There is a little know prohibition and although there is a dispute about its origin, all sources from the time of the Talmud onward agree that it is forbidden to count Jews. Some find the source in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion when Moses is instructed to collect a half shekel coin from each person. Counting coins rather than individual heads was how the counting had to be done. A plague occurred in the time of King David because he mistakenly thought it was permissible to count the Jewish population; he thought it was only prohibited in the time of Moses. Even in present times, one can still see the application of this in shul when people are waiting for the required quorum of ten to arrive so that they can begin the minyan. Instead of counting individuals (one, two, three…), clothing worn by the attendees (one jacket, two jackets, three jackets…) is counted. Some find a precedent for this procedure dating back to the time of King Saul (the first Jewish King) when he “summoned the people and numbered them by lambs.” (I Samuel 15:4); each person took a lamb and they counted the lambs. (The fascinating topic of how the census is taken in modern Israel every ten years is too vast to be dealt with here.) Why is counting considered to be a severe wrongdoing? Why should G-d care if we count a few people or even an entire population?
Rashi explains that one should not count individual people because it can lead to ayin hara—“the evil eye.” This concept is explained by Rabbeinu Bachya (1255-1340) in his monumental commentary on the Torah. Divine Providence may extend to a person in his or her capacity as an individual or as a member of a group. When Providence is directed toward a group, even an undeserving individual may receive benefits since his or her judgement is with regard to the preservation and wellbeing of the group as a whole. However, when Providence is directed toward an individual only, his or her personal actions and merits are considered in determining whether (s)he is to be deemed worthy of Divine protection. When individuals are counted, explains Rabbeinu Bachya, it has the effect of singling out the individual counted in this manner for particular scrutiny. If (s)he lacks sufficient merit, (s)he may be punished for misdeeds which might have escaped scrutiny had (s)he been part of a group. Therefore, calamity strikes individuals more severely specifically because they have been separated from the community.
The reason why community is such an integral aspect of Jewish identity is because our relationship to G-d and the Torah is only through community. The Torah was not given to individuals; nor were the covenants made with individuals. Our relationship to G-d and Torah is as members of the Jewish community. Maimonides goes so far as to find an application in Halacha, Jewish law. He classifies a heretic as one who keeps all the mitzvot but separates himself from the Jewish people (Teshuva 3:24). Without a link to the community, there cannot be an authentic link to G-d and Torah.
This also has practical application for us at High Holiday season. Although each individual must be concerned with his or her own personal judgment on Rosh Hashanah, we observe the days of Rosh Hashanah not as individuals but as a community; we dress up and eat as a sign of confidence that G-d will exonerate us as members of the community. The Ten Days of Repentance, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are days for intensifying our link to the community. For that reason, every individual during that period has the same assurance that his or her individual entreaties to G-d as long as (s)he is part of the community. During those days, the individual and the community become one.
Elisha the prophet offered to pray for the childless Shunamite woman, who had been extremely kind to him, on Rosh Hashanah. But she responded, “I dwell amongst my nation.” She did not want to be singled out because she knew that being included in the community is greater even than the prayer of G-d’s chosen prophet.”
Every week on Shabbat, a special-mi-shabayroch-prayer is made for people who need to recover from an illness. This beautiful ancient prayer has a place to insert the person’s Hebrew name and concludes “among the other sick people of Israel.” The loved one for whom we pray needs the merits of the community and that is why we include him or her as part of it.
The next time you are asked to participate in something concerning your community, think about the idea of not separating oneself and how far reaching this concept is in that it is even forbidden to count Jews because that too would be a separation. Wherever you choose to daven (pray), when you are asked to be part of the minyan, help out in communal needs, participate in communal acts of kindness, or just be there for people, make sure your answer is a confident, “you can count on me.”
(Sources: (II Samuel 24; I Chronicles 21; Rabbi J. David Bleich in Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Number VIII, Fall 1984/ Succot 5745; II Kings 4:13; Rav Zev Leff in Outlooks and Insights, Parshat Nitzavim)