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How Did the Eirav Rav Cross the Sea?

“Ten miracles were done for our ancestors by the sea” (Avos 5:4). One of the miracles was Go-d splitting the Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds)) into 12 separate paths, one for each of the 12 tribes (Bartenura, Rabbeinu Yonah and Rambam; see also Mechilta Beshalach 4, Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer 41, Midrash Rabba Esther 7:11 and Koheles 10:10, Tanchuma B’shalach 10, Rashi on Tehillim 136:13 and Rabbeinu Bachye on Shemos 14:21).This leaves us wondering how the Eirev Rav— the mixed multitude of foreigners who left Egypt with the Children of Israel (see Rashi on Shemos 12:38) —– got across. Since they weren’t part of any tribe, they had no path!

Some (e.g., Tosfos on Arachin 15a) are of the opinion that the Children of Israel came out on the same side of the sea that they entered, traveling in a semicircle, so there was no need for the Eirev Rav to cross; they could have just waited until the Children of Israel re-emerged on the same side. Nevertheless, it seems a bit awkward if they didn’t enter the sea when the Egyptian army was chasing after the “deserters.” Besides, as I discussed in Parshas Beshalach, the three reasons given why the Children of Israel must have come out on the same side are based on the mistaken assumption that the Yam Suf went west to east in a straight line, with Egypt to the south and the Promised Land to the north: (1) The Children of Israel were concerned that the Egyptians emerged unscathed on the other side; why were they concerned that the Egyptians survived if they were on the other side? (2) After the Children of Israel emerged, they ended up at Aisam, where they had already been before they “crossed.” (3) They camped at the Yam Suf a few stops later; why would they return to the sea they had recently crossed?

We now know that the top of the Red Sea is “V” shaped, surrounding the Sinai Peninsula, with the Gulf of Suez to its west and the Gulf of Aqaba to its east. This explains (1) their concern: If the Egyptians emerged unscathed, they could resume their chase by traveling north of the Gulf of Suez by land, even after the Children of Israel crossed through the Gulf itself; (2) how they were back where they had previously been – before they crossed, they had entered the Sinai Peninsula by traveling north of the Gulf of Suez, turned around and went back to the west side of the Gulf in order to trick Pharaoh, and now they were back on the Sinai Peninsula after crossing the sea; and (3) why they were back at the sea a few stops later — as I explained in part three of “Where Mt. Sinai Is”’ (Parshas Vayikra), they were traveling to the southern part of the Peninsula, and because of the peninsula’s shape (and terrain), they camped on the eastern shore of the Gulf, farther south.

This not only eliminates the need to say that the Children of Israel came out on the same side they had entered, it also lays the groundwork to explain why there was no need for the Eirev Rav to cross the sea. Let’s retrace the steps the Children of Israel took to get to the Sinai Peninsula: (1) They left Egypt, along with the Eirev Rav (Shemos 12:37-38, Bamidbar 33:5); (2) They went from Succos to Aisam (Shemos 13:20, Bamidbar 33:6), with the latter being on the Sinai Peninsula, traveling there by land, north of the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez, going from its western side to its eastern side; (3) God told them to go back to the western side (and camp there), in order to trick Pharaoh (Shemos 14:2-4, Bamidbar 33:7). They did, going from east to west (the reverse of step #2), traveling north of the Gulf of Suez.

Before getting to the next step, let’s think about what happened in that third step. They had already escaped from Egypt and were on the Sinai Peninsula when God told them to turn around and go back to Egypt (as the land north of the Gulf of Suez was the corridor into and out of Egypt), which the Children of Israel did. But did the Eirev Rav return with them? Or did they remain on the Sinai Peninsula, thereby avoiding the risk of being captured by the Egyptian army? It seems much more likely that when the Children of Israel made a “U” turn to go back to the western side of the Gulf, the Eirav Rav chose to stay where they were, on the Sinai Peninsula.

Step (4): The Egyptian army trapped the Children of Israel between Egypt and the sea (Shemos 14:9); (5) The Children of Israel crossed the sea, emerging by the Desert of Aisam (Bamidbar 33:8) on the Sinai Peninsula.

Since only the Children of Israel crossed the sea, no path was needed for the Eirev Rav. They were already on the Sinai Peninsula when the Children of Israel got there the second time, and rejoined them there.

Some propose that there was a separate miraculous splitting of the sea just for Dasan and Aviram, the perennial antagonists who gave Moshe a hard time from the moment he left Pharaoh’s palace (see Rashi on Shemos 2:13) until the earth swallowed them up with Korach (Bamidbar 16:25-33, 26:9-10). The basis for this idea is that they were still in Egypt after the Children of Israel left (Targum Yonasan on Shemos 14:3), yet were with them in the desert; how did they get there if G-d didn’t split the sea for them? Well, since getting from Egypt to the desert doesn’t require crossing the sea, no miracle was needed. Besides, who says Dasan and Aviram didn’t rejoin the Children of Israel until after they crossed the sea? Maybe they went with Pharaoh to the sea and rejoined their brethren before they crossed! This seems more likely, especially since there was a rebellion at the sea (Shemos 14:11-12), which they were no doubt a part of (see Mechilta Beshalach 2 in conjunction with Rashi on Shemos 5:20). According to Midrash HaGadol (Shemos 2:13) they actually led this rebellion (which is probably why Pharaoh let them rejoin the escapees), so were obviously at the sea before the Children of Israel crossed it and didn’t need a separate miracle.


Rabbi Dov Kramer wrote a weekly dvar Torah from 5764-5776, most of which are archived at RabbiDMK.Wordpress.com and AishDas.org/ta. The pieces he is writing this year are available by searching “Kramer” on the Link’s website and at dmkjewishgeography.wordpress.com.

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