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Topic: Counting of the Jewish People in Bible, Rounding Off to the Nearest 50

Avi Ziskind from South Africa wrote:
Dear Rabbi,

When the Torah records the counting of the Jewish People, it rounds off the numbers to the nearest 50. I find this hard to understand. If one of the purposes of the counting is for Hashem to show His love for each individual Jew, like a king who counts and recounts his precious jewels, how can the Torah round off the numbers just for "neatness" as it seems to be doing, seemingly disregarding the exact number of people, and rather giving us a general idea?


Mel Friedman from San Antonio, Texas wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

There is a census taken at the beginning and end of Bamidbar. The confusing part for me is why are all the numbers apparently rounded to the nearest hundred?


Dear Avi Ziskind and Mel Friedman,

When the Torah lists the number of people in each of the 12 tribes in Parshat Bamidbar, each number is a multiple of either 50 or 100. There are differing views regarding whether or not these numbers are exact. One view is that the Torah rounded off the numbers. This isn't surprising considering that the Torah does this in other places as well. For example, the Torah says to "Count 50 days" between Pesach and Shavuot, when in reality there are only 49.

Counting the nation benefited the community and the individual. When the individual passed before Moshe and Aharon, Moshe and Aharon would bless the person and pray for him. This itself was a tremendous benefit for the person. Furthermore, each person was counted via his own half-shekel donation, and this served as an atonement for him. These individual benefits were in no way diminished by the fact that the Torah reports rounded numbers.

The communal benefit of the counting was similar to the benefit of any census, which helps the leaders decide how to best serve the needs of the community and tells how many people are available for military service. This was important for the Jewish People who were preparing to war against the Canaanites, and therefore needed to know their own military might. In this sense, round numbers suffice.

Sources:

  • Sefer HaParshiot, Eliyahu KiTov Bamidbar p. 33
  • Ramban 1:45

 
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