Avoiding the Head Count

July 22, 2012

4 min read


Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )

In the middle of his rebuke of the Jewish nation, Moshe blessed them that God should increase their population 1000-fold (Deut. 1:11). The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 1:11) cryptically comments that our verse is what King David had in mind when he wrote (Psalms 5:8) "And I (David), through Your tremendous kindness, will come into Your House, and I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You" - a verse which has no apparent connection to Moshe's blessing. What is the meaning of this Midrash?

Rabbi Elyakim Devorkes notes that the Talmud (Yoma 22b) rules that it is forbidden to count the Jewish people, even for the purpose of performing a mitzvah, since doing so could make them subject to an ayin hara (evil eye) which may reduce their numbers. Although one may not perform a head-count of Jews, it is permitted to count them via proxy, as was done in the desert when the census was taken by counting the half-shekels contributed by each person (Exodus 30:12-14).

Before beginning the daily prayer services, one often must look around the room to make sure that a minyan of ten is present. However, it is forbidden to do so by counting the individual people present (Pri Chodosh - Orach Chaim 55). Instead, it has become customary to choose a verse which has ten words and to recite one word of the verse when acknowledging each person present in the room (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 15:3). If one is able to finish the entire verse, this is an indication that the required quorum is present. One such example of a verse with ten words is the aforementioned verse in Psalms which is quoted by the Midrash.

Rabbi Devorkes explains that when Moshe blessed the Jewish people that they should become numerous, the Midrash questioned how this blessing can be fulfilled. Since Jews are required to pray with a minyan, one who performs a head-count to see if the required ten men are present will inadvertently invite an ayin hara to strike the people and reduce their numbers, thereby nullifying Moshe's blessing. The Midrash resolves this dilemma by answering that instead of counting the individual Jews present, one may count them using the words of the verse in Tehillim, which will spare them from the threat of the ayin hara and allow Moshe's blessing to come to fruition.

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Even in his youth, the great Rabbi Yonason Eibeshutz was known for his remarkable diligence in his studies. While his peers idly passed their free time playing games and acting their ages, Rav Yonason utilized every spare moment for the study of Torah. Somebody once asked him about his behavior, questioning whether he wouldn't be happier if he spent at least a portion of his free time engaged in more age-appropriate extracurricular activities.

Rav Yonason, demonstrating the sharp mind for which he later became world-renowned, explained his conduct based on in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 7b). One opinion in the Talmud cites the verse Deut. 1:16 as the source of the law that a judge may not listen to the claims of one of the litigants if the other party isn't present to challenge his arguments. This is hinted to by the words "you shall listen between your brothers" - which teaches that a judge may only listen to the accusations of one party if the other is present.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91b) teaches that a person receives his yetzer hara (propensity toward materialism) at birth, whereas his yetzer tov (propensity toward spirituality) doesn't enter him until his Bar Mitzvah, at which point he is held accountable for his actions. Even a person who never becomes a judge in a Jewish court still serves as a judge every moment of his life, as he must constantly listen to the arguments of the two "litigants" inside of him - his yetzer hara and his yetzer tov - and sort them out to reach a judgment about the proper course of action to choose.

"While closing my books to indulge in the hobbies and games enjoyed by the other boys may seem quite tempting," concluded the wise-beyond-his-years Rav Yonason, "this is the opinion of only one of the litigants - my yetzer hara. As a judge, I am forbidden to listen to his claims until my Bar Mitzvah, at which time the other party will be able to present its counter-claims, and I will be able to reach a judgment regarding the proper course of action. However, until that time, the 'law' gives me no choice but to ignore him and diligently continue with my Torah studies."

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The Talmud (Sofrim 1:7) relates that the day King Ptolemy ordered five of the Jewish elders to translate the Torah into Greek was as painful and difficult for the Jews as the day on which they sinned with the Golden Calf. In what way was this worse than Moshe's translation of the Torah into all 70 languages (Rashi 1:5), which presumably includes Greek?

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (HaK'sav V'HaKabbalah) posits that Moshe didn't translate the Torah into 70 languages, as one of the merits through which the Jews were redeemed from Egypt was that they preserved their language, so it would serve no purpose for Moshe to render the Torah into foreign languages. Rather, Rashi means that Moshe related to the Jewish people all of the "Shivim panim l'Torah" - 70 levels on which each word of the Torah can be understood.

Alternatively, Rabbi Yonason Eibeshutz and Rabbi Shmaryahu Arieli explain that even if Moshe did translate the Torah into 70 languages, he was on a level at which he understood the inner depths and nuances of every word and was therefore able to do so with total accuracy. The elders in the times of Kin Ptolemy, great as they were, were not able to do so, and because their translation was imperfect and led to mistaken interpretations of the Torah, it is viewed as a tragic day in Jewish history.

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