This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Taking Leave of Our Census*

Last month I had the honour of participating in the latest Canadian census. Finding myself yet again among the minority who were invited to labour over the time-consuming "long form" with its tediously detailed questions, I could readily sympathize with the longstanding Jewish antipathy towards counting people.

That there is something wrong with conducting a census is clearly implied by the orders issued to Moses in Exodus 30:

When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them...

In spite of the obscurities of the wording, the verse clearly assumes that counting the population could potentially result in a plague, unless something is done to "ransom" the vulnerable souls. The solution to the conundrum, as set out in the subsequent verses, is that rather than conducting a head count, each person should contribute a uniform sum--half a shekel--to the Tabernacle building fund. In this way, the census-takers would not have to actually count the people, but merely to total up the money and perform the appropriate calculations. The Torah also states that the shekels themselves, as donations to a sacred cause, serve as "atoning money" to avert the fearsome consequences of the census.

Subsequent episodes in the Bible serve to reinforce the feeling that head-counts can be injurious to our health. When King David ordered one, evidently for the purposes of assessing his military potential, the nation was visited by a plague that took seventy thousand lives. Some of the traditional Jewish commentators were at a loss to explain how the astute monarch could have disregarded the warnings that were set down so unmistakably in the Torah.

Other leaders of Israel took a more prudent approach to their census-taking. King Saul appears to have enumerated his people at Bezek, in preparation for his war against the Ammonites, and again at Telaim, prior to the campaign against Amalek. However, the rabbis translated the passages so that "bezek" meant "potsherd" and "telaim" meant "lambs," referring to the objects that were counted in lieu of the actual people.

Later, during the reign of King Joash, the High Priest Jehoiada recommended that the old method of shekel-counting be restored, though in that instance the campaign was motivated not so much by an interest in demographic statistics as by the need to raise funds for renovations in the Temple. The same procedure was followed by the returning Babylonian exiles who built the Second Temple.

Even in post-biblical times, the Talmud relates how the officials in the Jerusalem Temple, when they had to choose teams of volunteers for work assignments, took care to count raised fingers, rather than the actual priests.

The reluctance to count people is still in evidence in our synagogues in the diverse ways that have been devised to count available worshippers for a minyan. The preferred methods include assigning each person one word in a ten-word biblical verse; or the more picturesque practice of employing negative numbers: "not one, not two, not three..."

The Torah does not explain the reasons for its negative view of census-taking, and the traditional interpreters took differing views on the question.

I have yet to find in our sources anything analogous to the attitudes of those stalwart French peasants who resisted their nation-state's first attempts to conduct a national head-count, because of their deeply held belief in a citizen's right to remain unknown to the rapacious government.

This attitude is not entirely different from the one demonstrated by some recent arrivals from former Communist countries, whose past experiences still makes them reluctant to identify themselves as Jews in the Canadian census, for fear that the fact will be used against them in in a discriminatory manner.

Rashi believed that the census threatens to provoke the "evil eye," that ubiquitous power of metaphysical envy that is aroused when people are too open about flaunting their good fortune. Perhaps this image can be read as a metaphoric warning that census data is likely to be utilized by the tax collectors.

Rabbi Obadiah Sforno reasoned that the periodic need to count populations is, after all, really a way of measuring the mortality rate. Since, from a theological perspective, death is occasioned by sin, the census should impel us to seek atonement.

Several Jewish commentators indicated that the census was antithetical to the ideal of national solidarity, and served to elevate the individual above the common good. Thus, Rabbi Bahya ben Asher argued that, by assigning to each person a separate number, the census prevents the individual from benefiting from the collective merits of the nation. This renders them more vulnerable to potential calamities.

Rabbi Solomon Alkabetz derived a similar lesson from the Torah's stipulation that each person contribute a half shekel, rather than a full one. This comes to underscore the incompleteness of the individual when removed from the group.

Based on my own experiences with impersonal bureaucracies, I would prefer to read the symbolism in the reverse direction, as a protest against the temptation to reduce people to mere numbers. By opposing census-taking, the Torah is upholding the sanctity of the individual against the inroads of oppressive collectivism.

This sentiment is not entirely without support in the talmudic sources. The rabbis stated in several places that true blessing cannot be found in things that are counted or measured.

Furthermore, they drew a thematic connection between the ban on censuses and the assurances that were made to Abraham that his progeny would be multiplied like the dust of the earth, the sand on the shore and the stars in the heavens.

In comparing the relevant scriptural verses in which this promise was formulated, the Jewish sages insisted that there is a crucial distinction to be made between cases when a total is merely too large to count, and where it is essentially uncountable.

Accordingly, they concluded that the prospect of a huge numerical increase for the Jewish people constituted a relatively low order of blessing, one that does not require complete moral or spiritual perfection.

However, the truest and most complete blessing in store for Abraham's descendants, if they should be found truly deserving, is that they will be placed entirely outside the realm of quantification--as each individual soul is appreciated for its own infinite sanctity, and not as a digit in a statistical total.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past


University of Calgary Press

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:

  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressJune 28, 2001, pp. 10-11.

  • Bibliography:
    • Nachshoni, Yehudah, 1988, Studies In The Weekly Parashah, translated by S. Himelstein, 5 vols, Vol. 2: Sh'mos, Mesorah, New York: ArtScroll.