The Big Five-Oh

We Jews love our numbers, but we’re a bit so-so on Numbers.

The fourth of the Five Books of Moses, which we began yesterday, is a testament to truth in advertising, as its first portion at least is full of detailed census results. Sure, those numbers are round, firm and plump, but what do they mean? Does how many thousands and how many hundreds Reuben and Judah had really resonate millennia after all those folks died?

There is one tribe which breaks the double-oh pattern, however:

Those that were numbered of them, of the tribe of Gad, were forty and five thousand six hundred and fifty.

The Gaddites have an extra 50, which naturally means that the total of the Israelites, a number we’ve been hearing about since the Book of Exodus, also ends in 50. But did every other tribe randomly have perfect hundreds with zero remainders? That seems actuarially unlikely. Rabbi A.D. Goldberg, citing Imrei Noam, offers a different take:

Certainly the intent is that the Torah rounds to the nearest hundred, not the nearest ten, for if so we would still be challenged by the unreasonable proposition that no tribe other than Gad happened to have an exact multiple of ten. The reason the tribe of Gad was not rounded is that its count was exactly fifty, which cannot be rounded to the nearest hundred; for which of them would you exclude?

In other words, it’s easy enough to add or subtract 49 to bring a total to the closest hundred. But if it’s 50 on the nose, why is it more valid to add 50 and bring it to 45,700 then subtract 50 and bring it to 45,600? Thus, an even 50 at the end stays put, indelible.

The Gaddite census is hardly the first time we come across an ineffaceable 50. At Sinai, Moses is advised by his father-in-law to appoint judges in an almost perfectly decimalized system: over tens, hundreds and thousands. But in between the first two are “officers over 50.” Indeed, the officer over 50 (pentecoster, to be technical) is a position of unique authority and regard during the First Commonwealth (I Samuel 8:12, II Kings 1, Isaiah 3:3). A unit of 50 people has special significance which cannot be ignored.

Nor can we overlook the monetary value of 50. At the peak of physical ability, one’s valuation is 50 shekels (Lev. 27:3), The value of land is also determined by a 50-shekel standard (ibid. v. 16). This is even the standard bridal payment (Exod. 22:17, Deut. 22:29).

Most striking, however, is the use of 50 in units of time. After all, we are currently “counting the omer,” marking the days and weeks until we arrive at the fiftieth day after Passover, commemorating the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot (AKA Pentecost — yeah, that’s where it comes from). The date is immaterial; we are commanded to sanctify the fiftieth day after leaving Egypt.

Fifty weeks is the length of a standard year on the Hebrew calendar.

And 50 years? That once again brings us to the end of Leviticus (25:10-13):

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this year of jubilee, everyone is to return to their own property.

The fiftieth year is (usually) a once-in-a-lifetime event, an occasion to restore and return, of reuniting families and proclaiming liberty. It is sacred and inviolable. It is not to be ignored.

And so today, we enter the fiftieth year, the jubilee of united Jerusalem. Perhaps this year we will finally find the courage to answer the questions that Jerusalem demands of us, or at least to ask them. Instead of hiding behind slogans and cliches, we may finally confront the challenges of David’s capital. What is our vision for Jerusalem? What does unity mean? How do we proclaim liberty not in theory, but in practice? How, ultimately, do we make the Holy City whole?

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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