Parashas Ki Tisa opens with the instruction to take a national census, providing us with the primary source for a prohibition against counting directly. Moshe Rabbeinu is told to make the count by collecting a half-shekel piece from each person. As the pasuk writes, this is in order “that there be no plague among them when you number them” (Shemos 30:12).
We learn from here that counting may bring along with it an element of danger. Rabbeinu Bachya explains that counting singles out each member of the nation as an individual, separating him from the Divine providence that protects the nation as a whole. This places the counted individual in danger.
The Gemara (Berachos 62b) deduces that there is a prohibition against counting members of the Jewish People. Indeed, the Gemara believes this to be so elementary, that even schoolchildren are aware of it.
Nonetheless, King David erred in the matter and counted the nation, with dire consequences. The Gemara quotes Hashem’s warning in advance of the tragic event: “Behold I will make you stumble over a matter which even schoolchildren know, namely, that which is written, ‘When you take the sum of the Children of Israel according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to Hashem.”
In the present article we will discuss the idea of counting people in halachah. What is the nature of the prohibition, and how is it applied by halachic authorities? What was the error of King David in performing a census? Is it permitted to participate in a national census, and how should this be done?
These questions, and others, are discussed below.
The Prohibition of Counting
The Rambam (Hilchos Temidim U-Musafim 4:4), followed by a number of prominent authorities (including the Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 156:2; Pri Chadash, Orach Chaim 55:1; Kaf ha-Chayim 13:10 and others), record the prohibition of counting a group of Jews.
It is noteworthy that the Gemara (Yoma 22a), which addresses the count of priests officiating in the Temple, quotes different sources (from Scripture) in establishing a prohibition against a numerical count of Jews. Specifically, the Gemara mentions the census taken by King Shaul prior to his campaign against Nachash of Ammon, and later in advance of the war against Amalek, which he conducted by means of donations (I Shmuel 11:8; 15:4).
This also seems to indicate that the prohibition is not a Torah prohibition, since the derivation is not direct and the prohibition is not made explicitly. However, Shut Tzitz Eliezer (Vol. VII, no. 3) writes that the principle derivation is from the Torah verse, and that the prohibition constitutes Torah law, while the Gemara only means to add the explicit prohibition in Shmuel.
King David’s Error
As noted above, the Gemara in Berachos states that King David’s mistake was considered elementary even for schoolchildren. Indeed, we find that Yo’av, Kind David’s military general and a great Torah scholar in his own right, fiercely protested the census: “Why does my lord require this thing? Why will he be a cause of trespass to Israel?” (Divrei Hayamim 21:3)
Yo’av was correct in opposing the census, as the pasuk records: “And G-d was displeased with this thing; therefore He smote Israel” (21:7); “So Hashem sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning untill the time appointed; and there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men” (II Shmuel 24:15). David himself conceded his guilt saying, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done … for I have done very foolishly” (II Shmuel 24:10; I Divrei Hayamim 21:8).
Yet, neither the verses nor the Gemara mention what exactly David’s mistake was. In the opinion of the Be’er Sheva (commentary to Tamid, chap. 1), David’s error was caused by Hashem hiding the truth from him, and there is no reason for further investigation into the matter. However, biblical commentators have advanced a variety of explanations for the error. We will focus on three explanations, all of which are given by the Ramban.
Prohibition for All Generations
In his commentary on Shemos, the Ramban explains that David erred in believing that the prohibition of counting the nation applied only during the period of wandering in the wilderness, and lapsed upon entry into the Promised Land.
According to this interpretation, David’s census was conducted directly (because he misunderstood the eternal nature of the prohibition), which is why he transgressed the prohibition and brought a plague upon the nation (see Berachos 62b). A count by means of a half-shekel piece, being an indirect count, is not included in the prohibition.
This also appears to be the position of the Rambam, as he writes (concerning the count of Kohanim): “Why do they count the number they have agreed upon by the fingers they stuck out instead of counting the people themselves? Because it is forbidden to count Jews except via another entity, as the verse (I Samuel 15:4) states: ‘And he counted them with lambs.'”
Census for a “Purpose”
In his commentary to Parashas Bamidbar (1:3), the Ramban offers a different interpretation, remarking, “To me it [appears] unlikely that David would not be careful with regard to that which the verse states, ‘…that there be no plague among them when you number them.’ If perhaps David did err, why did Yo’av not perform [the census by means of] shekels so that he would not sin?”
On account of this question – why did Yo’av not conduct the census by means of shekel coins or a similar donation – the Ramban proceeds to explain that the census undertaken by David is forbidden even when conducted by means of indirect counting (counting items rather than people). The census of David has a stricter status because it was unnecessary, and not designed to serve a valid need or purpose (tzorech). Rather than for military or other national need, the census was conducted only to gladden his heart by demonstrating that he reigned over a large populace.
The Ramban cites proof of this position from a Midrash, which states that “whenever Israel was counted for a purpose, their number did not diminish; but when they were counted for no purpose, they became diminished. When were they counted for a purpose? In the days of Moshe and for dividing the land. [When were they counted] for no purpose? In the days of David” (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:17; see also Pesikta Rabbati 11 :3; Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 2:17; Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 9).
According to this interpretation, it emerges that an indirect count, even of only part of the nation (such as the priests of the Temple who were counted indirectly), is only permitted when the census is conducted for a specific purpose. When the census has no specific purpose, it is prohibited to count (even part of) the nation even by indirect means.
