This year, Rosh Chodesh Sivan falls on Sunday, and therefore the haftarah for Shabbos parshas Bamidbar is mochor chodesh. However, the usual haftarah for parshas Bamidbar begins with the pasuk that serves as the basis for the prohibition to count Jews. Since the United States is attempting to conduct a census this year, as required in the Constitution, I present the following halacha discussion:
Question #1: Counting Sheep
Why would someone count sheep when he is trying to stay awake?
Question #2: Counting from a List
Is it permitted to count Jews by counting their names on a list?
Question #3: Ki Sissa or Hoshea?
The Gemara bases the prohibition to count the Jewish people from the opening words of the “official” haftarah for parshas Bamidbar: And the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea that cannot be measured and cannot be counted (Hoshea 2:1). Why does the Gemara attribute the prohibition to a less obvious source in Hoshea, when there appears to be an obvious Torah source for this prohibition, in the beginning of Parshas Ki Sissa?
Answer: Analyzing the Sources in Chazal:
The Mishnah (Yoma 22a) describes that in order to determine which kohen would be awarded the mitzvah of removing ashes from the mizbei’ach, the kohanim extended their fingers, which were then counted. The person in charge picked a number much greater than the assembled kohanim, and then counted fingers until they reached the number. The kohen on whom the number landed performed the mitzvah (Rashi ad loc.).
The Gemara asks why they didn’t simply count the kohanim themselves, to which it answers that it is prohibited to count Jews (Yoma 22b). Counting fingers is permitted; counting people is not (Rambam, Hilchos Temidim 4:4). We are aware of one common application of this mitzvah: when counting people for a minyan, one counts words of a ten-word pasuk, rather than counting the people directly (Sefer Ha’itim #174; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 15:3).
Here is another application: to determine how many places one needs to set at a table, one should not count heads, but one may count sets of legs (Shu’t Torah Lishmah #386).
The Gemara quotes three Biblical sources for this prohibition:
1. When the nation of Ammon threatened the Jewish community of Yaveish-Gilad, Shaul gathered a large Jewish army and counted them in an indirect manner (Shmuel I 11:8). According to one opinion in the Gemara, Shaul counted the members of his army by having each throw a piece of broken pottery into a pile. Thus, we see that even to fulfill a mitzvah, one may count Jews only in an indirect manner.
2. Before attacking Ameleik, Shaul gathered the Jewish people and had each person take a sheep from Shaul’s herds. By counting the sheep, he knew how many soldiers he had (Shmuel I 15:4, see Rashi). Again, we see that he used an indirect method to count them.
3. And the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea that cannot be measured and cannot be counted (Hoshea 2:1). Taking the verse not only as a blessing, but as a commandment, the Gemara derives a prohibition against counting the Jewish people.
Isn’t the Torah a Clearer Source?
The obvious question is — why does the Gemara not quote the following pasuk in the Torah as a source for the prohibition?
When you will take the headcount of the children of Israel according to their numbers, each man should give atonement for his life to Hashem when counting them so that there is no plague as a result of the counting. This is what whoever is counted should give: a half shekel (Shemos 30:12 -13).
This pasuk certainly implies that the only way one may count Jews is indirectly, by having each one donate half a shekel and then counting the coins. This seems to be the source of how Shaul knew that he should count the Jews the way he did. It is indeed odd that the Gemara quotes the incidents of Shaul as the source for the prohibition, rather than Shaul’s source — the Torah itself!
Before answering this question, I want to analyze a different point that we see in the pasuk. The Torah says: each man should give atonement for his life to Hashem when counting them, so that there is no plague as a result of the counting. In the discussion of no other mitzvah does the Torah say, “fulfill this commandment so that no plague results.” Why suddenly does the Torah say this in regard to this mitzvah?
Rabbeinu Bachya (ad locum) explains that when we count individuals, it causes the heavenly tribunal to note all his deeds, and this may result in his being punished for his sins, which otherwise would not be punished now.
Others explain the concern in terms of ayin hora. The Abarbanel, for example, explains that when counting people by head, the counting causes ayin hora and therefore illness enters their bodies hrough their eyes and mouths, whereas counting fingers does not cause the ayin hora to enter them. I leave to the reader to decide whether he means in a physical way or a metaphysical one.
Why the Prophets?
So, indeed, if we see from the Torah, itself, that counting Jews is prohibited and potentially very harmful, why did the Gemara base itself on verses of the Prophets?
The commentaries present several approaches to answer this question. Here is a sample of some answers:
(1) The Gemara is proving that one may not count Jews even for the purpose of performing a mitzvah, something that the Torah did not expressly say (Sfas Emes to Yoma ad loc.). However, from the incidents of Shaul and the verse in Hoshea, it is clear that one may not count Jews directly, even for the sake of a mitzvah.
(2) The Gemara needs to prove that we may not count even a small group of Jews, whereas the pasuk in Ki Sissa may be prohibiting only counting the entire people (Mizrachi; Sfas Emes).
(3) The verse in Ki Sissa could mean that one may count the Jews in a normal census, but that afterward, they all must provide half a shekel as an atonement, to make sure that no one suffers (Makom Shmuel, quoted by Shu’t Tzitz Eliezer 7:3). This last approach suggests that the verse When you will take the headcount of the children of Israel according to their numbers be explained in the following manner: When you take a regular census of the children of Israel, each man should give atonement for his life to Hashem when counting them – after you conduct your census, each person should provide a half-shekel to make sure no harm results. Indeed, the census could cause harm, but that does not necessarily mean that the Torah prohibited it. However, the stories of Shaul and the verse in Hoshea prove that the Torah prohibited counting Jews directly, since Shaul counted the people by counting sheep, rather than conducting a census and having them all donate half a shekel as atonement.
