This week’s parshah commences with the method how to count the Jewish people. The result of improper counting is an epidemic. What’s the connection between counting and a plague? King David’s census saw a realization of those disastrous results realized when 70,000 Jewish men died in one morning. Why did he count the people? Are there any permitted counting methods? Can one count a small number of people in order to know, for example, how many places to set at the table? Is counting permitted for a mitzva, such as to know how many men are present for minyan? What can be done if counting is performed by a person ignorant of the danger, or by a non-Jew? Can the Jewish people be counted for no significant reason? Is one permitted to take part in a general census? Of this, and more, in the following article.
The second pasuk in this week’s parashah reads: “When you take the sum of the children of Yisroel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted” (Shemos, 30:12). Rashi explains: “When you wish to take the sum of their numbers to know how many they are, do not count them by the head, but each one shall give a half-shekel, and you shall count the shekels. [Thereby] you will know their number.” And why should this method be employed? Rashi continues: “For the evil eye has power over numbered things, and pestilence comes upon them, as we find in David’s time.”
Source of the Prohibition
The Gemara (Yoma 22b) outlines the prohibition:
Rabbi Elazar said: Whoever counts a group of Jews violates a negative mitzva, as it is stated: “And the number of the children of Yisroel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured” (Hoshea 2:1). Rabbi Elazar interprets the words “cannot be measured” to mean: they may not be measured. Rav Nacḥman bar Yitzcḥak said: One who counts a group of Jews in fact violates two negative mitzvot, as it is stated in that verse: “Which cannot be measured and cannot be counted” (Hoshea 2:1).
Rabbi Avraham, son of the Rambam (chapter 34) explains that the reason for the prohibition is because Hashem promised Yaakov that his seed would not be counted.
The Gemara mentioned above cites the pasuk in Hoshea as the source for the prohibition. Why is an additional source necessary for a prohibition so clearly spelled out in this week’s parashah?
The Rama (Toras Ha’ola III, chapter 81) explains: Hashem promised the Avos that their descendants would be innumerable. In this week’s parashah the Torah explains that if this blessing is negated and their descendants are counted — an epidemic will result, which is, according to the Rama a method of again rendering the Jewish people innumerable – the number of fatalities will be unknown, and again, the Jewish people will be innumerable. The Rama writes that King David’s mistake was thinking that after the blessing was realized once, counting was permitted from then on. Therefore, the pasuk from Hoshea is necessary to prove that the prohibition is still very much in place.
The Maharsha (Yoma 22b) explains the need for the pasuk in Hoshea differently. He explains that without the pasuk from Hoshea we might think that counting is not prohibited, but post facto, they should bring atonement for it. With the pasuk from Hoshea it is clear that counting is forbidden altogether.
King David’s Mistake
What actually happened in King David’s time? What was his mistake? The Gemara (Berachos 62b) recounts:
David’s said to Shaul: “If it be the Lord that has incited you against me, let Him accept an offering” (Shmuel I 26:19). Rabbi Elazar said that the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to David: Do you call Me an inciter? In retribution, I will cause you to fail in a matter that even schoolchildren know, as it is written: “When you take the sum of the children of Yisroel, according to their number, every man must give ransom for his soul unto the Lord, so that there be no plague among them, when you number them” (Shemos 30:12). Immediately after G-d said this to David, “Satan stood up against Yisroel and incited David to number Yisroel” (Divrei Hayomim I 21:1).
Only after King David counted the people did he realize his sin, exclaiming, “I have sinned.” Despite his repentance, an epidemic erupted, killing 70,000 men in one morning.
The Ramban (Shemos 30:12) explains that King David’s mistake was in thinking that the prohibition only applied to the days of Moshe, while later on it no longer applied. He was mistaken — this halacha is forever. The Ramban (Bamidbar 1:2) mentions two additional possible mistakes made by Dovid. The Torah permits counting with coins
them for a specific purpose, therefore the census was permitted. King David, however, counted them for no real purpose. When counting for a real purpose, an atonement needs to be served. However, King David’s census which was of no real necessity and therefore, atonement was impossible. Another difference — perhaps King David wished to count the entire nation, including those less than twenty years of age, while Moshe only counted those who was over twenty.
The Mizrachi (Shemos 30:12) explains that King David mistakenly thought that one could count the people and then bring an atonement later for the census. The mistake was that the counting itself should have been done via the atonement – the coins.
The Be’er Sheva (Tamid 28a) finds King David’s mistake in fine reading of the exact words of the Gemara – “I will cause you to fail in a matter that even schoolchildren know”. What is it that schoolchildren know? The Parasha. King David forgot the entire Parasha of Ki Tisa and therefore counted the nation.
This halacha is not counted among the positive or negative mitzvos but falls under the general obligation not to damage the Jewish People.
