolled as members of their father’s race. And, also, all those who had admired the decent piety of the men, and therefore joined them; and some, also, who had come over to them, having learnt the right way, by reason of the magnitude and multitude of the incessant punishments which had been inflicted on their own countrymen.”
See similarly Ex. Rab. 18:10, which the Daat Mikra also cites. See also the first sentence of Luzzatto quoted below.
My comment: Prior to the time of the plagues, there also may have been non-Israelites living among the Israelites, perhaps in preparation for being part of the people, or temporarily for any reason.
Note that both Deut. 29:10 and Josh. 8:35 refer to the גר living among the Israelites. (גר did not mean “convert” until Mishnaic times.) Of course, all these individuals may have come after the Exodus, during the desert years.
Luzzatto also writes at 12:38: “It has been said that these were Egyptians who mixed with the Israelites in order to become proselytes, upon seeing the prodigious wonders that God had done for them…It seems to me, however, that even if some people were stirred to become proselytes, there would have been no reason for them to leave with the Israelites, for the Israelites had never said they were going away permanently, but were supposed to return immediately….”
Luzzatto has raised an interesting issue. From Moses’ statements to the Israelites at 12:17 and 25-26, it seems that they knew they were not coming back, but Moses did not share this with Pharaoh. Pharaoh seemed to assume that they would return after the holiday he granted. See, e.g., 12:31 (“ke-daberchem”). What the non-Israelites would have thought is a difficult question. If they were living among the Israelites, presumably they would have known what the Israelites’ plan was. But if they had not been living among the Israelites, probably they would not have known. Nevertheless, in my view, they likely would have attempted to leave with the Israelites anyway. Once out, they could have continued on their own.
A scholar Shaul Bar suggested a novel interpretation in an article in Hebrew Studies, vol. 49 (2008). There are three verses in Tanach where the word “erev” is used and it could mean “mercenaries,” i.e., people that are paid to fight on your side. This would come from a different meaning of the root ערב, the “take on a pledge” meaning, or the “exchange” meaning. The three verses are Jer. 25:20 and 50:37, and Ezek. 30:5. (Admittedly, there is a segol under the ayin in each, different from the tzere in “erev rav,” but this does not have to be significant.) For example, Jer. 25:19-20 reads: “Pharaoh king of Egypt, and his servants, and his princes, and all his people, and all the ‘erev’….” The word that Targ. Yonatan uses in all three verses comes from the root סמך, which means “support.” See also Rashi on all three verses and especially on Jer. 25:20: “u-mishanto aleihem le-ezrah” (=he relies on them for help). See also Soncino to Jer. 50:37: “foreign traders or mercenaries.” So perhaps “erev” meant “mercenary” at Ex. 12:38. Bar also argues that if it does, we can better understand how the Israelites can be described as “chamushim” when they left, assuming that this word means “armed.”
(But at the end of his article, Bar comes to the surprising conclusion that the reference at Ex. 12:38 is to “intermarried ones”: mercenaries who intermarried with the Israelites. He does not claim a “double meaning” to the word at Ex. 12:38, although he could have. )
Another scholar points out that there is also an Akkadian word “urbi” that refers to a type of soldier.
My comment: The “mercenary-soldier” interpretation may fit the context in the three verses cited above, but it does not fit the context at Ex. 12:38. Moreover, the story of Moses and the Israelites at the sea depicts a helpless people without any help from mercenaries/soldiers.
- There are no passages in either Talmud giving an interpretation of “erev rav.” There is a passage at Beitzah 32b where an Amora who was not treated with kindness criticized those who treated him and said that they must be descendants of the “erev rav.” He observed that the seed of Avraham, in contrast, are “merachem al ha-briyot.” But this is not the kind of passage that was meant to be taken more than homiletically. (But see Rambam, Matanot Aniyim 10:2.)
-Another issue is whether the “erev rav” are to be identified with the “asafsuf” of Num. 11:4. The identification is more compelling if we can view “erev rav” as one word. The Samaritan Torah has this reading. In this reading, the fourth and fifth letters are just reduplicative, like “yerakrak.” The reduplicative term may also be disparaging. Many sources, ancient and modern, make the identification. The fact that “mix” and “gather” are words with a similar meaning supports the identification. On the other hand, if the groups were the same, why was the same word not used. On this topic, see D. Zucker at thetorah.com, “Erev Rav: A Mixed Multitude of Meanings.”
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. Unlike “erev rav” and “asafsuf,” these terms in no way mean the same thing. He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.com.