From Insights and Inspirations
Published by the Ra’anana Community Kollel
Ra’anana Community Kollel
Stand Up And Be Counted
Rabbi Dovid Horwitz
This Shabbat we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, the book of Bamidbar. As we all know, most English chumashim refer to the fourth book of Torah not as Bamidbar but as Numbers. The reason for this is that Bamidbar begins with the counting of the Jewish people, an act that certainly involved a lot of numbers. Rashi explains how Hashem instructed Moshe to count the Jewish people on three separate occasions. Moshe counted the Jewish people when they left Egypt, when they first became a holy people. He then performed a limited count of the dead in the aftermath of the Golden Calf episode in order to know how many were left who did not sin, and lastly, he counted the nation in the beginning of the second year immediately after the Mishkan was erected. Hashem instructed the census to show His love and endearment toward His people. On all three of these occasions, Hashem felt particularly close to His people. (In the second instance, His feelings of closeness were directed to those who did not sin.)
Although we see clearly from these three instances that it is indeed permitted to take count of the Jewish people, the verse in the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa indicates that even when Hashem instructs such a census, it should be done not by counting heads, but rather by counting half shekel pieces. As Rashi explains, counting heads can sometimes subject the Jewish people to ayin hara, with potentially hazardous results. Consequently, the Gemara (Yoma 22b) states that it is forbidden to count the Jewish people directly, even for the sake of a mitzvah. Perhaps the clearest tragic accounting of the punishments that can befall the Jewish people for transgressing this command is recounted in the book of Shmuel II when Dovid Hamelech instructed his ministers to count the Jewish people, and immediately afterwards, a deadly plague broke out. The Gemara (Brachot 62b) states that this plague was a direct punishment for Dovid’s sin of counting the people. However, the commentaries ask an obvious question. Dovid Hamelech was certainly aware of the verse in Parshat Ki Tisa which clearly forewarns of the negative effects that such a census could bring with it. Why then didn’t Dovid count the people through the means of coins or other objects as Moshe and King Shaul had done in earlier times?
The Radak answers with an important caveat. Even when counting the people via objects, it is only permissible to do so if there is good reason. However, to count the Jewish people in the absence of a good reason could actually spell trouble no matter how it is done. Dovid, lacking a legitimate reason to make such a count, was punished with a plague despite his use of objects to count them. Other opinions maintain that Dovid was punished because he counted them directly. Had he counted them indirectly through the use of coins, etc. then he would not have been punished, despite the fact that there was no legitimate reason to count them at that time.
From these two approaches comes a halachic dispute among contemporary Poskim whether it is permissible today to perform a census in Israel. According to the Radak it would be prohibited to take a census, even though there is no direct counting of heads involved, as there is no good reason to do so. Others rule that a census is permissible since it is performed in an indirect manner. Indeed, many Jews within the Orthodox community were split on the matter when the government decided to perform a census in Israel seven years ago. Whether you cooperated with the census bureau or not, take to heart the underlying message resonating through the Book of Numbers. Every Jew is unique and vital to the success of the Jewish nation. Be proud to be a Jew!