This position is agreed upon by a number of commentaries and authorities (see Tosafos Rid, Yoma 22b; Radak, I Shmuel 15:4 and II Shmuel 24:1; Tosafos Ri-Halavan, Yoma 2b; Meromei Sadeh, Berachos 62a; see also Or haChayim, Shemos 30:2), some of whom refer specifically to a “purpose of a mitzvah” rather than any “purpose.” One should surely be prudent concerning the matter of conducting unnecessary counts.
Counting the Entire Population
A third explanation advanced by the Ramban is that David erred in assuming that the entire population may be counted by indirect means. In fact, even when counting half-shekels or another item, a census may include only those twenty years of age and older, unlike David’s that included anybody over the age of thirteen.
According to this, it is never permitted to count the entire nation, even indirectly, and even for a legitimate purpose.
The Ramban also cites a Midrash explaining David’s error as counting the nation directly instead of by means of half-shekel pieces. See Shut Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. XII, no. 3, concerning how the Gemara in Berachos can concur with the explanations offered by the Ramban.
Chasam Sofer’s Position
In a responsum published only in recent years, the Chasam Sofer adopts a position at variance with that of other authorities. According to Chasam Sofer, the permissibility of indirect counting is not due to the indirectness, but simply because indirect counting admits of error and is, by its very nature, imprecise. (Kovetz Shaalos uTeshuvos Chasam Safer, sec. 8, 24; see also chiddushin of Chasam Sofer to Yoma 22b).
Although each person, rich or poor, is commanded to contribute a half-shekel, no more and no less, there is no guarantee that the directive will be adhered to scrupulously. Imprecision is also likely to result when the census is taken by counting lambs or bits of pottery, as performed in the counts of Shaul. Similarly, in numbering the forefingers extended by the priests, it is possible that error will occur because some may not extend a forefinger and some may extend several fingers.
When any group within Israel is counted with precision, the Chasam Sofer maintains that the prohibition is always incurred, even if the means are indirect.
Moreover, even when the count is imprecise, Chasam Sofer states that the count is only permitted by means of a half-shekel piece, which serves as ransom of sorts. Alternative items are not valid for making the count. To defend this position, the Chasam Sofer explains that the priests of the Temple were not numbered, but were rather assigned roles in the performance of the sacrificial ritual, selecting priests by means of choosing an arbitrary number and counting outstretched fingers. In a similar vein, the shards and lambs collected by Shaul were not designed to establish a census, but meant to assign various roles in combat.
Performing a Census
What is the halachic ruling concerning a national census?
According to the first approach of the Ramban, a census is permitted, providing that filling out census forms (either hard or virtual copies) is considered an indirect count. This will probably be the case if the count is computerized, since no human agent is actually counting. Where the count is by human agency, it remains doubtful. According to the second approach, however, the ruling will also depend on whether a national census is conducted for a legitimate purpose.
Do the usual purposes of a national census qualify?
Seridei Eish (Rabbi Yechiel Y. Weinberg; Vol. II, sec. 140) writes that economic planning and national security, which require an accurate census, suffice as a purpose. Additionally, he writes that the tallying of names is considered an indirect method of counting, and a census – even in Israel, where the count is predominantly of Jews – is thus permitted. This is also the opinion of Shut Mishpetei Uziel, Choshen Mishpat, Kelalim, no. 2; see also Torah Sheleimah, Vol. 21, 168).
The Tzitz Eliezer is prepared to accept that a census has legitimate purpose, but questions the legitimacy of a second census, where its purpose is only to update the figures from the first census (Vol. 7, sec. 3, no. 53).
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, however, issued a statement in the year 5732 prohibiting participation in the Israeli census, despite the fact that it was conducted by means of a written questionnaire. Quoting from Ketav Sofer (who quotes from Chasam Sofer), he wrote that there is no distinction between written and verbal counting, and added that the purposes of a national census are not considered valid purposes.
Counting in People’s Absence
The Pe’as Ha-Shulchan (Sefer HaYovel, Mossad HaRav Kook 5700) permits counting people when such counting is not carried out in their presence.
As proof of this he quotes a Mishnah in Shabbos (148b), which states that a person may count his guests orally on Shabbos. Pe’as Ha-Shulchan explains that the prohibition against counting does not apply under such conditions because the counting is done in preparation for the meal, prior to the arrival of the guests. The Chasam Sofer defers the proof by interpreting the count as an assignment of roles – yet this involves a departure from the interpretation of Rashi and other classical commentaries.
This reason, coupled with the inevitable inaccuracy of large-scale counts, has been cited as additional grounds to permit a census.
In the Israeli census of 5743 a number of modifications were introduced as a result of an agreement between the government and the Chief Rabbinate. This agreement made provisions that only names of family members would be recorded, that the accompanying numbers on the blank lines provided for this purpose would be eliminated and that the number of persons in the household would not be totaled by the census-takers.
The agreement further provided that the tabulation of all demographic information be performed entirely by electronic devices and that the process in no way involve calculations performed by human beings (Techumin, IV, 336; Mispar Bnei Yisrael p.38).
As the years progress, the place of humans in tallying the count get progressively smaller, and as the role of computers grows, there seems to be more general grounds for leniency. Nonetheless, we can expect the dispute over participation in the national census to rage on.