This halacha does not stand alone in the Rambam or Shulchan Aruch. The Rambam (Tmidin U’Musafin chapter 4:4), when explaining why kohanim were counted in the Beis Hamikdash via their fingers, mentions this prohibition. It seems that the reason for failing to mention this halacha is because there is no need to record a clearly stated Torah ruling which requires no additional clarification. The Magen Avraham (156:2), however, counts this halacha among the inter-personal commandments (some of which are explicitly mentioned in the Torah) which are not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch. This halacha is mentioned in many other poskim.
The prohibition includes several details:
For a Mitzva
The Gemara notes a source for forbidding counting the Jewish people even for a mitzva from King Shaul. When he needed to know how many soldiers he had with which to fight the Plishtim (a mitzva) he ordered every soldier to place a pottery shard in a pile and then counted the pile (Shmuel I, 11:8). Later on, in the war against Amalek, every soldier took one lamb from Shaul’s flock and placed it in a designated spot, where all the lambs were counted (Shmuel I, 15:4). Targum Yehonoson writes that this took place on Erev Pesach, and every soldier took a lamb for the Korban Pesach which were then counted. Therefore, also in the Beis Hamikdash, when counting the kohanim for the various services, only their fingers were counted and not the people.
The Midrash (Tanchuma, Tisa 9; Bamidbar Raba 2:17) explains the difference between the census that took place during Moshe’s lifetime and that of King David. In the desert, they were counted in accordance with a Divine command to count them, whereas during King David’s lifetime, since the census was unnecessary, they fell in an epidemic. Based on this Midrash, the Radak writes (Shmuel I 15:4), Rid (Tosefos Rid, Yoma 22b); Ramban (Bamidbar 1:2), and Be’er Sheva (Tamid 28a) all write that when the Jewish people are counted unnecessarily, counting via another medium serves no protection from pestilence. Therefore, Yoav was not allowed to conduct David’s census even through another vehicle.
Furthermore, the Maharal adds (Gur Aryeh, Shemos 30:12) that since Moshe received an explicit commandment to count the people, it was possible to count their heads, and counting the half-shekel coins was unnecessary. Post facto, those half-shekel coins serves as atonement for necessary counting. King David’s census was unnecessary, and it would not have helped had they been counted via another method.
The Abarbanel (Shmuel II, introduction) explains that King David’s sin was that the census was conducted in order to glorify the Jewish Nation and show their superiority over their foes in numbers and might. This aroused the Attribute of Judgement (Midas Hadin) causing the Jewish people to be punished for other sins that they had previously committed – Chazal mention the sin of not expounding effort to build the Beis Hamikdash, while the Abrabanel mentions the son of supporting Sheva ben Bichri in his revolt against King David. Thus, according to the Abrabanel, counting the Jewish people unnecessarily arouses the Attribute of Judgment, bringing about punishment for past sins.
The Chasam Sofer (Kovetz Teshuvos 8) adds that according to this Midrash, when Yisroel are counted for a good reason there will be no plague. Therefore, in the desert, when Moshe conducted a censes in order to divide the land — to know which Tribe needed more land – it was a necessary census. After they expressed their rejection of the Holy Land with the Sin of the Spies, the censes lost its purpose and those who took part in the first censes were destined to die. The Tribe of Levi, however, who were counted in order to determine their service in the Mishkan, since the purpose did not disappear (it was necessary even after the Sin of the Spies) were not included in the same death penalty as the rest of the nation.
A Small Number of People
The Mizrachi (Shemos 30:12) writes that illness and Ayin Hara (the Evil Eye) is aroused when counting the entire Jewish Nation together. However, when counting a segment of the nation it causes no harm. Therefore, the men counted by King David after fighting with him in his victorious war against his son, Avshalom, saw no harm since they were only a small number of men.
The Taz (Divrei Dovid, Shemos 30:12), though, disputes this: the manner of counting the kohanim in the Beis Hamikdash and the fact that Shaul counted his men with pottery shards or lambs clearly prove that precautions are necesaary even when counting a small number of people.
The Chida (Yair Ozen 40:24) and the Pri Hoadomo (Tmidin 4:4) answer that both are partially correct. Counting the entire nation is a Torah prohibition which is learned from this week’s parashah, and results in pestilence. Counting a part of the people or even a small number is an additional prohibition, one learned from King Shaul and the pasuk in Hoshea. This prohibition is rabbinic in nature and the psukim in Hoshea serve only as an asmachta (allusion) for it.
Counting, But Not for a Number
The Magen Avraham writes (156:2) that the prohibition of counting is even if it is only for a random purpose and not to know the total sum. This is learned from the manner of counting in the Beis Hamikdash which, too, did not require determination of the exact number of kohanim present, only as a means of conducting the payis (lottery).
