Counting people, making people count
In Hebrew the fourth book of the Bible is called Bamidbar – “in the wilderness”. But in English it is known as the book of Numbers, a reference to another name given to this book by the Talmud: Chumash HaPekudim, “the Book of the Countings”, referring to the censuses of the Israelites that the book opens and closes with.
As Israelis and Jews we have a near-obsession with counting ourselves. In Israel the annual publication of the results of the latest statistical bureau survey is headline news, while in the Diaspora the demography of the Jewish world demands the time and budget of a multitude of think tanks.
But Jewish tradition has mixed feelings about this urge to count the Jewish people. Why?
On the one hand, Jewish tradition regards God’s command to Moses to conduct a census of the Israelites as a sign of love for the Jewish people (Rashi on Bamidbar 1:1). Just as a merchant counts valued diamonds, or a child counts his cherished toys, so does God count every one of the Jewish people.
Yet on the other hand, the notion of counting is also viewed with suspicion and fraught with danger. Towards the end of King David’s reign, a seemingly unwarranted census of his realm gave rise to a plague that killed some 70,000 inhabitants from Dan to Beer-Sheba (Samuel II, 24).
The classic commentator Ramban (Nachmanides, C13th) suggests that these two censuses, by Moses and by David, represent two very different models of counting, different in both why and how they were conducted.
As regards the why, Moses was commanded to count the people for a purpose: to prepare for battle and to allocate the land of Israel. David, on the other hand, wanted to count them for no other reason than to rejoice in his own glory. As the Midrash states:
Whenever Israel was counted for a purpose, their numbers were not diminished; but when they were counted for no purpose, their numbers diminished. When were they counted for a purpose? In the days of Moses, at the setting up of the flags and the division of the land. When for no purpose? In the days of David. (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:17)
As for the ‘how’, Ramban notes that, unlike David, who simply counted the number of his subjects, the command to Moses is not to count the people but “tifkedu otam” – to calculate their number by means of the half shekel contribution they each made. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has put it: “We are told not to count the people, but to count their contributions”.
Jewish practice also reflects this ambivalence about counting people. The modern Hebrew word to vote, ‘lehatzbia’, comes from the word for a finger, etzba, and derives from the custom not to count the priests in the temple, but to count their outstretched fingers. In Yiddish the custom is to count people negatively (nit ein, nit zwei). And to this day Jews in synagogue check whether there are the ten men needed to start prayers, not by counting them, but by reciting a ten word verse: (‘Hoshea et amecha…’ ).
This deep rooted suspicion of counting ourselves might seem unworldly and superstitious. But as interpreted by Jewish tradition it suggests an important message about how we view ourselves as individuals and as a people. What truly matters is not how many are counted, but how much every one of us counts.
In others’ words
“I can never stop thinking about this great loss to the Jewish people. About the doctors who went up in the smoke of the crematoria, about the rabbis who walked towards their deaths, about the teachers who stood in front of firing squads, about the children who were murdered. How many Einsteins were slaughtered? How many Sigmund Freuds were killed? How many Jasha Heifetzs and Yehudi Menuhins have we lost? How many from the glory of the Jewish people? These are losses for us and for all mankind.”
Remarks by Prime Minister Rabin at the Hebrew University in honour of Chancellor Kohl, 8 June 1995
On a lighter note
On counting Jews:
The President of the Synagogue Board was visiting the Rabbi, who was recovering from a serious illness in hospital.
“I want to tell you,” the President told the Rabbi, “that at last night’s Board meeting we adopted a resolution wishing you a full and speedy recovery.”
The rabbi smiled, until the President added:
“And I want you to know, the resolution passed by 10 votes to 8!”