Counting the Jews: Not Just About the Numbers by Ariel Caplan



Parshat Bamidbar begins with a census of the Jews.  One would expect a mere few Pesukim discussing this event; on the contrary, it is described in great, seemingly unnecessary detail, with the counters specified and each tribe’s tally listed.  I believe that the great detail of the count is meant to show that it had a higher purpose than just knowing how many Jews there were.

Suggestions of Rishonim

Several suggestions are put forth by various Rishonim to try to explain why a census had to be taken.  Most of their ideas are included under the three reasons given by Ramban.  The first is the idea of Chazal and Rashi that Hashem frequently counted the Jews in the Midbar because of His love for them.  Ramban next proposes that the purpose was to allow all of the Jews to benefit from interaction with Moshe and Aharon, who were responsible to meet with every Jew in the process of the count.  Upon meeting each Jew, they would certainly give him a blessing and pray on his behalf.  The Half-Shekel would also provide atonement for the Jews’ sins.  (Although some maintain that no Half-Shekel was given, Ramban assumes that it was a part of this census; see below.)  Hence, the count would be a way to lift the Jews spiritually.  Ramban’s third suggestion is that the census was needed to know how many people would be able to serve in the army (the command for the census specifically says to count those who would be eligible for army service).  After all, the Jews were about to enter Eretz Yisrael, and would have had it not been for the sin of the Meraglim, so they needed to assemble a fighting force.

The Malbim says that counting the Jews at this point was necessary both for knowing the number of fighters and for the division of the territory that would be acquired when the Land was conquered.  This explains why it was necessary to count by tribe and with the participation of tribal leaders – both the fighting and the division would be done by tribe, and the leaders were needed to ensure that each tribe got its fair share.

There is a key problem with these Rishonim, namely that none of them answers why it had to take place at this time.  Hashem’s great love for us was never the sole trigger of a census; the first (Shemot 12:37) was upon our leaving Mitzrayim, and the second (Shemot 38:26) was to use the Half-Shekel given by each Jew for the Beit Hamikdash.  The interaction with Moshe and Aharon is clearly not time-dependent; it could have taken place at any point and perhaps should have taken place earlier.  If the point was to find out how many soldiers would be available, the census should have been taken right before the entrance into Eretz Yisrael.  Similarly, if the idea was to figure out how to split Eretz Yisrael, it should have taken place later.


Rav Hirsch’s Suggestion

Rav S. R. Hirsch proposes another rationale for the count.  He points out that the count took place “Bemidbar Sinai Beohel Moed,” “In the desert of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting.”  The word “Bemidbar” shows that the count could not have been caused by political or national reasons.  Instead, it was related to Sinai and the Mishkan.  At this point in time, the Jews had received the Torah at Sinai and were about to give it a home in the Mishkan.  The count served as a way to show the loyalty of the Jewish nation to Torah and to make them the guardians of the Torah and the Mishkan.  While it does neatly explain why the count was necessary at this point, it does not explain the detail afforded to each tribe.  After all, guarding and observing the Torah was a national responsibility, not the task of each particular tribe.  We therefore need to find some other motivation for the census that will explain everything.

It is important to note that it is not my intention to reject any opinion that has been cited heretofore.  In fact, a combination of the suggested reasons could satisfactorily explain everything.  My goal is instead to propose a broader idea that will effectively deal with all of these problems.


A Unique Census

In order to suggest another reason for the census, we must first look at how it is different from those that preceded it.  One aspect that jumps out is the extent of the detail afforded to its tally.  Unlike previous counts, each individual tribe’s total is stated.  The tallies take up a full 28 Pesukim, 28 times the number afforded to either of the previous counts.  Those involved in the census are also listed.  In total, the census encompasses a whopping 47 Pesukim, not including the counting of the Leviim.

There are also some less obvious ways in which this count is different.  First, the count never mentions the taking of money (i.e. the Half-Shekel), the method by which every census was supposed to be taken as per the instructions given at the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa.  Rashi claims that it was also taken through the giving of money, and Ramban obviously agrees (see above).  However, Kli Yakar points out that this position is disputed by many Mefarshim.  Whether Rashi is correct or not, the fact that no mention of money is made suggests that the purpose of the count was in fact unrelated to money.

