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Bamidbar – Taking a Census

Census for a “Purpose”

2. However, in his commentary on our Parashah, Ramban contradicts his earlier positions, and remarks: “To me it [appears] unlikely that David should 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 should not sin?” ((Ramban, Bamidbar 1:3.))

On account of this question—why did Yo’av not conduct the census by means of shekel coins or a similar donation—Ramban proceeds to explain that a census such as was undertaken by David is forbidden even when conducted by means of counting items. The census of David has 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.

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, and Midrash Tanchuma, Parshas Ki Tissa, sec. 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 prominent authorities. ((Tosafos Rid, Yoma 22b; Radak, I Shmuel 15:4 and II Shmuel 24:1; and Tosafos Ri-Halavan, Yoma

2b (who refer to the “purpose of a mitzvah” rather than simply to any “purpose”). Meromei Sadeh, Berachot 62a, also stipulates that the counting must be for the purpose of a mitzvah. See also Petach Einayim, Yoma 22b, in the Rama of Panu. On the other hand, cf. Or ha-Chayyim, Shemos 30:2.))

3. A third explanation advanced by Ramban is that David erred in assuming that the entire population may be counted by indirect means. In fact, even when undertaken by means of counting half-shekels, a census may include only those twenty years of age and older—whereas David commanded that all above the age of thirteen be counted. According to this, it is never permitted to count the entire nation, even indirectly, and even for a legitimate purpose. ((Ramban also cites a Midrash that explains David’s error as counting the nation directly instead of by means of half-shekel pieces. See Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. XII, no. 3, concerning how the Gemara in Berachos can concur with the explanations offered by Ramban.))

We can therefore point to three halachic permutations.

  1. It is always permitted to count the people, provided the count is done indirectly.
  2. An indirect count is only permitted when a legitimate purpose is involved.
  3. An indirect count is only permitted if the count is partial; a count of the entire nation is always prohibited.

Chasam Sofer’s Position

In a responsum published only in recent years, ((Koetz Shaalos U-Teshuvos Chasam Safer, sec. 8,24; see also chiddushin of Chasam Sofer to Yoma 22b.)) Chasam Sofer adopts a position at variance with that of other authorities. According to Chasam Sofer, the permissibility of indirect counting is not on account of the indirectness itself, but simply because indirect counting admits of error and is, by its very nature, imprecise.

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 a multiple number of fingers.

When the number of a group within Israel is counted with precision, Chasam Sofer thus maintains that a 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’—alternative items are not valid for making the count. To defend this position, 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.

As the author of Pe’as Ha-Shulchan points out ((See Sefer Ha-Yovel, Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 5700.)), the Chasam Sofer’s position is clearly strained. ((See also Klei Chemdah and Pardes Yosef, commentaries to Shemos 30:12, who permit indirect counting (by means of donating clothing and the like) when conducted for a purpose.)) Some have suggested that the background for his unprecedented stringency in this matter is the fact that counting people is considered a danger, and special stringency must therefore be practiced. ((See Minchas Asher, Bamidbar.))

Performing a Census

What is the halachic ruling concerning a national census?

According to the first approach of Ramban, the census would be permitted, providing that we consider census forms to be an indirect count. According to the second, however, the verdict will depend on whether a national census is conducted for a legitimate purpose. ((According to the third explanation, a count of the entire nation (or the majority of the nation—even in the count of David a minority was excluded from the count) is always prohibited. For the time being, a national census in Israel (or elsewhere) does not embrace all or most of the nation.)) Do the purposes of a national census qualify?

Seridei Eish (Rabbi Yechiel Y. Weinberg) writes that the considerations of economic planning and national security, which require an accurate census, suffice to constitute a “purpose.” Additionally, he writes that the tallying of names is considered an indirect method of counting, and the census—even in Israel, where the count is predominantly of Jews—is permitted. ((Vol. II, sec. 48; this is also the opinion of Mishpetei Uziel, Choshen Mishpat, kelalim, no. 2, and of Rabbi Kasher, Torah Sheleimah, Vol. 21, 168. Rabbi Kasher also writes that counting by mechanical means is not considered human action, a position disputed by Mispar Bnei Yisrael (p. 29).)) Tzitz Eliezer seems to be prepared to accept that a census has legitimate purpose, but questions the legitimacy of a second census, whose purpose is only to update figures already known 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, ((See, however, Tzitz Eliezer, who suggests that recording names on a list which has been pre-numbered in the margin may be permissible.)) and added that the purposes of a national census are not considered valid “purposes.”

However, it should be noted that Pe’as Ha-Shulchan permits the counting of people when such counting is not carried in their presence. As proof of this he quotes a Mishnah in Shabbos, ((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. ((Chasam Sofer defers the proof by interpreting the count as an assignment of roles—a departure from the interpretation of Rashi and other traditional commentaries.)) This reason, coupled with the inevitable inaccuracy of large-scale counts, ((Mispar Bnei Yisrael.)) has been quoted as additional grounds for permitting 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 means of electronic devices and that the process in no way involve calculations performed by human beings. ((Techumin, IV, 336, and Mispar Bnei Yisrael p.38.))

As can be expected, the dispute over whether one may or may not participate in the census raged on.

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