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  • Writer's pictureGabbai

Bamidbar – Heads or Tails?

The fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, is referred to in English as the Book of Numbers, presumably because the book begins with a census count of the Israelites. Counting each male, from the age of twenty and up, Moses was able to approximate the number of households in the camp at 603,550.

Censuses are very common. Some countries take a census every year, but most suffice with a census just once every few years. The counting incurs great expenses, energy and manpower. It takes enormous organization to put together and print (or publish online) a detailed form with all relevant questions for each household. Every address must be accounted for and must be crosschecked against other lists and databases.

Collection of the data needs to be enforced, so that the forms are not ignored by too many households. The data collected must then be analyzed and the results must be calculated and published.

The Torah’s census was a little more simplified. It didn’t have to deal with different ethnicities, races and religions, although it did have the numerous tribes to consider. There were no questions related to academic levels of the wilderness citizens; there were no statistics altogether on the agenda of the census other than numbers.

The Haftarah this week, from Chapter 2 of Hosea, opens with the following verse:

“The number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can neither be measured  nor counted…”

The irony is not lost on us that this verse has been fulfilled in more ways than one. The numbers of Israel has indeed been trampled upon like the sand of the sea. Furthermore, there is no clear estimate of the number of Jews in the world today, given the reluctance of many Jews to identify, and given the difficult question that arises today of ‘Who is a Jew?” Indeed the Jewish people cannot be measured or counted today.

However, there is another function of this verse which forms the basis of an interesting practice in Jewish tradition. One familiar with Jewish lore knows that we never count people by number. It is assumed to be a superstition, but the source of this tradition is found in the Talmud (Yoma 22b). Three sources are offered in the Talmud for this practice, the third of which is the above verse from Hosea, taken to be not only a blessing but also a commandment, that the Jewish people are never to be directly counted.

Instead of counting heads, for example, a group of people will be asked to raise their hands and the hands are counted. Alternatively, pairs of shoes are counted, or something else of that nature. When counting up to the number 10 to determine whether there is a Minyan, a quorum for prayer, it has become common practice to recite a verse containing 10 words, assigning a word of the verse to each person present.

Much literature exists on this particular practice. After the Talmud, Maimonides codifies this as law and it is found in numerous other halachic works of later times. Have you encountered this practice? Did you assume it was a superstition or did you find it a logical rule?

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