Bamidbar: Counting Jews, Jewishly

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13 May 2010

Jews have an aversion to counting people. Walk into a winter mincha minyan and Jews use ten-word verses to verify the minyan. To the minyanaire, no sweeter word than haolam, the final word in the classic Hoshia es Amecha [Tehillim, 28:9] verse can be heard.

Why not just count straight?

First, a famous Torah verse apparently indicates that bad things happen when counting people directly: [Shemos, 30:12]

“When you take the count of the B’nei Yisrael to determine their numbers, each man shall give an atonement pledge for his soul to Ad-noy, when you count them. Thus there will be no plague among them when you count them1.

No one wants to get plagued!

Second, and perhaps even more significantly, the Talmud lays down a clear prohibition:2

R. Eleazar said: Whosoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition, as it is said: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured” [Hoshea]. R. Nahman b. Isaac said: He would transgress two prohibitions, for it is written: ‘Which cannot be measured nor numbered’.

So there is something very not good about counting people! And yet our parsha, Bamidbar commences the book of Numbers – so called because of the two major censuses in the book. Again and again God counts his people. Indeed, according to the midrash [Tanchuma, KiTisa 9], God counts his people ten times. A Rashi spells it out clearly:

Because they (the Israelites) are precious before Him (Hashem), He counts them all the time; when they went out of Egypt He counted them [Shemot, 12:37], and when they fell because of [the sin of] the golden calf He counted them to know the number of those who remained, when He came to cause His Presence to rest upon them He counted them.

Counting people then is an expression of love. Consider: People count money, vacation days, carats and calories [each calorie is negative-precious]. Certainly, there are numerous expressions of Divine love. What special message inheres in counting?

Now that we have concluded that counting is bad and good – we are officially confused. Wait, because two other questions confound further:

a. The classic Torah count-word is sefira as in omer, shemittah (sabbatical year), yovel (jubilee), stars and niddah (days of menstrual separation) – to name but a few. Yet when counting people we skip that classic word and for two others, pakad and se’u that loom large in the people-count context.

Both have multiple meanings: Pakad is the classic word for memory, as in: And Hashem (pakad) remembered Sarah. Se’u means to lift up, as in: Abraham, sa einecha, lift up your eyes. Why does the Torah depart from the classic pristine sefirah and use more ambiguous formulations? We will leave the 4th word, minyan/ mana for a different time.

b. The deepest counting problem emerges from a troubling story in Shmuel 2:24. David HaMelech overrules his general Yoav and counts his people.

And the king said to Joab .. “Go please, to and fro throughout all the tribes of Israel, from Dan as far as Beer-sheba and take census of the people, so that I may know the number of the people.” And Joab said .. “May the Lord your God add to the people a hundredfold of whatsoever they may be, and the eyes of my lord, the king may see it; but my lord the king, why does he desire such a thing?” But the word of the king prevailed against Joab, … 9. And Joab presented the sum .. And Israel consisted of eight hundred thousand valiant men that drew the sword; and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men. … 10. And David’s heart smote him after he had counted the people. And David said to the Lord: I have sinned greatly in what I have done; and now, ‘O Lord, put aside please, the iniquity of your servant, for I was very foolish! ..

Hashem asks David to pick his poison:

‘So says the Lord, “Three things I offer you, choose for yourself one of them, and I shall do it to you”. And Gad came to David and he told him, and he said to him, “[Do you prefer] that seven years of famine in your land shall come upon you? or three months that you shall flee before your oppressor while he pursues you? or, that there be three days pestilence in your land? .. and David said to Gad; “I am greatly oppressed; let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for His mercies are great; but into the hand of man let me not fall.” So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time; And there died of the people from Dan to Beer-sheba seventy thousand men.

So much is troubling here . Two obvious questions

  1. How could David have violated such an obvious imperative?
  2. Even if he did, why should the rest of the nations suffer?

Let’s commence with a basic sevara (logic) that appears throughout the literature.

Two true but opposing negative notions emerge when considering the count of people: Every number is unique; a person who is counted is thus individualized, he is left stripped of community – for my number is different than your number.

