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What the Talmud Would Say About the Pew Survey of American Jews: Stop Counting

An ancient principle of Judaism, debated at length in the Oral Law, is that it is a sin to count Jews—or is it?

Adam Kirsch
December 10, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

It doesn’t take any particular news event to make Jews start worrying about the future of Judaism. But this fall, the release of the Pew survey “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” with its findings about high rates of assimilation and intermarriage, added some fuel to the fire. As community leaders debated what to do about the problem—if it is, in fact, a problem—one suggestion was conspicuous by its absence: No one proposed that we simply stop doing censuses of Jews.

Yet this would be the most Jewish solution of all, since an ancient principle of Judaism is that it is a sin to count Jews. God says as much in Exodus 30, when he instructs Moses that if he counts the Israelites directly, a plague will fall on them. Instead, the census is to be taken indirectly: Each adult over the age of 20 is to contribute a half-shekel coin, and then the coins are to be counted. This precaution is ignored by King David, in II Samuel 24, when he impetuously conducts a census of his kingdom; and as promised, he is punished by God with three days of pestilence.

Still, there are occasions when counting simply has to be done. One of them came up in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, which centered on Chapter Two of Tractate Yoma. The ostensible subject of the tractate is the Temple service on Yom Kippur, but this chapter served as a long digression, as the rabbis turned from the holy day to describe the way services were conducted on ordinary days. The Temple schedule included a long list of rituals, each of which had to be performed by a priest who was ritually pure and dressed in special garments. But how did the Temple authorities decide which priest was to perform which task on any given day?

The answer is that they performed lotteries, choosing priests at random from among the “watch”—the priestly family—that was on duty that day. The priests, we read in Yoma 25a, would gather in a large basilica on the Temple grounds called the Chamber of Hewn Stone and stand in a formation “in the shape of a bekholyar.” As the notes to the Steinsaltz Talmud explain, this word could be interpreted as meaning “bracelet”—in which case the priests would stand in a circle—or it could come from a Greek word meaning a spiral-shaped snail shell—in which case they stood in a spiral. In any case, the priests would be counted, and whoever had the chosen lottery number would be selected for duty.

Obviously, however, this procedure involves counting Jews. And according to Rabbi Yitzchak, in Yoma 22b, “It is prohibited to count Jews, even for the purposes of a mitzvah.” The rabbis go on to discuss the scriptural basis for this prohibition, mentioning the plague that befell King David. Rabbi Elazar adds that a census also violates a negative commandment, which can be deduced from a line in the Book of Hosea: “And the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured.” To measure them is to defy this prophecy.

King Saul, the rabbis point out, got around this obstacle by measuring his soldiers “by sheep”: Each man would add a sheep to the flock, and then the flock would be counted. The priests in the Temple didn’t use sheep—though they probably could have, given how many sacrificial animals they had at their disposal—so instead, they counted fingers. The priests participating in the lottery would stick out their fingers, and the one conducting the lottery would count them off that way.

This might satisfy the average reader’s curiosity about how the lottery was conducted. But the pathos of the rabbis’ discussion of the Temple is that their curiosity is unlimited: Every scrap of information they can remember, deduce, or even just hypothesize is precious to them. The Temple was God’s house, the place where Jews once communed directly with God in a way that they no longer can, and the rabbis will not be satisfied until they can reconstruct it completely in their imaginations. So, the question inevitably arises: How many fingers did the priests stick out?

Unsurprisingly, there are several opinions about this. One source says that they could extend either one finger or two, though a priest who used two fingers would still only be counted once. Another source, however, says that only one finger was permitted. How can these statements be reconciled? “This is not difficult,” Rav Chisda says, using the Talmud’s formula for explaining away something that is difficult. A healthy person would use one finger, but a sick person was allowed to use two—on the principle that, if you are in a weakened state, your fine motor skills are affected, making it easier to stick out two fingers than one.

The thumb, however, was strictly forbidden in the lottery. That is because sticking out your thumb might trick the counter into counting you twice, allowing you to game the system. For this reason, the authorities were very strict about thumbs: Anyone who used one in the lottery was lashed with a whip. The very fact that such a rule was necessary, however, suggests that priests were extremely eager to be awarded Temple duties. These were a source of prestige and, in one case at least, even of wealth. Tradition had it that the priest who burned the incense would become rich, in keeping with the commandment in Deuteronomy: “They shall put incense before You … Bless, O Lord, his substance.” As a result, the job of burning incense was in such high demand that no priest was allowed to perform it twice.

The lottery itself, we learn at the beginning of Chapter 2, was instituted precisely because the rivalry among priests for the best jobs had gotten out of hand. Before the lottery system began, the mishna explains, the job of removing ashes from the altar was awarded by means of a foot-race. Unlikely as it sounds, the priests would race each other up the ramp to the altar, and whoever got there first would get to remove the ashes. This doesn’t sound exactly dignified, and the Steinsaltz Talmud’s notes explain that many commentators have been troubled by this description. Some have suggested that maybe this race was run with very small steps, to minimize the indignity, though this scenario sounds even more undignified.

On one occasion, however, the race to the altar turned ugly, when one of the priests shoved another and caused him to fall and break his leg. That, at least, is what we read in Yoma 22a. In 23a, however, an even worse story is related. In this version, the loser in a race took a knife and stabbed the winning priest in the heart. The rabbis debate whether this incident and the shoving incident both took place and if so, which happened first.

But it is the final detail in the stabbing story that raises the most interesting moral question. Apparently, while the stabbed priest lay on the ground “convulsing,” with the knife still in his chest, his father came forward and urged that the knife be removed, even though this would hasten his son’s death. That is because contact with a corpse would render the knife ritually impure, so that it couldn’t be used in future Temple ceremonies. If it came out while the priest was still dying, however, it would remain pure, tahor.

The rabbis of the Gemara are clearly as troubled by this story as the contemporary reader is likely to be. On the one hand, it can be read as a parable of the Jews’ extreme dedication to their laws: A father was willing to sacrifice his son to maintain the Temple’s purity. This makes him sound almost like a patriarch out of Roman legend—like the Horatius who killed his sister rather than allow her to mourn for a slain enemy. But the rabbis flinch at this elevation of ritual purity above life itself, concluding that it shows that, at this time in Jewish history, “bloodshed had become trivialized.” The purity of the Temple utensils was important, the rabbis grant, but not as important as a human life.


To listen to a Vox Tablet conversation with literary critic Adam Kirsch about his Daf Yomi study, click here

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.