(4) One can interpret the verse in Ki Sissa to mean that the generation of the Desert, who had worshipped the eigel hazahav, the Golden Calf, was at risk and that therefore counting them might cause a plague (Maharsha to Yoma ad loc.; see also Ohr Hachayim to Shemos 30:2). However, one cannot prove from Ki Sissa that there is an inherent prohibition or risk in counting Jews when they have not violated such a grievous sin. However, the stories of Shaul or the verse in Hoshea prove that one may not count Jews even when they did not violate serious prohibitions.
Thus, we find several answers to explain why the Gemara did not consider the Torah source as adequate proof to prohibit counting the kohanim in the Beis Hamikdash, but, instead, rallied proof from later sources. As we will see shortly, there are actual distinctions in practical halacha that result from these diverse explanations. But first, a different question:
Counting from a List
For the purposes of fulfilling a mitzvah, may one count Jews by listing their names, and then count their names? Is this considered counting people indirectly, since one is counting names and not people, or is this considered counting the people themselves?
Advertising Campaigns to Help the Needy
The idea of having creative advertising campaigns in order to generate tzedakah funds did not originate with Oorah or Kupat Ha’ir. About 200 years ago, Rav Yisrael of Shklov, a major disciple of the Vilna Gaon and an author of several scholarly Torah works (including Taklin Chadtin on Yerushalmi Shekalim and Pe’as Hashulchan on the agricultural mitzvos), was organizing a fundraising campaign for the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael in which he wanted to link donors to individual beneficiaries by listing the needy of Eretz Yisrael by name. Rav Yisrael held that this did not violate the prohibition of counting Jews, since it involved an indirect count by counting names on a list, for the sake of fulfilling a mitzvah. However, the Chasam Sofer disagreed, contending that counting names on a list is considered counting people directly. Even though one is not looking at their faces when counting them, counting people from a list is considered counting the person, and not counting their finger, leg, half-shekel, lamb or pottery shard (see Koveitz Teshuvos Chasam Sofer #8; Shu’t Kesav Sofer, Yoreh Deah #106). We will see shortly that this dispute exists to this day.
Is the State of Israel permitted to conduct a census of its population? Does an individual violate the mitzvah by being a census taker, or by providing the census takers with his information?
This question was hotly debated by halachic authorities, even when the pre-state Zionist organizations began counting the Jewish population, and continued with the censuses of the State of Israel. Several reasons are provided by those who permitted taking a census, the primary one being that determining how to provide proper medical, educational, economic and safety servicing for a large population requires knowing how many people there are. These authorities accepted that this qualifies as a dvar mitzvah, and that counting by list, or via computer and machine calculation is considered indirect counting (Shu’t Mishpatei Uziel 4:2; Noam XV).
On the other hand, several prominent poskim prohibited taking the census or participating in it (Shu’t Tzitz Eliezer 7:3). On the 27th of Iyar, 5732 (May 11, ’72), the Steipler Gaon released a letter stating the following:
In the coming days, there will be census takers counting the Jewish people. One should be careful not to answer them at all, to tell them that it is forbidden to take a census, and that there is the possibility of a Torah violation, as explained in the Gemara, Yoma 22, the Rambam in the fourth chapter of Temidim and Musafim, and the Ramban in Parshas Bamidbar. Furthermore, the Tosafos Rid in Yoma writes that it is prohibited to do so even indirectly when no mitzvah is accomplished. The Kesav Sofer explains… that it is prohibited even through writing. Furthermore, taking a census involves the possibility of danger.
At the same time, the Beis Din of the Eidah Hachareidis also issued a letter prohibiting participating in the census or answering any questions from the census takers, reiterating that they had banned this practice ten years earlier.
After publishing a responsum in which he prohibited participating in the census, the
Tzitz Eliezer (7:3) was asked whether someone calculating the numbers of people who made aliyah may count how many people there are. He answered that for the purposes of a mitzvah, one may count indirectly. However, we should note that such figures are often counted simply for curiosity or publicity, which the Tzitz Eliezer prohibits (22:13).
In a more recent responsum from Rav Vozner (Shu’t Shevet Halevi 9:35), dated Elul 24 5755 (September 19, ’95), he writes that the heter of taking a census because of divrei mitzvah applies only if the statistics are used exclusively for divrei mitzvah, something that is not followed. However, he permits the census for a different reason — because they count the entire population of Israel, not specifically Jews. Furthermore, even though the census in Israel includes a breakdown into religious groups, since thousands of those who are listed by the government as Jewish are not, Rav Vozner does not consider this as counting Jews. He adds that since no one is counted by name or family, but there is simply raw data collected, and the data does not correlate at all to the number of Jews, he has no halachic objection to participating in the census.
On the basis of Rav Vozner’s responsum, there certainly should be no objection to participating in the United States census, since this involves counting people and does not count Jews.
Parshas Ki Sissa, which should appear to be the Torah source for this mitzvah, begins with the words “Ki sissa es rosh bnei Yisrael.” Although the explanation of this pasuk is “When you count the members of Bnei Yisrael,” literally, the words can be translated as “When you lift up the heads of Bnei Yisrael.” The question is why did the Torah use this expression rather than say more clearly that it is defining how to count the Jewish People.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Darash Moshe, Ki Sissa) explains as follows: When someone realizes that he did something wrong, that individual may justify what he did by saying, “I am not important. What difference does it make if I do not do what is expected of me?” Unfortunately, this type of mistaken humility can become a person’s undoing.
“Ki Sissa” – “When you lift up” counteracts this way of thinking. Every Jew is as important as the greatest of all Jews: The biggest tzaddik and the seemingly unimportant Jew both give the same half-shekel. This “lifts up” every individual – you do count, and what you do is important!