The Origin of the ‘6 Million Jews’ Figure

The Rabbinical Exaggeration or ‘Guzma’ is a common device employed by jewish religious writers and authorities; both past and present, and finds common utilization in the Babylonian Talmud for example. (1) Its origins lie in the unusual and exaggerated tales told by rabbinical authorities in the Mishnah and Gemara to make a specific point: so if say Maimonides had been speaking to Nachmanides they might use a guzma to make a point of scale.

However when using the guzma historically jewish religious writers and authorities have been conscious of the possibility that an exaggeration could be taken as reality rather than how it was actually intended to be understood. To combat this the rabbinical authorities used a system of absolute absurdity: so that everything said in rei gumza (lit. ‘tall tales’) was so absurd that only the ignorant would take it literally. (2)

Now the method used by jewish religious writers and authorities to express the scale of a Shoah event; and bear in mind the term is much older and has seen much more use than its single modern usage (i.e. in regards to the ‘holocaust’) may imply to most people, is to multiply the number of Israelites the Mishnah lists as having coming out out of Egypt (i.e. approximately 600,000) to give a sense of how much worse an event is or large something in relation to the Exodus. (3)

The usual form this takes is represented well enough in the Babylonian Talmud when the sages wish to express the scale of the very large jewish community in Alexandria. So they state that the Alexandrian jewish community is ‘twice as many as those who went out of Egypt’ [i.e. 1,200,000 jews]. (4)

This system of expression forms part of what the jews call Leshon Hakmah; the ‘Language of the Wise’, which is a method of having a conversation within a conversation either with words or by gesture. This is facilitated by the expressions being used to paraphrase well-known Talmudic and Torah passages/stories, which then convey a general meaning that can then be interpreted within the given context. This system isn’t fool proof of course as it relies heavily on the ability of the interpreter to correctly identify the religious context of the gestures, words and/or phrases.

The clue to the fact that this was only conceived of to be used in a religious context is obvious when one sees the notion of ‘the wise’being invoked, which is the opposite of the ignoramus in Judaism. The wise refers to the Talmid Chacham (lit. ‘Torah Scholars’) and the rabbis, while the ignoramus (i.e. ”Am Ha’arez’ [or ‘Am Ha’aretz’ in modern Hebrew] lit. ‘people of the land’ or ‘the common people’) refers to the bulk of the jewish people.

Hayes provides an able summary of this distinction in rabbinic thought:

‘In halakhic texts of the tannaitic period, ‘am ha’arez is a technical term that stands in opposition to the term haver. The haver observes the law of tithing and purity in a stringent manner while the ‘am ha’arez does not (see T. Avodah Zarah 3:10). Insofar as the ‘am ha’arez is unobservant or ignorant of Jewish law, the observant Jew (or haver) must take certain precautions in dealing with him, so as not to be led into violation of his own more stringent standards regarding purity and tithing. Tannaitic sources do not refer to the ‘am ha’arez with any particular disrespect or vituperation. Interaction with the ‘am ha’arez is expected, though too much intimacy is discouraged.


In a Babylonian baraita at B. Berakhot 47b, the ‘am ha’arez is variously defined as one who does not don tefillin, one who does not have zizit (fringes) on his garment, one who does not affix a mezuzah to his door, one who does not dedicate his sons to Torah study, or – most remarkably – one who does not attend upon some sages despite having studied some Scripture and some Mishnah. As Jeffrey Rubenstein (2003, 125) notes, these definitions are tantamount to saying that an ‘am ha’aretz is any Jew who is not of the class of sages and their disciples.’ (5)

Although I don’t doubt this rather technical summary will cause the eyes of those unacquainted with rabbinics to glaze over: it is very easy to distil the essence of what Hayes is saying. To wit that the devout jews of primarily rabbinic families see themselves as an elite (i.e. a priestly class) over the common jews who do not devote their lives to the study of the Torah and wisdom of the jewish sages.

Now as Hayes does not note; although she does imply it, (6) the rabbinical class in Judaism may view themselves as superior to other jews, but they view themselves almost as a wholly different species to ‘gentiles, idolaters and slaves’. A jew might be an ignoramus, but he or she was was till a member of the chosen of Israel and as such biologically superior to a non-jew. (7)

This view of the rabbis as the elite of Israel is one that has been perpetuated throughout history; although it has been softened in regards to marriage between non-rabbinical and rabbinical jewish families as the centuries have worn on, but that the use of a religious system of expression that required a considerable working knowledge of Judaism and was deliberately absurd has survived into modernity (8) is important to comprehending where the ‘6 million’ jews figure so frequently seen comes from.

Heddesheimer has adroitly traced the frequent use of this figure as a jewish atrocity claim to the 1880s in relation to the Russian Empire and the pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (9) Unfortunately Heddesheimer’s study is too focused on the era of the First World War and does not recognise the significance of the ‘600,000’ figure used in some of his sources in relation to the guzma and how the transmission of such of a number would have operated.