It is also interesting to note that the sum total of all counts is given its own paragraph and has the same description as is given to each individual tribe.  This contrasts with the count in Parshat Pinchas, where it is appended to the end as more of a side point than anything else.  It is also odd why it should be mentioned in the first place – are we not capable of simply adding up the tribal totals to come up with a sum?  It thus seems that the counts of both the nation as a whole and each tribe have significance unto themselves.

The specific mention of the exclusion of the Bnei Levi from the census is also odd.  It seems to be unnecessary to say this, as it could easily be inferred from the fact that they are not mentioned.  This supports the idea that the purpose of the census had to do with all of the Jews except for the Bnei Levi.


A Problematic Census

A major problem with the census brought up by the commentators is how this census had the same total (603,550) as the previous one.  How is this possible?  After all, some people should have died or turned twenty in the interval, which makes it highly unlikely that the same number would be found both times!

Rashi attempts to explain the difficulty by saying that the count was taken based on each person’s age on the previous Rosh Hashanah.  Since both this census and the last were taken after the same Rosh Hashanah, the tally was the same.  Rashi maintains that no one died between the two counts because the building of the Mishkan, which took place between the two counts, protected the Jews.  This is a very strange solution, as it seems that the second census was unnecessary.  Had the previous census simply taken into account the individual tribes, there would be no need to have a recount now.  Therefore, Rashi appears to support the idea that the two counts had different functions – so different, in fact, that they had to be done separately and could not be combined into one census.

According to Ramban, the equality of the totals is unrelated to Rosh Hashanah.  He instead maintains that the census was in fact taken based on the current ages of those involved.  He notes that Rashi must be wrong about the lack of deaths, as there were Jews who were unable to offer the Korban Pesach because they were Tamei from contact with dead people.  Rather, those who died were balanced out by those who came of age.  Ramban adds that the Leviim were counted in the first census but not in the second and that they, too, were balanced out by those Israelites who turned twenty in the interval.  If the Leviim were included in the first count and not in the second, there had to be some difference in their purposes that only mandated the inclusion of the Leviim in the first.


A New Explanation

It is possible to integrate many of the approaches listed and explain the anomalies of the Bemidbar census by saying that its purpose was to act as a summation of the events of the end of Sefer Shemot, as well as the entire Sefer Vayikra.

After the Chet Haegel, the Jews needed to do a tremendous amount of Teshuvah.  It took Moshe’s greatest efforts to hold back the wrath of Hashem, but this was only a temporary solution.  The Jews had to once again prove their worth and their dedication to Hashem and to the Torah.  The embodiment of this Teshuvah was the building of the Mishkan.  However, this was not enough.  It could only have an effect if all of the Jews contributed, showing their willingness to donate to matters of Kedushah.  This would be an effective “Midah Kineged Midah” atonement for the Chet Haegel, in which the Jews donated their money to a sinful matter.  Hence, the Jews as a whole had to give at least the Half-Shekel to support the Mishkan.  Therefore, when the census in Shemot 38:26 is described, it is in the context of money.  It includes one Pasuk describing the total of the Jews, then devotes more time describing how the money was used, as the use of the money for the Mishkan was the essence of atonement.

This also explains why there was no individual counting by tribe.  When the Jews donated to the Mishkan, their individual numbers did not matter as much as the whole, as the smaller tribal donations were not as impressive as the national donation.

When the Mishkan was completed, though, there was still something missing.  Before the Avodah in the Mishkan could begin, the Jews had to prove their faithfulness to Hashem after they had strayed from Him during the Chet Haegel.  The second census at the beginning of Bemidbar accomplished this task and was thus the end of the Teshuvah.  When the people were counted, it was a count of those who would serve in the army, which showed that the people were ready to serve Hashem in their actions.  This contrasted with Chet Haegel, where they had done the opposite.  If it was also linked to the portions that they were to receive in Eretz Yisrael, the count also showed that the Jews were ready to enter the Land as Hashem wanted and to do the Mitzvot that are only applicable in Eretz Yisrael.  Money is not mentioned because the focus of the count is on the individuals themselves (the Pasuk says to count the Jews by “the number of their names”) and on showing that they were loyal and free of sin, not on the community and monetary service.

A communal counting would have not made sense in this case; in fact, it could have been disastrous.  There is an idea that Teshuvah should be done as a group so that communal virtues can overpower individual sins.  In this case, however, the opposite was true.  As a group, Bnei Yisrael could be entirely blamed for the Chet Haegel.  However, once they were split up into several groups, no specific group could be blamed.  They were thus able to prove their faithfulness to Hashem much more easily and with tribal advocates to argue on their behalf.  The focus on the individual in this count (Moshe and Aharon were responsible for talking to each person) emphasizes this point.  Finally, once each tribe was able to prove that it was faithful to Hashem, the tribes merged together into a group that was free from suspicion.

