Parshat Ki Tisa: The Census

“This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the sacred shekel. Twenty gerahs equal one shekel; half of [such] a shekel shall be an offering to Hashem.” (Shemot 30:13)

In the opening passages of this week’s parasha, Moshe is commanded to conduct a census of the nation. Moshe is provided specific directions for the conduction of the census. These instructions deal with two issues: who is to be counted and how to conduct the census. The census is to include all males over the age of twenty. The method is unusual. Moshe is instructed that he is not to directly count the people. Instead, he is to instruct each male over the age of twenty to contribute a half of a sacred shekel to the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. These coins will be counted and the sum of the coins will correspond with the number of males over the age of twenty.

Moshe is told to instruct each person to be included in the census to contribute a half of a sacred shekel. Nachmanides asks two interesting questions regarding this instruction. First, the instruction makes reference of a coin called a “shekel.” The term “shekel” means “measurement.” Why is the coin referred to by this name? Second, the amount to be contributed is half of a sacred shekel. What were these sacred shekel coins? What made then sacred?

Nachmanides addresses both issues. He begins with a key premise. He suggests that Moshe minted his own coin. He created the shekel. Why is the coin referred to as a “shekel” or “measure”? Moshe was scrupulous in his minting of this coin. He made sure that each coin contained exactly twenty gerahs of silver. The coin is referred to as a “shekel,” or “measure,” because each coin was a full measure of silver.

Why was the coin referred to as a sacred shekel? Nachmanides suggests that the coin was created to be used for various mitzvot. It was to be used for the redemption of the first born and the payment of various other amounts due to the Mishcan. Because of the coin’s role in the fulfillment of mitzvot, it is referred to as the “sacred shekel”.

Nachmanides notes the Sages refer to Ivrit – Hebrew – as the “sacred language.” Why is Ivrit regarded as sacred? Nachmanides suggests that because Ivrit is the language in which the Torah, the Prophets, and other sacred works are composed, it deserves to be referred to as sacred. These works are sacred. Ivrit is the language in which their messages are communicated. Therefore, Ivrit is a “sacred” language. Nachmanides also notes other reasons for referring to Ivrit as sacred.[1]

He notes that his position differs from that of Maimonides. Maimonides offers a rather surprising explanation of the term “sacred language”. Maimonides explains that we should not erroneously assume that Ivrit is referred to as “sacred” as a result of the language’s association with the Jewish people. Instead, the language is referred to as sacred because of an important characteristic. Classical Ivrit lacks terms for the sexual organs, the sexual act, and for human waste and feces – all of which are referred to though euphemism. Maimonides reasons that the exclusion of terminology for these items and actions from the language elevates Ivrit. This characteristic is the basis of its sanctity.[2]

Maimonides’ position seems somewhat prudish. It seems he is suggesting that it is improper to directly refer to the sexual organs and basic bodily functions. These references are proscribed and Ivrit is sacred because it accommodates this taboo!

This is not consistent with Maimonides’ general treatment of sexual issues. He deals with sexual issues in a straightforward, unabashed manner.[3] It seems strange that he should endorse a seemingly pedantic attitude towards sexuality and basic bodily functions.

In order to understand Maimonides’ position it is important to consider his comment more carefully. He explains that Ivrit is sacred because of the structure of the language. It employs euphemisms for references to the sexual organs, the sexual act and for bodily wastes. What does this structural characteristic tell us about the design and objective of the language? Apparently, although the language is remarkably precise and effective for the communication of ideas, it is ill-adapted for a discussion of sexuality, for example. In other words, the language facilitates the exchange of most ideas but hinders communication focused of sexuality.

Why is this characteristic significant? How does it “elevate” the language to sanctity? Although the Torah favors a healthy and balanced attitude towards sexuality, it discourages us from focusing our attention on the sexual. The Torah recognizes that sexuality is a basic component of human nature. It should not be repressed or associated with primitive and unhealthy taboos. But the Torah also recognizes that fascination with sexuality can become obsessive. It can dominate our thoughts and interests. A balance is required. We should not repress our human drive but we should not become obsessively fixated on the sexual. The structure of Ivrit reflects this balance. It is well-suited for the communication of ideas and this should be our focus – the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. It is ill-suited for discussion of the sexual. This is an area in which we must maintain balance. It cannot become the focus of our attention.

This concept of balance is reflected in an interesting comment by Rabbaynu Bachya. Rabbaynu Bachya asks why we are commanded to provide half of a sacred shekel to the Mishcan. Why not provide a full shekel? There are many well-known answers to this question, but Rabbaynu Bachya’s response is one of the most unique. He explains that the use of half of a shekel is intended to communicate a message: We cannot completely give ourselves over to the sacred. We must balance our devotion to the sacred with a devotion to the material world.

This seems to be a remarkable statement! Should we not wholly devote our lives to elevating ourselves to the highest possible spiritual level? Should we not make every effort to escape our attachment to the temporal, material world? Rabbaynu Bachya responds that this attitude is oversimplified; we are material creatures and we cannot neglect, ignore or deny the material element of our nature. If we attempt to focus exclusively on our spiritual needs and neglect our material needs and desires, then we will secure neither. We cannot elevate ourselves spiritually unless we adequately address our material and physical needs.

Rabbaynu Bachya suggests that this idea is reflected in the manner in which we are instructed to observe our festivals. Halachah requires that we apportion the day between spiritual and material endeavors. We are to spend half of the day in prayer, study and spiritual pursuits. The other half of the day is to be devoted to the festival meal and material indulgences.[4] It is strange that the festival – a sacred day – is to be used for material indulgences! Rabbaynu Bachya responds that the addressing of our material needs and desires does not detract from the spiritual element of the festival day. On the contrary, when our material needs and desires are addressed, we are better prepared to pursue spiritual ends.[5]

If we take seriously Rabbaynu Bachya’s comments, they have many important implications. Let us identify one of these. We must provide our children with an education that prepares them for adulthood and independence. We can only execute this responsibility by providing them with an education that will enable them to support themselves. If, as adults, our children cannot provide for their material needs, then they cannot be expected to achieve their spiritual potential. Of course, there is much more that can be said about this issue. But these comments are merely intended to identify one of the many practical implications of Rabbaynu Bachya’s comments.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 30:13.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 8.

[3] See, for example, Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Essurai Beya 21:9.

[4] Mesechet Pesachim 68b.

[5] Rabbaynu Bachya , Commentary on Sefer Shemot 30:13.