An Accounting of Counting

What do people count? Some count sheep, some count their money, and others count their blessings. Counting is usually done when we want to take an inventory and know clearly how much is there. 

In Jewish thought, counting people is generally frowned upon. In Exodus 30:12 the Torah prescribes the appropriate way to take a human census:

כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַיוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם׃ 


When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their army enrollment, each shall pay a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.


We learn from this verse that it is improper to do a simple headcount of Jews; rather we do so indirectly either through a collection or by invoking a verse and counting with the words of the verse and not with numbers. In fact, we know that in the time of King David when a census was taken by headcount 70,000 people died in a plague.


However, in our Parsha, Bamidbar, which we call Numbers, the opening verses reveal  G-d commanding Moshe to take a census of the Israelites. This is the third census taken that year! The commentators remark that G-d counts his children regularly because he loves them, and they are dear to him.


So, is a census a good thing or a bad thing?


The answer, like in so many other situations, is it depends. What is the function of the accounting? 


The late Rabbi Lord Sachs points out that the language of G-d’s command to count is quite revealing:


שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כׇּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כׇּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם׃


Literally – Raise the heads of (Take a census) of the whole Israelite people by its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.


What a fascinating language! It is used because people can be counted for one of two reasons. Either they can be counted simply as one out of the total, or they can be counted in order to be noted and appreciated individually.


When numbers are counted merely for statistics, no one person is any different than the other. However, when each member is counted in order that they can stand up and be counted, the accounting is edifying and strengthening for all.


Nachmanidies writes in Exodus that there was a deficiency in the census King David orchestrated that led to a plague. It seems to have been unnecessary. In that case the census was limiting not uplifting . However, when G-d advanced the commands to Moshe to count the Jewish people it was to show them that each one of them counted.


Although we may not always remember it, every single person counts and is here on this planet to do theirs and enrich the world around us. This is evident from the accountings throughout the Torah, reminding us that everyone truly matters.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Epstein

Community Scholar in Residence