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Parsha and Manuscript: Bamidbar - ‘Why the repeated counting of the Jewish people?'

Friday, 7 June, 2019 - 10:34 am

In the opening of the Book of Numbers it talks about the census of the Jewish people following the construction of the tabernacle:

 

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.

 

This is the third census that took place after the Exodus: The first is immediately after the Exodus:[1] ‘The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children.’

 

The second occurred after the sin of the golden calf, when many died:[2] The Levites did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day,’ followed by the verse:[3] ‘Then the Lord sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.’ The census that took place after the sin and its punishment is as stated in the verse:[4] When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.’ The total number of this census is summarized in the verse:[5] ‘A half-shekel a head, half a shekel by the sanctuary weight, for each one who was entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty men.’

 

The third census is in the opening of Numbers on the first of the month of Iyar in the second year of the Exodus and whose total number is six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty men, as it states:[6] ‘These are the numbers of the Israelites according to their fathers' houses. The total number of legions of the camps was six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty.’

 

A fourth census took place after the plague that befell Israel after sinning with the Midianites:[7]

 

It was after the plague, that the Lord spoke to Moses and to Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen, saying: Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel from twenty years old and upwards, following their fathers' houses, all that are fit to go out to war in Israel.

 

Why the need for repeated counting?

 

1. Endearment

 

Why the need for repeated counting? There are five reasons offered for the significance of the census. Rashi explains in his commentary on the third census[8] that the reason for the repeated counting of the Jewish people within a short time period was to show they were dear to Him:

 

Because they were dear to him, He counts them every now and then: when they went forth from Egypt He counted them (Exodus 12:37), when many of them fell in consequence of their having worshipped the golden calf He counted them to ascertain the number of those left (cf. Rashi Exodus 30:16); when he was about to make His Shechinah dwell over them (i. e. when He commanded them to make a Tabernacle), He again took their census; for on the first day of Nisan the Tabernacle was erected (Exodus 40:2) and shortly afterwards, on the first day of Iyar, He counted them.

 

Three parables in the Midrash are offered to demonstrate the endearment implied in the repeated counting:

 

A parable for the second counting is:[9]

 

The matter is comparable to the wolf who went into the midst of the flock. The owner of the flock was obliged to count them to know how many were missing.

 

A similar parable for the second counting is:[10]

 

A parable: To what may this be compared? To a flock that is dear to its owner upon which there fell pestilence. As soon as it ceased he said to the shepherd, “I beg of you, count my sheep and ascertain how many of them are left”. He did this to show that it the flock was dear to him.

 

A parable for the first, third and fourth counting is:

 

Another interpretation:[11] Why did he count them here? The matter is comparable to a shepherd to whom the householder has delivered a flock after numbering them. After he has fulfilled his guardianship, when he returns them, it is necessary for them to be numbered. Thus when Israel went out from Egypt the Holy One, blessed be He, delivered them to Moses after numbering them, as stated:[12] “Then the Lord spoke unto Moses in the Sinai desert, ‘Take a census.’” So also, when they went out, it is written:[13] “Then the Children of Israel traveled from Ramases to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot.” Therefore, he received them with a numbering. So when he was about to pass away in the Plains of Moab after completing his guardianship, he returned them with a numbering. It is therefore stated:[14] “Take a census.”

 

2. Importance

 

The Midrash Tanchuma[15] and Midrash Rabot[16] explain that the counting is connected with a sign of importance:

 

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census (lit. raise the head): ‘G–d said to Israel: "I have not liked any other creature more than you, that is why I have 'raised' your head high." I have made you similar to Me. Just as My "head" is high, as stated in Chronicles I 29,11: "so your head is high," as stated in Psalms 148,14: "He has exalted the horn of His people."

 

A parable of the idea of importance for the third counting is:[17]

 

The situation is comparable to a king who took his first wife and did not write her a marriage contract. He divorced her and did not give her a bill of divorce. He did the same for the second and for the third. In due time when he saw a certain poor orphan, a woman of noble ancestry, he wanted to marry her. He said to his shoshevin (i.e., to his best man), “I want to marry this one, and I shall not behave with her as with the previous ones. This is a woman of noble ancestry. She is modest in her actions and worthy. Write her a marriage contract stating in which week, in which year, in which month, on what day of the month, in which era.”

 

This is just as it is written in Esther:[18] “So Esther was taken unto King Ahasuerus, unto his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign.”

