Monday, November 4, 2019

Counting on You?

Every nation seeks to know how many citizens it has, which can also inform the nation of the quantitative strength of its armed forces. In democratic countries, counting the nation also impacts on elections, and determines congressional jurisdictions in representative democracies such as the United States.

Israel conducted its first census on the 6th of Cheshvan, 1948. It found that 712,000 Jews and 68,000 Arabs lived within its boundaries.

Yet, Jewish tradition hesitates to count individuals. This reluctance has Scriptural origins, and in ancient times, conducting a direct census was avoided. Instead, all adult male Jews donated half a shekel annually, which was a back-handed way of counting the Israelite people (Exodus 30:12). The Torah warns not to count directly, “so that there be no plague among them…”

The Talmud (Yoma 22b) cites Rabbi Yitzchak’s assertion that counting Jews is forbidden. Rabbi Yitzchak learns this from a story regarding King Saul (Samuel I 11:8). Saul needed to know how many soldiers were in his army prior to a battle against Nachash the Edomite. Rabbi Yitzchak understands that each soldier presented a shard of pottery, so the pieces of earthenware were counted, rather than heads. Another source (ibid. 15:4) describes how each soldier brought a lamb to be enumerated. Maimonides (Laws of Daily and Additional Offerings 4:4) also prohibits counting Jews directly. The Talmud (Berachot 62b) notes that even school children are aware of this prohibition.

During the State of Israel’s 1972 census, rabbinic sages weighed in on the propriety of a census in a Jewish state. Rabbi Yechiel Y. Weinberg did not find any prohibition in a national tally, but another leading expert on Jewish law, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg found the census problematic. While Rabbi Isser Yehudah Unterman, Israel’s Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi in 1972, permitted participation in the census, the leadership of the Hareidi community forbade participation. Rabbi Weinberg argued that the names on the census form’s lines were being enumerated, not the people. He also felt that conducting a census fell under the rubric of national security, which takes precedence over almost everything else in Jewish law. Rabbi Weinberg also cited an opinion of Gersonides, which claims that after the original half-shekel donation, all subsequent national counts took place by counting names, not heads. In the Biblical book of Numbers (1:2 and 26:53) the text explicitly states, “according to the number of names.” Other sages suggested that the subsequent censuses were conducted with slips of paper (Rabbi Naftali Z.Y. Berlin, citing Arizal.)

In the 1983 Israeli census, as an accommodation to the objectors, the government removed the box on the census form which asked for the total number of people in the household. They also instituted that machines would conduct the count, not people.

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