Shevet Levi was not included in the count because they had already proven their loyalty immediately after the Chet Haegel when they killed off those who had participated in the sin.  If they were included in the first count, it is because they, like the rest of the nation, had no specific act to demonstrate their willingness to give of their money to accomplish Mitzvot.


An Appropriate Teshuvah

There are two main ways in which to interpret the Chet Haegel.  The standard explanation is that it was a complete rebellion against Hashem – in short, abandoning Hashem and choosing a new god.  The appropriate atonement for a sin like this would be to prove that we rejected the other god and once again became loyal to Hashem.  The first task, that of rejecting the Eigel, was accomplished when Moshe ground up the Eigel, placed the remains into water, and made the Jews drink the Eigel-water.  This constituted a complete debasement and denunciation of the Eigel as a god.  We proved that we were loyal to Hashem by financing the construction of the Mishkan, His home among the Jews, and by showing that we were ready to serve in His army and live in His land.

Another way to interpret the Chet Haegel (as presented by Rabi Yehudah Halevi in his Sefer HaKuzari) is as an attempt to serve Hashem gone awry.  This can be compared to the death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu.  The Torah emphasizes that their service was one that Hashem had not commanded, and some Mefarshim take this to mean that the essence of their sin was that they did not follow Hashem’s guidelines as to how to perform the Avodah.  Similarly, the Chet Haegel may have been an attempt by Bnei Yisrael to serve Hashem in a new way now that Moshe was gone (or so they thought).  The Eigel was not an idol but rather a symbol of Hashem.  Hence, the Eirev Rav cried out, “This (the Eigel) is your God” (Shemot 32:8) – meaning not that it was actually supposed to be a god, but that it represented our connection to Hashem.  If the problem was that we should not have served Hashem in a way that we were not commanded, the logical remedy was to serve Hashem in a way that we were commanded.  We supported the Mishkan, which was built exactly how we were commanded by Hashem.  The sections of the Torah dealing with the building of the Mishkan will very often repeat that it was done “as Hashem commanded.”  Similarly, before the results of the Bemidbar census are stated, the Torah says that Bnei Yisrael were counted “as Hashem commanded Moshe” (1:19).  The census concludes by saying that “Bnei Yisrael did all that Hashem commanded Moshe” (1:54).  We had now proved that we were able to limit our service to that which Hashem commanded us.

Teshuvah in Triplicate

In the first paragraph of Shema, we are commanded to serve Hashem “Bechol Levavecha Uvechol Nafshecha Uvechol Meodecha,” “With all your heart and with all your soul and with all your resources.”  Chazal interpret this as serving Hashem by doing the Mitzvot while fighting the Evil Inclination, being willing to sacrifice one’s life for Torah, and using one’s money for matters of Kedushah, respectively.  When Bnei Yisrael sinned with the Chet Haegel, they violated all these aspects of Avodat Hashem by giving in to their sinful desires, doing Averot for which one is normally obligated to die (see Rashi on Shemot 32:6), and using their resources to create an idol.  Their atonement was accomplished Midah Kineged Midah by financing the Mishkan with the census in Shemot 38:26, committing to participate in the Mitzvah of conquering Eretz Yisrael with the census in Bemidbar, and having the Leviim dedicate their lives to serving Hashem in the Mishkan.  Through these actions, they were at least temporarily able to prove their faithfulness to Hashem and show that they deserved to enter Eretz Yisrael.


Aftermath of the Teshuvah

After the counts of both the Jews and the Leviim are completed, the next Halachot taught are those of removing impure persons from the camp, doing Teshuvah for sins between people in which the victim loses money, dealing with a Sotah, becoming a Nazir, and making Birchat Kohanim.  Perhaps this is meant to imply to us that through the Mishkan and censuses, we were able to remove the base elements from among ourselves, do Teshuvah and made restitution to Hashem, thus going from being unfaithful like a Sotah to reaching a high level of spirituality like a Nazir.  Only then were we deserving of the Birchat Kohanim, through which we find favor in the eyes of Hashem.

Yizkor by Rabbi Yosef Adler

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