 

Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, created the generation of the flood and did not write down when He created them. He removed them from the world and did not write down when He removed them. It is simply stated:[19] “on that day all the springs of the great abyss burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened.” And it was similar for the generation of the dispersion;[20] similar for the sodomites; and similar for the Egyptians. However, when Israel arose, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, “I will not behave with these as with those previous ones, as these are descendants from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

 

Therefore it is written in which month, on what day of the month, in which year, in which era, in which province I raised up their horn and gave them a head held high.” It is therefore stated:[21] “Then the Lord spoke unto Moses in the Sinai desert,” i.e., the province; “in the tent of meeting,” i.e., the metropolis; “on the first day of the month,” i.e., the day; “in the second year,” i.e., the year. In which month? (Ibid., cont.) “In the second month.” “After their Exodus from the land of Egypt,” i.e., the era.

 

3. Relevance

 

Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horovitz (1565-1630) explains that this book is called the book of those who have been numbered, because of the census the people of Israel underwent. This count caused[22] that the Jewish people will never become irrelevant. This is based on the discussion in the Talmud:[23] Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish disagree concerning whether articles which are normally sold by the piece, i.e. by being numbered, can ever lose their identity sufficiently to become assimilated by a mixture many times their size. Rabbi Yochanan holds that only items that are always sold by number cannot be assimilated. The fact that they are only sold by number gives them an importance that can never be lost. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish extends this rule even to items that are occasionally, sold by number. According to both sages, the idea of counting bestows relevance that prevents it from assimilation in a greater number.

 

4. Resting of the Divine presence

 

Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horovitz further explains that the purpose of the counting according to the sages was to ensure that the Divine Presence would take up permanent residence amongst the Jewish people. This is drawn also from the Rashi commentary: ‘when he was about to make His Shechinah dwell over them, He again took their census.’[24]

 

5. Core of Jewish identity – Nekudat Hayahadut

 

The idea of counting the Jewish people reflects their very being whereby everyone is equal. By counting them it brings this core connection that a Jewish person has with G-d to the fore.[25]

 

Three countings

 

While the reason of endearment, importance and relevance explains a reason for the counting, they don’t seem to explain a reason for the repeated counting. The final two reasons – the resting of the Divine presence, as mentioned in Rashi, and the expression of identity that comes to the fore through counting, offers a reason into the repeated counting as these concepts have numerous degrees, functions and aspects.

 

Holiness

 

The idea of holiness is expressed in the Torah in three terms: And you shall be a treasure from all the nations;[26] You shall be a kingdom of priests;[27] and you shall be a holy nation.[28] These three ideas are three degrees in the concept of holiness: the first is the negation of being similar to the other nations; the second is being selected in the service of G-d; the third reflects a higher degree of holiness, similar to the high priesthood who served in the holy of holies in the Temple.[29]

 

Similarly, the expression of the resting of the Divine presence on Israel had three degrees: At the Exodus, a transcendent revelation took place that nurtured a great belief in G-d. This however was limited as they served afterwards the golden calf. This revelation at the exodus is reflected in the first counting of the Jewish people. A second counting took place after the sin of the golden calf and their repentance whereby they became virtuous and transformed prepared for a greater resting of the Divine presence. This is indicated in the second counting that took place after Yom Kippur when Moses descended the mountain with the second tablets and commanded the Jewish people to build a sanctuary so that G-d can reside in their midst. This counting however remained also a transcendent revelation. The third counting that took place after the contraction of the tabernacle reflecting the Jewish people as prepared for G-d to rest not just in a transcendent manner but to rest as promised when they were commanded to build the tabernacle that G-d would rest in their midst.

 

Resting within each person

 

This notion of G-d resting in the midst of the Jewish people has added meaning in light of the interpretation of the verse: Build for me a sanctuary so that I will dwell amongst you – refers to in dwelling of G-d within the person’s heart.[30]

 

Based on the above we can understand the idea of the repeated counting of the Jewish people, reflecting the stages in their spiritual development, the maturing of the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d and the corresponding degrees of the resting of the Divine presence, from resting over them to resting in their midst.

 

Oxford manuscripts: Over or in their midst?

 

We would like to propose that the above understanding in the underlying reason for the repeated counting of the Jewish people gives insight in a minor variation in the Hebrew manuscript compared to the printed edition of Rashi’s commentary on the first verse in Numbers pertaining to the third counting of the Jewish that took place after the construction of the tabernacle.

 

In the Rashi commentary, in the printed version, it says regarding the third counting: ‘When he was about to make His Shechinah Divine presence dwell over them (i. e. when He commanded them to make a Tabernacle), He again took their census.’ Why does the Rashi text say ‘over them’ and not ‘amongst them’? In Exodus when G-d commanded to build the sanctuary it states:[31] ‘And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them.’

