(This should not be relied upon for practical halacha. When a question arises a Rabbi should be consulted.)
“Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names.” (Bamidbar 1:2)
The above parsha describes the detailed census of the Jews in the desert. Counting Jews directly is forbidden, as the Rambam writes (Tamid 4:4) that it is prohibited to conduct a census and to count the Jewish people. This ruling is also codified by the Magen Avraham (156:2).
Reason for the Prohibition
`What is the reason for this prohibition? Rashi (Shmos 30:12) writes that the reason we refrain from counting Jews is because one who conducts a census is in danger of afflicting a plague upon those who were counted. The Anaf Yosef (Yoma 22a) explains that counting individuals creates a possibility that they will be judged in the Heavenly court. He adds that this judgement has the potential for having devastating effects, more so than any other judgement, because usually G-d in His infinite kindness judges the Jewish people as a whole, rather than individually. This insures that even if an individual is not acting righteous, as long as the “klal” (the Jewish nation) is considered righteous, the individual will be judged as a tzaddik. However, when they are counted as individuals, Jews become “separated” and are subject to individual scrutiny.
Sources for the Prohibition
There are primarily three sources for this issur; one from the Torah and two are found in the Navi:
1) In Sefer Shmos (30:12), Moshe Rabbeinu is commanded to count the Children of Israel by collecting a half-shekel from each person in order so “there will be no plague among them when they are counted.” As explained above, Rashi writes that the rationale for the prohibition against census-taking is due to fear of the “evil eye” (Ayin Hara) and a plague. Indeed, the Gemara in Brachos (62b) writes that Hashem told David Hamelech that He will make David stumble over a matter that “school children” know, namely, that it is prohibited to count Jews. Here the Gemara declares that even “school children” are aware of the prohibition of counting the Jewish people. [The Gemara is referring to the census that Dovid Hamelech conducted which led to the death of 70,000 Jewish people (See Shmuel 2 chapter 24).]
2) The Mishna in Yoma (22a) outlines the procedures used to determine which Kohen is awarded the privilege of performing the mitzvah of separating the ash from the Alter in the Bais Hamikdash. The Mishna explains that in the event that there were too many Kohanim who wished to fulfill this mitzvah, they would race to the top of the Alter to determine who would do the avodah. If it resulted in a tie then the Temple administrator would count the kohanim by counting their fingers. The Gemara (22b) writes that the fact that the fingers are counted and not the kohanim themselves supports the teaching of R’ Yitzchak. As R’ Yitzchak taught, it is forbidden to count the children of Israel through a head count, even for the purpose of a mitzvah. For it is written (Shmuel 1, 11:8), in reference to the count that Shaul Hamelech made of his soldiers, “He counted them through the pottery shards”.
3) The Gemara continues to cite the opinion of R’ Elazar that whoever counts the people of Israel transgresses a negative commandment, as it is stated: “The Number of the Children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted”. And Rav Nachman Bar Yitzchak writes, that he transgresses two negative commandments, for it is stated in that verse “which cannot be (1) measured or (2) counted”.
Is the prohibition Biblical?
It would seem that the prohibition to conduct a census is Biblical in nature as the first source cited above is a posuk in the Torah. Rashi seems to feel this way and therefore explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded to count the half-shekels and not the people themselves. The sefer Beer Sheva also states that the issur is from the Torah and therefore wonders why the Rambam, Chinuch and other Rishonim who list all the 613 mitzvos, do not count the prohibition of counting the Children of Israel as one of the negative commandments.
Contrastingly, Rav Yeruchem Fishel Perlow zt”l (Sefer Hamitzvos Lerasag vol. 2, mitzvah 264-265) explains that according to Rav Saadia Gaon and the Tashbetz the prohibition is actually Rabbinic. He explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was allowed to count the Children of Israel as long as they donate a half-shekel to protect themselves from plague. On a Biblical level there is no issur of counting Jews as long as they donate a half-shekel to the Bais Hamikdash after the count. The sole prohibition exists from Navi (Shaul Hamelech) and is Rabbinic in nature.
Conducting an unnecessary census
As cited above the Gemara in Yoma prohibits counting the Children of Israel even for the sake of the mitzvah. However, one is permitted to count them in an indirect way such as counting their fingers. Tosafos Rid (Yoma 22b) writes that it is only permitted to do so for the sake of a mitzvah. However, conducting an unnecessary census is forbidden even if the method of counting is done indirectly. A similar view is expressed by the Chida (Sefer Pesach Ainayim on Yoma).
Counting part of Klal Yisroel
Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi zt”l introduces a novel ruling. He feels that one can only transgress the prohibition by counting all of Klal Yisroel. However, it is permitted to count a part of Klal Yisroel.
The opinion of the Mizrachi is seemingly problematic. In the case of Shaul Hamelech, he did not wish to count all of the nation but rather just his soldiers, and yet he did not count them directly, rather he counted pottery shards in their place. It is thus clear that there exists a prohibition to count even a small fraction of Jews. In addition David Hamelech did not count the tribes of Binyamin and Levi and he was still punished as if he counted all of Klal Yisroel. Even more still, the Kohanim in the Bais Hamikdash were not counted directly even though they were only a margin of the Jewish population. See, however, Yabia Omer C.M. 10:2 where Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l cites many authorities who attempt to explain the opinion of the Mizrachi.
1) The Kaf Hachaim (13:10) writes that one is permitted to count Jewish People in one’s mind (b’machshava), as long as he does not count them audibly.
2) Chasam Sofer (cited by his son the Ksav Sofer Y.D. 106) is of the opinion that it is assur to count written names as if it were done so orally. However, the Ralbag (cited by Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l in Shu”t Yabia Omer vol. 10 C.M. 2) writes that counting written names is permissible.
3) When counting ten men for a minyan, it is customary to use a Torah verse that contains ten words instead of using numbers. The verse usually used is: “Hoshiah et amecha u’varech et nachalatecha ur’em venas’em ad ha’olam.” See Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 15:3.
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