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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

The Census of Klal Yisrael: When Even Numbers Are Names and Objects are Subjects

Sefer Bamidbar begins with the counting of Bnei Yisrael. The Torah's initial charge (1:2) leads us to anticipate that this reckoning will certainly take note of family units - "seu et rosh kol adat Bnei Yisrael le-mishpechotam le-beit avotam", and possibly even of individual identity - "bi-mispar sheimot kol zachar le-gulgelotam" (see Seforno and Rav Hirsch, 1:2.) This perspective is reinforced later in the Torah's presentation (1:18) -"ve-eit kol ha-eidah hikhilu bi-echad la-chodesh ha-sheini vayityaldu al mishpechotam li-beit avotam bi-mispar sheimot mi-ben esrim shanah va-maalah li-gulgilotam".

The phrase "vayityaldu al mishpechotam" is particularly striking, even difficult to decipher. While Rashi explains that this refers to the need to verify one's lineage as a sine qua non for inclusion in the census, and Ibn Ezra posits that it relates to establishing the age of prospective yozei tzava, other mefarshim perceive this intriguing expression as an important facet in the process of counting. The Ramban concludes that each object of the count had to introduce himself as "ani peloni ben peloni mi-mishpachat peloni etc."

However, the fact is that the actual census data focuses exclusively on the shevatim units, failing to register the smaller and more individualized units implied by these pesukim! Why does the Torah mandate a more individualized process if merely to produce a more general result?

Indeed, the enumeration of the leviyim that follows the general census provides a striking contrast. This process does identify and accentuate each distinctive family - Kehat, Merari, Gershon. The discrepancy per-se is eminently reasonable, as the functions and stature of the leviim was determined by each beit av, while it was the shevatim unit that defined the various characteristics and nachalah rights of the broader Klal Yisrael. However, the emphasis on family structure and the allusion even to individual names in the framework of the general census, is all the more puzzling given that these themes are seemingly ultimately irrelevant in this context.

The prominence of the nuclear and broader family units and of the individual even in this more general tribal project reflects the centrality, even the indispensability, of these themes in halachic life. The Torah's description as well as the actual process that ultimately produced the broader shevatim census figures conveys that absent singular personalities, individualistic contributions, and the cornerstone of the core family unit, there can be no meaningful larger cohesive structure. While numbers are sometimes useful and efficient in national and communal life, any broader count risks dehumanizing and objectifying human beings in a demeaning manner that is halachically objectionable. This is one of the reasons that the numbers were gathered by counting contributions rather than people and in the context of a donation that accentuated man's volitional and altruistic role as a subject, rather than as an object. The emphasis of individual names and family identity redeemed the use of numbers, ensuring the enumeration of subjects not objects.

Moreover, this singular and individualized approach to the national tribal census established that the very notion of "eidah", the embodiment of national Jewish life (see Rav Hirsch on this point), was not intended as a diluted consensus, or as a lowest common denominator, but as a galvanizing and inspiring vision that would recognize, be rooted in, and maximize individual avodat Hashem. The national eidah was to project more pervasively and passionately the shared commitments and common values of individuals and core units of family and religious life. Mechanisms of broad national aspirations that are rooted in names, subjects, and core identities are, indeed, worth counting.

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