Paradoxically, the counted one is stripped of his unique nature. Nothing dehumanizes more than a number; a notion the Nazis understood very well. In the process of counting, Reuven + Shimon no longer remain Reuven and Shimon – they now become two nondescript generic people

So what’s good about counting? A classic story illustrates:

Five minutes left in the exam, and the proctor calls out, “Finish up, people.” Everyone starts writing conclusions, one guy keeps writing. The proctor calls out, “Time’s up. All papers in.” Everyone who hasn’t finished brings up their papers. One guy just keeps writing. The proctor sees him, says, “I said ‘Time’s up.’ Get your paper in now, or I’ll have to disqualify your exam.” The guy keeps writing. The proctor gathers all the exams into a big pile, looks at the guy writing, says, “That’s it, then. Your exam is disqualified.” The guy finishes up, checks the paper, carries it up to the front. The proctor shakes his head and says, “Sorry. I told you — I won’t accept your exam.” The guy looks indignant, stares at the proctor, says “Do you realize who I am?” The proctor looks surprised, then annoyed, and says, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” The guy says, “I didn’t think so,” stuffs his paper into the very middle of the huge stack of exams, and runs out of the room.

Numbers bind.Sefas Emes teaches that they binds us to our roots. Jews are 3 [Patriarchs] and 70 [souls who went to Egypt] and 600,000 [at Mt. Sinai]. Numbers link horizontally. A minyan of ten simple Jews can say kaddish kedusha and barchu while 8 Chofetz Chaim’s, and a Chazon Ish can not. Within the number resides the power of the community. That which unites in the number is our common kedusha – our common roots. Thus for the Jews, Hashem alone counts HIS people: [Yoma 22b]

R. Jonathan raised an objection: It is written: ‘Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea,’ and it is also written: ‘Which cannot be numbered? This is no contradiction: Here it speaks of the time when Israel fulfils the will of the Lord, there of the time when they do not fulfill His will. Rabbi, on behalf of Abba Jose son of Dosthai, said: This is no contradiction: Here it speaks of [counting done] by human beings, there of counting by Heaven.

God is the great unifier. In His count, resides the ties that bind3.

And when does man count? Only when he must, and even then only in a specific way. To express bravado or possession [these are my people] is wholly inappropriate. When Shaul counts twice [with lambs and with shards, Shmuel 1: 11 & 15], it is because he needs to know how many soldiers can fight.

And yet even when counting is necessary, it retains negative peripheral effects – for it strips one of communal merit and serves to dehumanize. Here we uncover the mystery of pakad . God, Rabbeinu Bechayei teaches, grants special hashgacha when counting is mandated or necessary. The metaphysical benefit of counting indirectly is that shards, coins or lambs are counted – not the individual. And what of s’eu? Even as you count many individuals together, I dare not one must not forget the special nature of the individual. Indeed, every person is lifted above the crowd.

With our David Hamelech conundrum we conclude: Herein, three famous approaches:

1. David counted the people directly [cf. Berachos 62b]

2. David counted the children from above age 13 [Ramban].

3. David counted the people indirectly, but without reason [perhaps as a statement of pride].

These are David-focused answers. And why are the people punished? According to Rabbeinu Bechaye, the simple answer is they aren’t: their deaths are a natural result of their lost communal merit. .

Ohr HaChaim’s approach still intrigues. If indirect superfluous counting remains prohibited, why should coins be better than lambs. He doesn’t say exactly, but I believe his implied notions can serve a powerful reminder; for it is not the coin, but the half coin that is key. Unessential counting accentuates people – by definition. That can not be hidden under the ruse of a shard or a lamb – for the counter prides himself in the people. ½ shekel coins however protect – for in the half-ness can be found a classic Jewish notion: I can not be whole without you. When I feel incomplete and in need of the other, then by definition I may garner communal merit.

To be properly counted within Klal Yisrael, we must think and live for the other.

May Hashem count his people as he beckons Moshiach, oh so speedily. Good Shabbos .

1 Cf. Rashi for things that are counted are subject to the evil eye and as a result a plague befalls them like in the days of David.

2 Why did the Talmud not use the Biblical verse ? Cf Maharsha Yoma 22b who answers that perhaps the verse is referring to the Golden Calf and is not a general prohibition. This is also an approach to understand King David’s counting of the Jewish people.

3 L’havdil, but in a strikingly similar vein, the family patriarch might count his 5 children and 25 grandchildren . He is the chain that links.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.