By way of further correction we can point out that the usage can be earlier traced to the Damascus Affair of 1840 where the ‘6 million jews’ figure was used by Adolphe Cremieux as the number of jews who had alternatively been ‘saved’ by Sultan Ali Muhammed’s forced closure of the criminal proceedings against the jews of Damascus or applauded him as a powerful ‘lobby’ in international politics at the time. (10)

Now we may find it particularly instructive to note three things about these uses of ‘6 million jews’ in relation to Shoah events.

Firstly that the jews who made these claims originally (i.e. those who publicised the number) were devoutly secular jews and did not have a sufficient working knowledge of Judaism to realise the difference between an actual estimate and the use of a guzma.

Secondly that in each case the jews who made these claims originally assert that they are made on the basis of jewish population statistics. No population statistics that I have been able to locate from either period support this claim.

However I would note that the claim that the 6 million has an origin in all of these propagandistic usages in population statistics is actually in and of itself unlikely precisely because it would be a rare and improbable thing indeed for there to be approximately 6 million jews in the world in 1840, but then in the 1880s some 6 million jews in the Russian Empire alone and then some 60 years later some 6 million jews killed by the Axis powers as part of a genocide in the Second World War.

Thirdly the usage suggests not that this number was an accident, but rather had a very specific origin external to the events that it was used to describe. That origin to my mind is in the guzma as in both the 1840 usage and the later 1880s usages the parties charged with relaying information to the largely secular jews of the West who then used the ‘6 million’ number: were rabbis of highly religious but somewhat isolated jewish communities.

Now if understand this then the use of a common rabbinical device for expressing the scale of an event that was not meant to be taken literally; i.e. a guzma, that would have be normal to those using it, but which was instead taken literally by those receiving the message. We can see that the rabbis tried to make the number so absurd; i.e. 600,000 Israelites out of Egypt multiplied by 10 to make 6 million (meant to be read as; simply, ‘all the jews’ rather than as a statistic), that whoever read it would immediately understand that they were using a guzma to express numerical scale in the Shoah events they were describing.

However they did not understand that those jews receiving the message; who they assumed would have a good working knowledge of traditional Judaism just like them, had not used such archaic rabbinic concepts for quite some time and were; as stated, avowedly secular and used to dealing in facts, figures and statistics.

So here we can see that we have a true case of a concept being ‘lost in translation’ in that by the time that jews who would have understood the concept and use of the guzma had become somewhat normalised (although not powerful or well-regarded as yet) into Western jewry (in the late 1890s and early 1900s) then the ‘6 million’ jews statistic had become received wisdom that had been rationalised early on; quite possibly by Lucien Wolf, to have come from jewish population statistics and was removed from its original rabbinic context (so they would have had little reason to question its origin).

This then explains why we have so little evidence in and around the origin of the ‘6 million jews’ in spite of it being a widely used claim in modern jewish history. It also explains why the famous statistic almost literally seems to come out of thin air from prominent secular jewish defenders of their tribe in Europe and North America at times when Shoah events were occurring to somewhat isolated and very traditional jewish communities.

Essentially then the famous ‘6 million’ is simply a made up number that was taken as read by jews overly keen to defend their people without realizing it was meant to express scale and not be taken literally.

The irony; as always, is simply delicious.


References

  1. Daniel Ben-Amos, 1999, ‘Jewish Folk Literature’, Oral Tradition, Vol. 14, No. 1, p. 171
  2. Ibid, p. 163
  3. Judah David Eisenstein, 1937, ‘The Tales of Rabbah bar-bar Hannah: The Aramaic Text with Hebrew Translation’, 1st Edition, Behrman’s Jewish Book House: New York, p. 17
  4. Babylonian Talmud, Succah 51:B
  5. Christine Hayes, 2007, ‘The “Other” in Rabbinic Literature’, pp. 260-261 in Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, Martin Jaffee (Eds.), 2007, ‘The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature’, 1st Edition, Cambridge University Press: New York
  6. Ibid, pp. 261-262
  7. Richard Kalmin, 1999, ‘The Sage in Jewish Society in Late Antiquity’, 1st Edition, Routledge: New York, pp. 8-13
  8. Jacob Neusner, 1991, ‘The Talmud: A Close Encounter’, 1st Edition, Fortress Press: Minneapolis, pp. 5; 60-61
  9. Don Heddesheimer, 2003, ‘The First Holocaust: Jewish Fund Raising Campaigns with Holocaust Claims During and After World War I’, 1st Edition, Theses and Dissertations Press: Chicago, pp. 17-24
  10. Ronald Florence, 2004, ‘Blood Libel: The Damascus Affair of 1840’, 1st Edition, University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, p. 189

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Karl Radl

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