Those familiar with synagogue practice know that when it comes time to assess whether a minyan is present, the one doing the counting will do it in a roundabout way, usually using a verse from Scripture which contains ten words instead of directly counting the people. This practice derives from the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa: “And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘When you count heads for the Israelites according to their numbers, every man shall give ransom for his life to the Lord when they are counted, that there be no plague among them when they are counted. This shall who undergoes the count give: half a shekel…’” (Exodus 30:11-13) In other words, the collection of the half shekel assessment was not only to provide for the needs of the Tabernacle, it was also a means for counting the people without counting them directly. Rashi asserts that the reason for the prohibition against counting the people directly stems from fear of the “ayin hara”, the evil eye, namely, that counting in a public way, tempts trouble. Reasoning of this sort seems to have been common in the world of the ancient Near East.
The saga of the origin of this practice continues in a troubling story found in 2 Samuel chapter 24. There, we witness God’s anger at Israel for some undefined reason. As a result of this anger, David is coxed by God (in 1 Chronicles 21 by Satan) to take a census of the population of Judah and Israel, even though this act was prohibited. David became so adamant about proceeding with the census that he ignored the advice of his trusted advisor, Yoav, who delicately tried to steer him from away from this dangerous and provocative action. When the results of the census were presented to David, he immediately realized his wrongdoing and confessed his sin before God. God, through the agency of Gad, David’s seer, offered David three alternative punishments: famine, exile, plague. David chose the latter, leading to the death of seventy thousand of his fellow countrymen. This episode raises a many moral and theological questions nevertheless, together with the verse from our parashah cited above, serves as the impetus for the traditional Jewish method of not counting people when counting people.
The Talmud attempts to tie up some of the loose ends created by this troubling story. It asserts that David was punished for accusing God of inciting against him. Still, the nature of the community’s sin was left unanswered and the divine manipulation of David remains disconcerting: Rabbi Eleazar said: “… Said the Holy One blessed be He to David: ‘You claim that I have incited others against you? (See 1 Samuel 26:19) Behold, I will make you stumble over something that even school-children know, namely, that which is written: ‘When you count heads for the Israelites according to their numbers, every man shall give ransom for his life to the Lord when they are counted, that there be no plague among them when they are counted.’ Immediately… ‘He (God) stirred up David against them saying, Go, number Israel.’ (2 Samuel 24:1) And when he did number them, he took no ransom from them and it is written, ‘So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed.’ (2 Samuel 24:15)” (adapted from Berachot 62b) The Talmud’s account serves as evidence that in Talmudic times it is quite clear that even “school-children know” that it is prohibited to count people.
There is a lot to discuss regarding the troubling nature of this story and its relationship to the colorful practice of not counting people when counting people. I will leave you with one thought worthy of consideration. The Jewish tradition seems uncomfortable counting people, or should I say, treating people as objects. David’s interaction with his fellow countrymen, in part, focuses not just on the sin of counting the people. When he, as their leader, must decide on their fate, he must consider not only what is best for himself, he must also be concerned with their well-being. For leaders to do this, they must think of those they serve as individuals and not things – subjects and not objects. This will never happen if people become just numbers.