“Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses” Numbers 1:2


The biblical method for conducting a census avoided a direct count of heads; instead, small objects were collected, traditionally coins, such as a half-shekel. Yet in the book of II Samuel, King David errs by conducting a direct census, resulting in a plague which kills 70,000 Israelites. This tragedy leads to an ongoing Jewish faux pas — counting people. I must have gone to one of the only schools in the country where we were reprimanded for counting.

During sports, or when dividing into teams, we were forbidden from numbering off. Instead, we recited a 10-word Hebrew verse from Psalm 28:9: “Hoshiach et amecha u’varech et nachalatecha, ur’em venas’em ad ha’olam”, “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever.”

While it may be rude to count, in Judaism we are obsessive counters; after all, we require a minimum number of people for certain prayers. In many synagogues, mourners cannot say Kaddish without the presence of a minyan, 10 people over the age of 13. Likewise, we are supposed to eat all main meals with at least three adults, a mezuman. What’s more, we hang on every digit of census data, fixated on Jewish growth or decline.

The Book of Numbers begins with a census. Yet the instruction literally reads as “lift up the heads of the entire community”. This nuance is important, especially to appreciate how the customary counting verse from Psalm 28:9 involves a clever play on words; for its ending can be read two ways — either “shepherd them and lift them up forever” or, more poetically, “tend them and count them forever”. I love the idea that in order to be numbered among our community, one must embrace the duality of this meaning; of being both counted and elevated.

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