Ever hear someone count out loud in the negatives: “Not one, not two, not three…” It may seem, strange, but in many traditional Jewish communities this is a common method for counting the number of people present. Counting in this seemingly awkward manner avoids the prohibition of conducting a census of individual Jewish people.

Rabbi Eleazar said: Whosoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition, as it is said (Hosea 22:1): ‘Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured’” (Talmud Yoma 22b). Despite the verse, throughout the rest of the Torah there are a number of references to Divinely ordained censuses of the Children of Israel. The most well-known census, and the most informative of proper process, is that of the half-shekel (Exodus 30:11 – 16), when every male above the age of twenty each gave identical half-shekel donations which were then counted in order to know the number of Israelites. Additionally, any type of census can only be done for a valid reason, such as counting those of age suitable for service in the army (Numbers 1:2-4).

Counting individuals singles them out, and numbering people focuses attention on them. The Medieval commentator Rashi explains that “ayin harah (literally the evil eye link) has power over numbered things” (on Exodus 30:12), which is an expression of a fear of consequences in the higher worlds because of undo attention. The custom, therefore, is to try to avoid spotlighting individuals whether counting them as a nation or even counting to achieve the requisite quorum for prayers.

Sometimes, however, it is necessary to count a group of Jews. Most frequently, this is true when trying to assess whether one has a complete minyan (quorum of ten) to allow communal prayers to take place. A common method for counting a minyan is to recite a Torah verse of ten words (often Psalms 28:9: “Hoshee’ah et am’echa u’varech et nachalatecha ur’em venas’em ad ha’olam/Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever–associating each of the ten words with a person.

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one’s local rabbi for practical application.

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