 

It is true that when the tabernacle had been constructed and the Divine presence rested it uses the term ‘over’ them:[32] ‘And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.’ In addition, further in Leviticus, on the eighth day of the inauguration of the tabernacle, it states:[33] ‘And Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting. Then they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.’ Rashi comments on this verse: ‘Then they came out and blessed the people: They said:[34] “May the pleasantness of the Lord, our G-d, be upon us; May it be G-d’s will that the Shechinah rest in the work of your hands.”’ 

 

Based on the above, saying the Divine presence rests ‘over them’ or ‘in their midst’ are interchangeable and refers to the same episode when the Divine presence rested upon the constriction of the tabernacle. However, one may ask the question: firstly, since the initial verse in Exodus: ‘Build for me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them,’ the word used is ‘amongst them’ why does it change in this commentary of Rashi to ‘over them?’ Secondly, in all the Hebrew manuscripts that may be found in Oxford’s Bodleian Library the words used in the Rashi text is ‘in their midst,’ while in the printed edition it states ‘over’ them. The manuscripts that has this variation include: MS. Oppenheim 34, fol. 77 (1201-1225); MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396) fol. 127; MS. Michael 384 (1399), fol. 95; MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-25), fol. 156; and MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408) fol. 75. Conversely, due to the overwhelming use of the term ‘amongst them’ in the manuscripts is there a possible particular reason why it is indeed the correct version?

 

We would like to offer the following observation following the analysis above regarding the reasons for the repeated counting of the Jewish people. If they are all merely signs of endearment that is repeated at different stages in the lives of the Jewish people while shepherded by Moses from the Exodus until his passing, there is no fundamental difference between one counting and another. If one however views the repeated counting as reflection of the spiritual development of the Jewish people in the dessert and the third counting reflects a completeness of the transformation of the Jewish people in all aspects of their being in connection with their core identity as a holy nation, the degree of the resting of the Divine would reflect this. This would be manifest most aptly with the use of the word that reflects that the Divine presence indeed rested not merely above and upon them but in the midst of the Jewish people collectively and individually, impacting all aspects of their being in the making of the Jewish people a holy nation.[35]

 

 

 


 

[1] Exodus 12:37.

[2] Exodus 32:28.

[3] Exodus 32:35.

[4] Exodus 30:12.

[5] Exodus 38:26.

[6] Numbers 2:32.

[7] Numbers 26:1-2.

[8] Numbers 1:1.

[9] Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 4.

[10] Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 9.

[11] Numbers 26:2.

[12] Numbers 1:1-2.

[13] Exodus 12:37.

[14] Numbers 26:2.

[15] Midrash Tanchuma, Bamidbar 5.

[16]Bamidbar Rabbah 1,9, on Numbers 1:1.

[17] Midrash Tanchuma, Bamidbar 5.

[18] Esther 2:16.

[19] Genesis 7:11.

[20] Genesis 10:1-9.

[21] Numbers 1:1.

[22] Rashba on Yevamot 81b; Tzafnat Paneach beginning of Machalei Asurim questions when the counting endows or signifies purity.

[23] Talmud Betzah 3b.

[24] Numbers 1:1.

[25] Likkutei Sichot vol. 8, Bamidbar.

[26] Exodus 19:5.

[27] Exodus 19:6.

[28] Exodus 19:6.

[29] Likkutei Sichot vol. 18, p. 25.

[30] Maamar Bati LeGani ch. 1.

[31] Exodus 25:8.

[32] Exodus 40:34-35.

[33] Leviticus 9:23.

[34] Psalms 90.

[35] This analysis may also explain why the third counting of the Jewish people took place on the first of the month of Iyar, a whole month after the constriction of the tabernacle and the resting of the Divine presence that took place on the first day of the month of Nissan: ‘On the day of the first month, on the first of the month, you shall set up the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting.’ It further states: ‘It came to pass in the first month, in the second year, on the first day of the month, that the Mishkan was set up.’ One answer is offered by Rabbi Shabbethai Bass (1641–1718) in Sifsei Chachamim, based on the laws of oaths, (Bava Basra 8a): If one prohibits oneself from benefiting from the residents of a town, he is permitted to benefit from people who have not lived there for thirty days because they are not considered established there. Similarly, G-d did not count them until the Divine Presence had been established for thirty days. According to the idea of degrees in the resting of the Divine in response to the spiritual development of the Jewish people in their connection with G-d, the month of Nissan as the month of the Exodus represents the elementary level – the birth of the Jewish people, while the second month of Iyar is aptly associated with self development moving beyond core belief to a more integrated connection with G-d, thus suitable for the third counting to take place at the beginning of that month. (Likkutei Sichot vol. 8)

 

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