By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
Parshat Ki Tisa
20 Adar 5764 - March 12, 2004
The beginning of KI TISA is a portion of preliminaries. After
the detailed instructions for the building of the Mishkan and the installment
of the Kohanim (Shemot 25:1-30:10), we are now presented with a series of
• The giving of the half-shekalim.
• The Laver (kiyor).
• The oil of anointing and the incense.
• The appointment of the artisans Betzalel and Oholiav.
• The observance of Shabbat, even during the building of the Mishkan.
Delineated here are elements related to the building of the Mishkan that are
not essential to its construction yet must be imparted before the actual
building is undertaken. (This is even true of the Laver, where the main issue
is the Kohen’s duty to wash his hands and feet before performing the Service.)
The first of these is the yearly commandment to give the half-shekalim:
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: “When you take the count of the Children of
Israel by their numberings, then each man shall give for Hashem a ransom for
his soul when counting them; and there shall not be a plague amongst them when
counting them. This shall they give, everyone who passes among those who are
counted: half a shekel, by the holy shekel, a shekel is twenty gerahs; half a
shekel is the offering to Hashem. Everyone, who passes through the census,
from twenty years old and above, shall give the offering of Hashem. The rich
shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than half a shekel, to
give the offering of Hashem to atone for your souls. And you shall take the
silver of the atonement from the Children of Israel and you shall give it for
the work of the Tent of Meeting. And it shall be for the Children of Israel as
a memorial before Hashem, to atone for your souls” (Shemot 30:11-16).
In the desert, the silver was used for the sockets and hooks (38:25-28),
becoming a permanent “memorial before Hashem.” Henceforth, as long as the
Sanctuary stood, the silver was spent for community offerings, as Sefer
HaChinuch (ascribed to either R. Aharon HaLevi or R. Pinchas HaLevi of
Barcelona, mid-13th Century) says (§ 105):
They would leave it all in one compartment in the Sanctuary, and from there
they would take out funds to buy: the daily burnt-offerings, the additional
offerings, and every sacrifice that was offered up on behalf of the public,
and their libations; the salt with which the offerings were salted, the order
of the piles of wood, the Showbread, and the wages for the one who made the
Showbread; the Omer, the two loaves of bread, the red heifer, the goat
dispatched, and the cloth strip of crimson.
At the same time, the half-shekels were used to take a census of the Children
of Israel: by counting the coins, the size of the army is known. We thereby
learn an ancillary law: never to count Jews directly, but only indirectly, as
the Gra (R. Eliyahu of Vilna) says in Aderet Eliyahu:
“This is a commandment for all generations at all times whenever counting
This is not a separate negative commandment, but a prohibition inferred from a
positive commandment (lav haba michlal aseh). Rambam codifies this prohibition
in Laws of Daily and Additional Sacrifices (4:4):
“It is forbidden to count Israel, except by means of another thing, as it
says, and he counted them with sheep” (Shmuel I 15:4).
It applies even
• for the sake of a mitzvah, such as determining a minyan;
• when the count is not done by a king or leader; and
• for a part, rather than the whole, of Israel.
This law is also cited by Magen Avraham to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim
156:1. It is particularly relevant to the State of Israel, which has conducted
censuses. (See R. Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 7:3; Techumin 4, p. 327
ff.; and R. J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halachic Problems, vol. III.)
Why is direct counting of Jews forbidden?
From Berachot 62b, it seems that the essential source of this law is our
verse. However, as Yoma 22a demonstrates, the far-reaching nature of the
prohibition is derived from such verses as the one cited by Rambam, as well
And the number of the Children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea,
which can not be measured or numbered (Hoshea 2:1).
This is an echo of the promises made to Avraham:
…that if a man would be able to count the dust of the earth, so would your
seed be counted (Bereshit 13:16).
“Look, please, towards the heavens and count the stars … so will be your seed”
Rashi to Divrei HaYamim I 27:24 suggests that these verses constitute the
ultimate source of the prohibition.
Accordingly, counting Jews is defiance of Hashem’s promises. On the other
hand, Rashi on our verse says that the “evil eye” (ayin hara) has influence
over anything counted; this alludes to Taanit 8b, which teaches that blessing
does not rest on anything measured or counted.
Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) explains that counting
people highlights their transience, which is a direct result of their sins:
“It is therefore fitting that everyone give a ransom for his soul in honor of
G-d, may He be blessed, and He, being merciful, will atone for transgression (Tehillim
78:38), as it says, To atone for your souls (v. 15).”
R. Moshe Mat (c. 1551-c. 1606), in Hoil Moshe, Baer HaTorah, explains that a
census undermines national cohesiveness:
“Since number indicates plurality, which is the opposite of unity, there will
result from this division severe harm for the nation. …By means of the
half-shekel it is shown that every one of them is greatly lacking until he
unites and joins with the others.”
While learning about the building of the Mishkan, which unites Hashem with us,
we are simultaneously taught the indispensable importance of unity within
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
It was Moshe’s passionate prayers that mitigated what
would have been a calamitous punishment in the wake of the sin of the
Golden Calf. Moshe hewed new stone tablets, God inscribed on them the Ten
Commandments, and Moshe experienced a new revelation - the thirteen
Attributes of Mercy. These Thirteen Attributes convey a new covenant
between God and Israel that will forever prevent future failure on the
part of Israel and rejection on the part of God. "A covenant was made with
the thirteen attributes that they will never be turned away unanswered
(Rosh Hashanah 17b).” Thus, on Yom Kippur, on fast days and in our
Selichot, the Thirteen Attributes form an essential ingredient in our
It must be stressed, however, that it is not the mere incantation of the
formula that brings forgiveness. Rather, it is the incorporation of these
Attributes of Mercy into our personalities that guarantees God's mercy. As
the Talmud states: "Whenever Israel sins, let them do before me this
order, and I will forgive them (ibid.)." The emphasis is on the doing, not
the saying. We become deserving of mercy when we are merciful; deserving
of compassion, when compassionate.
Moshe’s response in Shemot 34:9 to the revelation of the Thirteen
Attributes was two-fold. First, he asked of God that the Divine Presence
never depart from the midst of the Jewish people. Secondly, he asked for
forgiveness for our sins. Ramban understands that there was also a third
request, namely, that Eretz Yisrael be granted to the Jewish people (U'nechaltanu
- "and grant us our inheritance" = Eretz Yisrael).
The merit of imitating God's ways of lovingkindness and mercy will grant
us three wonderful gifts: 1) God will be in our midst, 2) our sins will be
forgiven, and 3) we will be privileged to inherit the Land of Israel.
Kfar Adumim, Israel
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320