What Was the Payis?
Many parts of the avodah were given out by a lottery system, called the Payis. There were four lotteries each day in the Beis Hamikdash, each for different parts of the avodah. Members of the family that was performing the service that day would gather in a circle around the kohen who was appointed to oversee the lottery. He would instruct them to each put out a finger. He would then remove the hat of one of the kohanim and announce a number that he chose randomly that was larger than the number of kohanim participating in the lottery. He would begin counting fingers from the kohen whose hat was removed until he reached the number that had been chosen. That kohen would perform the Terumas Ha’deshen. This system was repeated for the other lotteries.
The Sefas Emes (Yoma 22b) writes that even though there was no inherent purpose in counting – there was no need to know the actual number of kohanim participating in the lottery, since this action consisted of attributing a number to members of Klal Yisroel, they only were allowed to count fingers, not people.
The Chasam Sofer (Kovetz Teshuvos, 8) points out that counting via fingers, lambs or pottery shards is possible because it is not necessarily accurate — one may point two fingers or throw two or three pottery shards into the pile. Although we assume most people will follow instructions, there always remains the possibility of people who may try to rig the census. Therefore, since this counting system, while probably more exact than an estimate, is still not 100% foolproof, it involves no prohibition. Thus, after this kind of census there is no need for atonement.
Counting a Minyan
People congregate in shul and would like to know if the prayers can commence. How does one count those present to determine the presence of a minyan?
The poskim (Pri Chadash 55:1; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 15:3; Kaf Hachayim 55:11) write that counting those present in shul is forbidden. The Pele Yoetz (mone) adds that counting with numbers and letters of the Alef-Beis are both forbidden practices.
So how is one to know?
- Rav Hai Gaon (quotes in Sefer Ha’ittim, 174) and Rashi (Haorah, I, 56) write that since it is forbidden to count those present in shul, the ancient custom is for each of those present to utter one word of the pasuk: “But I, with Your great loving-kindness, shall enter Your House; I shall prostrate myself toward Your Holy Temple in the fear of You” (Tehilim 5:8). [This pasuk in Hebrew contains 10 words and indicates preparation for prayer.] If the last word is heard to have been uttered, a minyan is known to be present.
- The Pele Yoetz (ibid) writes that one should count with his eyes and in his thought, without uttering anything. Rabbi Chayim Palagi (Kaf Hachayim 13:10) adds that when counting in thought one should not use his fingers.
- The Kitzur Shulachan Aruch (15:3) mentions the gabbai recites the pasuk: “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever” (Tehilim 28:9) [another pasuk with 10 words], and if completed, a minyan is present. It seems this pasuk was chosen because it contains a prayer asking for blessing of the Jewish people, so no harm will befall them through counting.
When making a simcha one needs to know how many portions to order, or how many places to set at a table. In this case, one should be careful not to count the people or names of guests, only servings – the Cohen family needs 3 places, the Levis – 4, etc.
Recent Covid guidelines restrict the number of participates at weddings, conventions, or passengers on a bus, as well as shoppers in stores. If the person counting is not Jewish, no prohibition is involved, but since there is danger in counting, one should certainly offer to do the counting in a permissible way, for example by counting the vacant seats on a bus, or shopper’s bags in a store.
Taking Part in a Census
Past censuses that took place in Eretz Yisroel caused animated discussion on the matter of counting the Jewish Nation. Gedolei Yisroel warned of the danger involved (Chasam Sofer 106; Tzitz Eliezer VII, 3). They take issue with various counting methods employed in the census and if counting in all-Jewish settlements was permitted or not, and how.
Counting a group of Jews is forbidden. The source for the prohibition is disputed among the poskim. Some maintain it is in this week’s parashah, while others maintain that the pasuk here refers only to counting the entire nation and counting a group of Jews is a separate rabbinic prohibition.
The reason for the prohibition is because it arouses the midas hadin which brings harm to those who were counted.
When necessary, such as to know how many places to set at the table, one should count the table settings, not the people. When counting people for a mitzva (such as a minyan) the accepted custom is to count them via a pasuk, attributing every word in the pasuk to a different person. A non-Jew who wants to count a group should be advised to count the tickets or empty seats on a bus and not the people. Counting Jews should only be done for a clear necessity, not just for general interest or curiosity’s sake. An unnecessary counting of Jewish people causes Ayin Hara even if conducted in permissible ways. Gedolei Yisroel discussed how to conduct a census in Israel.
When counting is necessary, such as if a municipality needs to now how many children are in each age group in order to know how many kindergartens to open, how many shuls to build etc, a rabbinic authority must be contacted for guidelines how to conduct the census in a permissible way.