Don't Jews Count?
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Jews have an aversion to counting
people. Walk into a weak mincha minyan and you will
experience how 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] pasuk can be heard. --- Why not just count straight?
First, a famous Torah pasuk
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
No one wants to get plagued!
Second, and perhaps even more
significantly, the Talmud lays down a clear prohibition:
R. Eleazar said: Whoever 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
where]. R. Nahman b. Yitzchak said: He would transgress two
prohibitions, for it is written: 'Which cannot be measured
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,
Ki Tisa 9], God counts his people ten times. Rashi spells it
Because they (Bnei Yisrae) are
precious before Him (Hashem), He counts them all the time;
when they went out of Egypt He counted them [Shemos, 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
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 is that special message of
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 word for
counting 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
opt 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: Avraham, sa einecha, lift up your eyes.
Why does the Torah depart from the classic pristine "sefirah"
and use more ambiguous formulations? Please note that there
is a 4th counting word (minyan/ mana) as well.
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 Yoav ..
"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."
Yoav 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 Yoav ...And Yoav
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. ... And
David's heart troubled 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
'So says the Lord, "Three
things I offer you, choose for yourself one of them, and I
shall do it to you". [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
How could David have violated such an obvious
imperative? Even if he did, why should the rest of the
Let's commence with a basic logic
that appears throughout the literature. Two true but
opposing negative notions emerge when considering the count
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
Paradoxically, even as the counted
one is individualized, he stripped of his unique nature.
Nothing dehumanizes more than a number; something 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 connect 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 cannot. 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, Rebbi? 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
God is the great unifier. In His
count, the numbers serve to connect.
In man's count, however, there is something highly
Therefore man only counts 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 (as we mentioned) 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, Hashem reminds
us that one must not forget the special nature of the
individual. Indeed, every person is lifted above the crowd.
As for our David Hamelech
conundrum we conclude with three famous approaches:
David counted the people directly [cf. Berachos 62b]
he thought the obligation to count indirectly
was a temporal obligation. [Ramban]
he planned on bringing the coins afterwards [Levush]
David counted the children from above age 13 [Ramban]
David counted the people indirectly, but without
reason [perhaps as a statement of pride].
That too is prohibited [Ramban, Midrash]
David neglected to use coins [Ohr HaChaim]
These are David-focused answers.
And why are the people punished? According to Rabbeinu
Bechayei, 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 cannot 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 cannot 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 Mashiach, oh so speedily.
Good Shabbos, Asher
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.
Why did the Talmud not use the Biblical pasuk ? Cf
Maharsha Yoma 22b who answers that perhaps the pasuk
is referring to the Golden Calf and is not a general
prohibition. This is also an approach to understand
King David's countiong of the Jewish people.
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.