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Diversity and the erev rav: Torah, Ancestry and Identity

Celebrating our jewish mixed multitude: study session

What does "Jewish" look like?

  • We all want to be recognized as family. And we need to make room for all kinds of family trees that have all kinds of branches, stretching ourselves to picture them as all being part of the same orchard. Which may be a corny image, but we need new images to better reflect our reality as a community … None of us is half anything. We are whole people. We are "both/and" people, not "either/or" people. And if one thing is absolutely required for a spiritual community, it is that there must be space for people to be whole. 

- Avi Rose, Rosh Hashanah 2001, Kehilla Community Synagogue, Oakland, CA

  • What does it mean to be a 'normal' Jewish family today? As we learn each others' stories we hear the challenges and joys of reconciling our sometimes competing identities...We were a mixed multitude in ancient times and we still are. May we continue to see the many faces of Israel as a gift that enriches our people.

- Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, Shma: An Online Journal of Jewish Responsibility, June 2003

  • There we were, in sub-Saharan Africa, watching Ugandan children learning their aleph-bet much in the manner of Jewish children everywhere. We couldn’t help but notice that some of the posters on the walls of their schools were identical to ones in our own JRC [Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL] school. It is difficult to describe the feelings we experienced that morning – for a group of white Jewish Americans in Africa, “strangers in a strange land” in so many ways, to suddenly feel that we were home. 
  • I believe our attitudes about our Jewish future are intimately tied up with our vision of who we are. As I am coming to realize, much of the traditional Jewish self-image has been marked by a decidedly white, Euro-centric bias.  In truth, however, from the very beginning of our existence, we Jews have always been an ethnically diverse people. In the book of Exodus, we are told that an “erev rav” – a mixed multitude of Israelites – went up out of Egypt. Since that time, Jews have lived amidst widely ranging cultures and nationalities, and our communities have always reflected this diversity.

- Rabbi Brant Rosen, Yom Kippur 2005, Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Evanston, IL

Who were "the mixed multitude?"

Exodus 12: 31-32, 37-38

  • (31): He [Pharaoh] summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship Y-H-V-H as you said!
  • (32): Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!” …
  • (37): The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children.
  • (38): Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.

(לח) וְגַם־עֵ֥רֶב רַ֖ב עָלָ֣ה אִתָּ֑ם 

Vegam erev rav alah itam

Rashi on Exodus 12:38

ערב רב - תַּעֲרּובַת אֻמּוֹת שֶׁל גֵּרִים

erev ravta’aruvat umot shel gerim

Rashi defines this mixed multitude as a mingling of nations who had become proselytes.

Ibn Ezra on Exodus 12:38

וגם ערב רב - מאנשי מצרים שהתערב עמהם. והם האספסוף שנאספו עליהם

And a mixed multitude - Of Egyptians who intermingled with them. They are the asafsuf who joined them.

Ibn Ezra defines erev rav in reference to a term used in Numbers 11:4.

Numbers 11:4-5

וְהָֽאסַפְסֻף֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּקִרְבּ֔וֹ הִתְאַוּ֖וּ תַּאֲוָ֑ה וַיָּשֻׁ֣בוּ וַיִּבְכּ֗וּ גַּ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ מִ֥י יַאֲכִלֵ֖נוּ בָּשָֽׂר

  • (4) The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat!
  • (5) "We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.

Rashi on Numbers 11:4

והאספסף - veha’asafsuf

Rashi writes that this "riffraff" were the mixed multitude that had gathered with the Israelites when they left Egypt  and the word is from the root אסף, which means to gather.  He references the midrash Sifrei Bamidbar 86, which connects the asafsuf with the converts that were added on (hanosafim) to the Israelites' community. 

What do you think the terms mean?

Who is being identified?

What does erev rav suggest to you?

Thu, 2 December 2021