Counting People

Bemidbar By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 5, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

The book of Numbers opens on a triumphant note. A census of all conscriptable males above the age of twenty yields precisely 603,550, a figure that implies a total population of over two million Israelites. God’s promise to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2), has been fulfilled. When Jacob, his grandson, relocated to Egypt, his household numbered but seventy persons (Genesis 46:27). Several hundred years later, freed from slavery and about to traverse the wilderness, the clan has grown into a formidable nation, with the military might to reach and conquer its destination.

The haftarah drawn from the prophet Hosea adds a ringing confirmation of God’s hand in this population explosion: “The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted” (Hosea 2:1). A nation without number is a sign of God’s favor. The restoration which Hosea foresees will mirror a prior moment of greatness squandered in faithlessness. As understood by the midrash, Hosea’s words apply to the distant past as well as to the remote future.

According to the midrash, God used a different simile to assure each of the three patriarchs, whose wives had such difficulty conceiving, that their progeny would proliferate beyond number. To Abraham, God promised that his seed one day would be as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5) to Isaac, as the sand (Hosea 2:1), and to Jacob, as the dust of the earth (Genesis 28:14). Fully appreciative of God’s fidelity, Moses in his final discourse intentionally reiterated the simile of the stars in describing Israel’s population: “The Lord your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Deuteronomy 1:10). The simile was predicated upon the just-completed census of the generation of young men born in the desert that came to 601,730 (Numbers 26:51). In other words, the forty-year wilderness sojourn was framed by two nearly identical censuses that proved the same point: God’s promise to the patriarchs had not been idle rhetoric (Bemidbar Rabbah 2:12).

The midrash identifies at least two occasions when the Israelites were subject to a census. Despite the upbeat tone of our parashah, counting heads was usually fraught with danger. For example, before the construction of the Tabernacle, Moses was instructed to register all males over twenty in a circuitous fashion. Each was to “pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled” (Exodus 30:12). Thus to calculate the population, one counted coins, not heads. Since the taking of a census was generally associated with conscription for war, the procedure aroused anxiety and never enacted lightly. In this instance, it served as a one-time poll tax as well as a census of men of military age. But the precedent of counting indirectly had been set.

Toward the end of King David’s reign, a seemingly unwarranted census of his united realm gave rise to a plague that killed some 70,000 inhabitants from Dan to Beer-sheba. Having failed to dissuade David from risking God’s wrath, Joab, his commander in-chief, complied. The link between census and conscription is again evident. In nearly ten months of travel, Joab and his officers determined that Israel had some 800,000 “soldiers ready to draw the sword” and Judah, David’s own tribe, another 500,000. Belatedly, David regrets his command and submits himself to God’s harsh punishment (II Samuel 24).

Thereafter, counting ceased to be a simple neutral act. The Mishnah reports that in the Temple the many daily tasks connected with the sacrificial cult were not pre-assigned to specific priests. Instead, from among the priests who volunteered for a task, one was selected by lottery. The officer in charge would stand the priests in a circle and begin to count from a priest whose turban had been removed, with the assignment going to the priest where the counting stopped on a pre-announced number. In deference to the angst, the officer never counted heads, only the extended finger of each priest, which is why the modern Hebrew word for voting (lehatzbia) comes from the word for finger (etzba) (Yoma 2:1).

Temple precedent became halakhic practice. Jews were never to be counted directly, but always by means of a surrogate. Thus the Rabbis could not imagine that when Saul mustered his troops before he did battle with Amalek he counted them directly. “Saul mustered the troops and enrolled them at Telaim: 200,000 men on foot, and 10,000 men of Judah ” (I Samuel 15:4). In context, Telaim is clearly a place name. The Rabbis, however, read it as a homonym for a word meaning lambs. In compliance with rabbinic law, Saul had given each one of his soldiers a lamb from his royal flocks and then proceeded to count the lambs (BT Yoma 22b).

So the custom in Yiddish of counting negatively – nit ein, nit zwei – has deep roots in Jewish culture and consciousness. A fear of numbering prompts us to be circumspect. And I would dare to say that for Jews demography is not a value-free science. Our numbers are too small to be carefree or indifferent. For a vulnerable minority counting is always a matter of gravity. We know our vital statistics all too well: our rate of intermarriage, low birth rate, dwindling percentage of the total population, and failure to restore the world’s Jewish population to its pre-Holocaust level. The number of six million is forever etched in Jewish memory. In truth, we never came close to becoming as innumerable as the stars. Exile is a precarious terrain, so despite our secular temperament, we relate to population surveys with foreboding. The paucity in our numbers drives us to take comfort in the profusion of quality, which we should, for never have so few influenced so many. Therein lies the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that his seed will be a blessing to all humanity (Genesis 18:18).

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Bemidbar have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld. This is a reprint of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary from 5762.