Counting Jews

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

24 Nisan: Chatam Sofer on Counting Jews

In tough times, it’s easy to get caught up in the big picture and ignore details of halachahChatam Sofer’s Kovetz Teshuvot 8, dated 24 Nisan 5598 (1838), he answered a question about a detail of how to keep records of who was given what charitable donation.

He starts by acknowledging the tough times these communities are facing, offers his prayer/ blessing that the situation improve, then moves to their practice of listing the needy by number of family members. They wondered whether that violated the prohibition mentioned on Yoma 22b, to not count the Jewish people?

What Counts as Counting

Chatam Sofer concurs with the letter writer that this wasn’t counting, it was recording what each got and how many people they needed to support. Shabbat 148b implies that that’s allowed, since it permits a host’s counting guests and portions orally on Shabbat but not from a written list, for fear the host will write or erase (in the heat of taking care of guests, crossing off names that have already been served, e.g.). Since the Gemara does not raise the issue of counting people, it must be that we don’t see this as that (even though, factually, the host might count them), we see it as his matching guests to portions (I have seven people to serve, so I cut the meat in the kitchen into seven).

The man writing had suggested that counting fingers is better than counting people (or heads), but Chatam Sofer rejects that. The fact that the Torah refers to counting heads (gulgolet) is only to give importance to the Jewish people; when they have sinned, for example in Bamidbar 11;21, Moshe Rabbenu refers to them as six hundred thousand ragli, legs, which Chatam Sofer understands to be derogatory (he doesn’t address Shemot 12;37, a verse I found in the Bar-Ilan, which refers to the Jews as ragli when they were going from Ra’amses to Sukkot; that’s during the Exodus, when there’s no obvious reason the Torah would refer to them derogatorily).

Who’s Included in the Count, Who’s Included in the Sin

Once on the topic of counting, Chatam Sofer remarks that in his Torah commentary, he had wondered why the age for not getting into Israel (after the sin of the spies) was based on the count of those over age twenty. Were the nineteen-year-olds who cried less culpable? (This seems to ignore the Rabbinic tradition that the heavenly court indeed only punishes after age twenty, but I think he might have asked this mostly to lead-in to the next question.)

More, the count had been on the first of Iyyar and the sin happened on the Ninth of Av—were there no nineteen-year-olds who became twenty in the interim?

Finally, why was the punishment the same for everyone, that they died at the age of sixty (I’m not sure how he knew this—while they all died in the desert, so that the twenty-year-olds passed away at sixty or younger, it’s not clear to me Chazal assumed they all were taken at sixty; a man who was forty at the time of the sin might have lived another thirty years, and twenty-somethings might have had only five more years. But this is his show, he may have had a source that was so elementary he didn’t bother to quote it, and I’m just too ignorant to know it. Either way, his logic is interesting). Hashem knows people well enough to respond appropriately to each person’s culpability (human courts have to punish by the sin, but Hashem knows our educational levels, our psychology, the nefariousness of our intent, and could/should adjust our punishment accordingly), and it seems odd that the punishment is so general.

Punishment or Consequence?

Chatam Sofer’s radical suggestion is that death in the desert was not a punishment, it was the “natural” consequence of being counted for no good reason. The “no good reason” part of that comes from the view of Ramban (which he reviewed earlier in the responsum, but this is where we see that it’s relevant). Ramban twice discussed the case of David counting the Jewish people (in II Shemuel 24).

The second time, in his commentary to Bamidbar 1;3, Ramban suggested that an intermediary device (such as fingers, or half-shekels, or sheep, as Shaul did according to one reading of I Shemuel 15;4) would not have helped, since it was an unnecessary count.

That answers Chatam Sofer’s problem as well—the Jews died because the count of Iyyar became retroactively unnecessary once their sin meant they weren’t entering Israel (and retroactively brought death on those counted!). Nineteen-year-olds (those who were twenty at the time of the sin) in fact received divine punishment (or repented), that the Torah does not choose to mention.

Their deaths was enough punishment for the ones who had been in the count, but that wasn’t why they got it (another not necessarily obvious claim, that if we deserve divine punishment, natural suffering that comes for some other reason might still also count as our punishment. I don’t have space here to get into the ramifications, but they seem broad and fascinating to me).

Necessary and Unnecessary Countings

That’s why the count in Bamidbar 26;2 did not bring any untoward results—it was tabulating those who were about to enter the Land, as the count in Iyyar of year two had been supposed to. The Levi’im did not suffer for their count, because it was to arrange their service in the Mishkan.

David Hamelech made the mistake of thinking shekalim were necessary only for a count with a purpose, but a census for no particular reason did not need that device. (It’s not clear to me, from the responsum, why David would think that). He was wrong, but that does raise the question of why a necessary count would need a mechanism such as half-shekels, fingers (how they counted priests in the Beit Hamikdash while assigning various tasks), or sheep.

His first suggestion is that it’s to insert a level of uncertainty. Some person might fail to bring a half-shekel, or put in an extra one, some kohen might stick out two fingers without noticing, and so on. However, Magen Avraham 156 wrote that it’s prohibited to count Jews even if it’s not intended to produce a count (such as in the Beit HaMikdash, where the goal was to assign tasks by lot, so the kohen picked a number and counted around; for Magen Avraham, that’s counting and had to be done by fingers).

To Chatam Sofer, that also explains the use of intermediary devices—they provide a certain kapparah, atonement (needed even for necessary counts, in this view). If counting leads to plague, this would be a way to avoid that. (This is the kind of claim that’s not kabbalistic, and yet many rationalists would insist cannot be true, that the laws of nature in some way produce plague or death when the Jewish people are counted unnecessarily and would do so even in necessary counts unless some form of atonement was included).

Work-Arounds Don’t Always Work

Sum total, unnecessary counts always produce damage, despite stratagems to avoid it (like half-shekels). For mitzvah purposes, and by lottery, some atoning material must be given, or counting a different item than the actual person. A host may count guests because that’s not a count, it’s to assign portions. So too to his correspondent, since they are assigning charitable donations to needy recipients, the marks they make on their lists are not a problem.

Counting Omer In Writing

In a footnote, the publishers pointed out that R. Akiva Eiger (Chatam Sofer’s father-in-law, despite being only a year and a half older—Chatam Sofer’s first wife passed away, childless, when he was fifty, and his second marriage was to R. Akiva Eiger’s daughter) had argued that since writing doesn’t count as speech, one who wrote that today was day of the Omer could not see that as a fulfillment of his obligation.

Chatam Sofer reacted by noting that Yoma cites Hoshea 2;1 that the Jewish people lo yimad ve-lo yisafer, a doubling of the prohibition which he understands to extend to counting Jews in writing. Otherwise, why didn’t Shaul just count them in writing (I could have answered he didn’t have the paper, but that’s not Chatam Sofer’s reasoning)?

He concluded that counting is an exception, in which writing works as well as oral articulation, including for Sefirat HaOmer (once again, I could imagine differentiating—it could be that Hoshea’s use of two verbs for counting broadened it to include writing, but only for that kind of counting, not all kinds.)

For the twenty-fourth of Nisan, Chatam Sofer teaches us about counting, oral and written, necessary and not, as well as what’s natural and what we can or cannot avert within these realms.

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