Counting Jews

15 May

Sometimes in seems that as Jews, we are fascinated with numbers…particularly demographics. We do surveys to determine the number of Jews who are affiliated, who go to synagogues, who have a seder, who have watched at least one movie with Jewish content of any sort during the last 12 months(!)

It’s crazy the number of different ways we count ourselves….especially since Jewish law stipulates quite clearly that counting Jews is severely prohibited!

Rabbi Isaac said: It is forbidden to count Israel even for [the purpose of fulfilling] a commandment…. Rabbi 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.  (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 22b)

Keeping in mind the blatant teaching of this talmudic passage, we can’t help but wonder how to come to terms with this week’s Torah portion – Parashat Bemidbar – one of three occasions in the Torah itself where the people are counted according to God’s own instruction! How can this be?

Well, you might suggest that these are exceptional cases, and God can certainly instruct us to count, even if we shouldn’t normally do so ourselves.However, I would like to make a different suggestion, based on my understanding of why the Talmud  prohibits counting Jews.

Many explain that the prohibition stems from the idea that by counting, we reduce human lives to a number, negating the infinite worth of each individual who becomes just another one of the group.

However, it would seem to me that then this prohibition would apply to gentiles as well as Jews, as they too are created uniquely, created in the image of God as well. This also doesn’t address why it was ok to count during our wanderings in the wilderness those 40 years.I suggest that the Talmud is emphasizing an opposite problem.  When we count a group of Jews, we might look at them as no more than individuals who add up to a larger group of individuals.  10 Jews, for instance, is just a group of 10 individuals, who happen to be gathered together in the same place.  That, we are taught, is what we shouldn’t do.  Because when these 10 Jews come together, all of the sudden, they form a minyan – which is something much greater than just 10 individuals – the Talmud is teaching us that as Jews, when we come together as a group, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For this reason, we don’t give each individual a number, because doing so ignores this important message. (If you have ever heard someone counting people for a minyan saying “not one, not two, etc. or saying the words “hoshia et amecha, uvarech et nachalatecha, ureim venaseim ad olam” ( a ten word verse), this is where the custom comes from.)In the wilderness of Sinai, they were counted, but that was a counting of the nation as a whole (ok, maybe only the men of military age, but that too is a national grouping). 

Once the Torah has established that we are counting the nation, then it is permitted to take a head count, for what we are measuring is the stature of the nation or its army, its manpower – we are measuring the nation as a whole unit. We are not simply adding up the sum total of the individuals, but rather, we are measuring the overall size and prominence of the People of Israel.

Perhaps that would make taking a census of the Jewish people and its demographics a perfectly fine thing to do.  Similarly, when thousands of people show up at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to demonstrate against the leadership of Israel, perhaps then too, estimating their numbers is no problem, since there the issue is one of measuring the overall impression that is being made, rather than actually counting up individuals. 

Perhaps the main lesson of this halachic tradition is that the people of Israel, as a whole, are much more than a sum of our parts….which is why we must work harder to consider every Jew as an invaluable component of the whole of the nation.

While we may be enjoined to refrain from counting Jews, we as Jews do a lot of counting…so, let me wish everyone a very happy 40th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, and a happy 42nd (already 43rd in Israel) day of the counting of the Omer.     

 

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