May Jews Count People?
Ask a Jewish grandmother how many grandchildren she has and she may either refuse to give you the count or tell you the number and then spit three times. Ask a fellow congregant if there are ten men in the synagogue to make the minyan quorum and he may begin to count the attendees by reciting a biblical verse and seeing if the number of people present equals the ten words in the verse. The fear of counting fellow Jews is more widespread than you may think. In this essay, we will look at the sources of the custom and discuss its validity.
- Why are many Jews afraid to count people?
- Is there a biblical basis for their fear?
- Does the Torah prohibit counting people except under specific circumstances?
- What are the circumstances that allow counting for those Jews who answer “yes” to question 3?
- Does the Torah even hint that one should not report the number of children or grandchildren one has?
- Does the Torah address the issue of counting a small group of people, such as ten people for a minyan?
What Are the Biblical Sources about Counting?
People were generally counted in the Bible for a number of purposes: to determine availability for war, for the division of land, to find out how many soldiers were killed in a battle, and for tax purposes. Thus, non-combatants, such as the young and the old and the Levites who functioned in the Tabernacle and Temples were not part of the military tallies in the biblical book Numbers.
The pivotal source for the issue is the rule in Exodus 30:12 and 13, repeated in Exodus 38:26. The former two verses state: “When you take a census of the Israelite people, each person must give an atonement for himself (kofer nafsho) when you count them, so that there will be no plague among them when you count them. This is what must be given by everyone who is counted, a half a shekel of the Sanctuary weight – which is twenty gerahs to a shekel – a half a shekel as an offering to the Lord.”
Four facts must be reviewed here. (1) A census was allowed, but there was a requirement for the Israelites to give a half-shekel (a monetary contribution) to the Sanctuary. (2) The giving of the half-shekel was called a kofer nafsho. (3) The half–shekel was described as “an offering to the Lord.” (4) The people were threatened that if they did not give the half-shekel a plague would ensue.
These four points raise four questions:
- Was the requirement to give the half-shekel one that existed only during that particular census because of the needs of the Sanctuary at the time, or was this a mandate for all censuses?
- What is a kofer nafsho?
- Why is the half-shekel called “an offering to the Lord” and what connection does this description have with the kofer nafsho?
- Why were the people threatened with a plague, and, as asked in question 1, does this threat apply to all future censuses?
Two Understandings of Exodus 30
The biblical commentators Rashi and Nachmanides, as well as others, posit that Exodus 30:12 and 13 apply to all censuses: counting Jewish people is forbidden. However, Jews may contribute a half-shekel; then half-shekels, and not Jews, are counted. Why did this requirement exist according to these commentators?
Believing in such things as demons and evil eyes, Rashi states in his commentary to Exodus 30:12 that “counting causes the evil eye to gain power and brings a plague, as occurred with David”; thus atonement was needed to prevent the outbreak of the plague.
Similar Fears Among Other Nations
What about counting causes people to think that it will generate a plague? Is this a superstitious belief? A.B. Ehrlich felt that the fear expressed by Rashi was widespread. Both ancients and moderns, he says, accept the superstitious notion that counting people causes the interference of the evil eye and that the evil eye causes plague. Even today, he adds, many people spit after counting, believing that spit can save them from the evil eye.
The ancient people of Mari, located by the Euphrates in the eighteenth century B.C.E., used a counting procedure similar to that of the Israelites, including the Israelite “atonement” practice. The people of Mari were either afraid that the gods would get a hold of the list of names and use it to determine who should live and who should die or that wicked magicians would grab the list and use it to bring black magic against the people named in the list.
The Romans also connected a sacred procedure to the counting of people. Fearing the onslaught of a plague at the conclusion of counting, they sacrificed an animal to their god Mars. The Romans also performed “atonement” by contributing money at some of their bacchanalian feasts (feasts in honor of Bacchus).
What Are the “Atonement” and the “Offering to the Lord”?
In contrast to Rashi and Nachmanides, Saadiah Gaon and Rashbam were convinced that the requirement to give a half-shekel only existed during the desert period. They stated that the “atonement” money was not given to stop a plague, but was an annual tax upon the Israelites, and it was collected whether or not a census was conducted.
Chizkuni explains that the “atonement” was not connected to the counting nor was it designed to avert a plague. It simply meant that the money collected was used to purchase animals for sacrifices in the Tabernacle and these animals would be sacrificed for the atonement of Israelite misdeeds (unrelated to the counting).
Abraham ibn Ezra states that the warning about the “plague” meant that if the Israelites did not properly prepare for war by mobilization resulting from a census, a “plague” would occur, meaning that the Israelites would suffer a military defeat by their enemy if they did not prepare for the battle by mobilizing an adequate force based on a census of available soldiers.
In short, some rabbis believed in the evil eye and were certain that counting people produced the bad effects of the evil eye. Other rabbis were equally certain that the notion of an evil eye was superstition and saw nothing wrong with counting people; instead, they felt that the passage referred to natural occurrences related to the census.
How Does the Foregoing Explain II Samuel 24:9–25?
II Samuel 24 recalls that King David ordered a census, the count was made, and the people were punished by a plague that killed seventy thousand Israelites. Rabbis who accept the views of Rashi and Nachmanides, agreeing that the evil eye exists and will kill people if they count each other, have no problem with understanding this story literally.
But if counting was permitted, as maintained by other rabbis, what did David do wrong and why were seventy thousand people, who were not involved in his decision, punished for his act with a plague?
David ordered counting before going to war. It is reasonable to suppose that the fuss connected with a national census would become known to Israel’s neighbors whom David planned to attack. These neighbors would realize that David was mustering a force to attack them and even before David could assemble his forces, they would do so and be prepared for the attack. As a result, seventy thousand Israelites were killed.
Many people of all faiths and cultures are afraid to count people. These include highly educated individuals and rabbis. They hold this belief either because they have not thought about the reasons behind this fear, which is the fear of the evil eye, or because they believe that the evil eye wields power. They fear counting children and grandchildren and congregants attending services.
However, more rational Bible commentators assert that the evil eye does not exist and that the Bible does not prohibit counting people. These scholars believe that Exodus 30 does not constitute proof that the Bible prohibits counting, despite the contrary view of some prominent rabbis. They explain that while Exodus 30 states that the count during Moses’ lifetime could only be done when a half-shekel was contributed to the Sanctuary, this rule existed only at that time because of the needs of the newly constructed sanctuary.
Once again, theories about a Jewish belief abound – some less rational and founded on superstitious beliefs, others grounded in rational thought.
 Numbers 1:3, I Samuel 1:8, 15:4, II Kings 3:26.
 Numbers 26:1–65.
 Mikra Kipheshuto, Exodus 30:12.
 Olam Hatanakh, Numbers, 14.