Talmud Tips

For the week ending 1 May 2021 / 19 Iyar 5781

Yoma 23 - 29

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
Library Library Library

Do I Count?

The leader said, “Show your fingers.”

The mishna states this as a part of a lottery process that would take place for a specific activity to be done in the Beit Hamikdash. It was done in order to abide by the Jewish law that bans counting people. This ban against counting people has not only practical halachic applications, but esoteric and “deeper” ramifications as well.

Our Sages have taught: “It is forbidden to count Israel, as is written: ‘The number of the Bnei Yisrael will be like the sand of the sea, which shall not be measured....’” (Hoshea 2:1) The census taken in the time of King David brought great catastrophe: “David insisted, ‘Go count Israel’...And G-d brought a plague on Israel...70,000 died....” (II Shmuel 24, I Shmuel 15)

One of the activities necessary for the avodah service in the Beit Hamikdash was called terumat hadeshen — raising and removal of the ash formed on the Altar as a by-product of burning the sacrifices there. One kohen out of the group of kohanim whose turn it was to serve that day would have the merit to perform this task. But, if more than one wanted to do the terumat hadeshen, how was it determined which kohen it would be? Sometimes it was necessary to decide the winner by lottery.

We are taught in our mishna that the leader would tell all candidates to raise their fingers, meaning that each interested part should hold up one of his fingers. Then, a number was chosen, a number that was larger than the number of volunteers participating in this lottery. The leader would begin counting the fingers aloud, going around the circle more than once. When he concluded his call of the numbers, this lottery clarified the choice of the person who would merit doing terumat hadeshen for that day.

The central question here would seem to be: Why was this counting done in an indirect manner instead of just counting the people directly when conducting the lottery? And even if we can understand the reason for this counting prohibition, what is done in other, similar cases that require the counting of people — for example, counting people for a minyan or for a census?

The central concept appears to be a mystical one: The ayin harah (“evil eye”) holds sway over anything counted. Attaching a number to something, limits it, and thereby limits its capacity to receive blessing. The commentaries say that counting Jews directly can bring a harsh judgment on the individuals who, if not deemed worthy, may be punished.

In addition, the commentaries explain that when the Jewish People exist in a state of unity they are connected to their Source and do not need any added protection. However, when they are counted as individuals, they become disconnected, as it were, and are subject to individual scrutiny.

From our case of the kohanim, however, we see that it is permitted to count objects — e.g., fingers — which substitute for people. Moshe Rabbeinu counted the people through the “half-shekel” that each one donated. King Shaul counted them using lambs. Today, when counting the ten people required for a minyan it is customary to recite the verse, “Hoshia et amecha...” (Tehillim 28:9) — which consists of ten words.

As far as counting for a census that was proposed for Israel is concerned, HaRav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zatzal, issued the following reasons to permit participation:

  • INDIRECT COUNT
    As previously mentioned, it is permissible to count objects — e.g., fingers — which substitute for people. In the census, it is not people being counted, but rather pen marks on a piece of paper.
  • ESTIMATION
    A large number of families forget, refuse, or simply do not bother responding. The census-takers fill this gap with government records and statistical guesswork (based partly on the number of doors in a given neighborhood!). Therefore, it is not a true count.
  • INCLUSIVE
    The census that was proposed in Israel made no inquiry about religion. Rather, it counts Israeli citizens of all backgrounds and nationalities. Therefore, it is not considered counting “The Jewish People” per se.
  • MECHANICAL MEANS
    The actual counting is not done by humans; rather, the census form is scanned into a computer.

Based on all the above, Rabbi Elyashiv permitted participation, but added that one should supply only the ID numbers, and leave out the names. This is in order to emphasize the fact that the count is indirect.

(A general remark about counting: It has been noted that the prohibition against counting directly does not seem to be written in the Shulchan Aruch, but rather is found in the writings of the commentaries and poskim.)

  • Yoma 23a

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