In tomorrow’s Torah reading, the Bible states that, when the Jews went out of Egypt, a “mixed multitude” (erev rav) accompanied them. At least, this is how the King James Bible and most traditional Jewish commentaries understand the phrase, taking its first word (erev) to mean “mixture” and the second (rav) to mean “many” or “numerous.” David Zucker explains some of the other possibilities:
Shaul Bar, professor of Bible at the University of Memphis, notes that in a number of biblical contexts the term erev seems to refer to soldiers. Similarly, Israel Knohl, professor emeritus of Bible at the Hebrew University, suggests that it may be a cognate of the Akkadian urbi, which refers to a type of soldier.
[In addition], many scholars are skeptical that the word rav here really means “many.” The term has reduplicative quality, with the letters resh and bet being repeated: erev rav. Thus, [the Italian rabbi and scholar] Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951) writes in his commentary on Exodus [that] “the correct view is that which regards the expression erev rav as a single word from the stem arav,” [meaning “to mix”]. In fact, in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the term is written as one word, aravrav. If this is the origin of the term, then the Torah is making no comment at all on the size of the group.
This reading in fact strengthens the traditional interpretation that equates the erev rav with the asafsuf—also a “mixed multitude” in the King James Version—of Numbers 11:4. While ancient and medieval commentaries believe this group comprised Egyptians who chose to throw in their lot with the Israelites after seeing God’s power, two prominent modern rabbinic authorities have argued that these were Egyptians who had married Israelites. To the Zohar, meanwhile, they were a group of renegade magicians.