Counting and Remaining Uncounted

This week’s Dvar Torah is by Aliza Libman Baronofsky

Our sages called Sefer Bemdibar “Chumash HaP’kudim” because of the censuses that bookend the book, right at the start of Sefer Bemidbar and then again in Parshat Pinchas, after the sin at Ba’al Peor. If you’re old enough to remember real bookends, you know that if you put a whole pile of books outside the bookend – analogous to the placement of this week’s parsha outside the ‘closing bookend’ in Parshat Pinchas – your last few books will fall off the shelf.

It is not my objective to look at every section in these two parshiyot, either to attempt to artificially ‘cram’ them in or to explain why they remain out. However, thematically there is much in Matot that we can see as a natural progression from Pinchas, as well as a natural conclusion to Parshat – and indeed, Sefer – Bemidbar.

Let us begin with the well-known fact that we have a prohibition (dislike?) against counting Jews, which stems from the opening lines of Shmot 30:11-12:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַה’ בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם׃

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

“When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” (Translations from Sefaria unless otherwise indicated.)

It is acknowledged that sometimes we need to count the people, such as when determining how many warriors we have going out to battle (in early Bemidbar) or to determine how many are left after a plague (such as in Parshat Pinchas, after the plague of Ba’al Peor.) It is also clear that last week’s parsha’s census is tied to apportioning of the land.

This week, we tie up loose ends by exacting vengeance on Midian for their role in the sin of Ba’al Pe’or, as described in Bemidbar (Numbers) 31:25-54. The Jews are told to select 1,000 soldiers from each tribe to battle Midian, a total of 12,000. After a decisive victory, we get an extensive list of the spoils and booty the Jews were allowed to keep, presuming they divided it 50-50 between the warriors and those who stayed behind.

Here, an extraordinary number of verses are devoted to enumerating:

  • how many total of each type of spoils the Jews acquired;
  • what number corresponds to the 50% of each type that went to the warriors;
  • the number that was given to God via Elazar HaKohen, called “מֶּ֥כֶס” – a tax levy or duty. (Elazar is generally understood to be taking this share for the Kohanim overall as a result of their service. The overall amount was 1/500 of the warriors’ share or 0.1% of the original total.)

Finally, the exact same numbers are listed again to enumerate the 50% given to the remaining Israelites, of which 1/50 is given to the Leviim. (Interestingly, we are not given the exact numbers for the Levi’im but are told their share as a fraction.)

After the spoils are divided up, the officers of the warriors come forward and give as tribute all of the gold jewelry they had taken as their personal booty (which was apparently allowed). They state:

(מט) וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה עֲבָדֶ֣יךָ נָֽשְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּיָדֵ֑נוּ וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אִֽישׁ

(49) They said to Moses, “Your servants have made a check of the warriors in our charge, and not one of us is missing (נִפְקַ֥ד).

The word נִפְקַ֥ד has to be translated a little oddly here, as missing, which Rashi takes the lead on stating and virtually everyone seems to agree. The use of the root פ.ק.ד, which sometimes means ‘to count’ reminds us of the censuses. After all, they must be counted (the more common נ.ש.א. here) in order to determine if any are missing.

Of course, we must ask: Why might anyone be missing? What is the implication here?

Before we proceed with this specific question, we must first address the more obvious omnisignificance in the room: Why do we need all these verses at all? At least in the eyes of the more traditional, midrashic commentaries, every verse needs to be justified. This text section gets 20+ psukim with numbers of sheep and types of gold jewelry.

In a traditional take on the Gemara in Shabbat 64, Chizkuni writes that the warrior officers were concerned about having been counted: They therefore stated:

(א) ונקרב את קרבן ה’, לכפר על נפשתינו שנדרנו מלפני החשבון שנמנינו כדי שלא ישלוט בנו נגף ולכך הביאונוהו אל אהל מועד. וכן מצינו ולקחת את כסף הכפורים ונתת אותו על עבודת אהל מועד.  

“We had made this commitment already before having been counted in order to protect us against the potential harm that might befall us on account of the count.  This is why we have now brought it to the Tabernacle.”

To forestall a potential epidemic, they vowed before they left to give from the spoils to Hashem. Chizkuni continues by citing the source for this as Shmot 30:16, our original source about not counting Jews, where “כסף הכפורים” or atonement money is given as a result of the census.

According to tradition, the count is not apparently sinful in and of itself; instead, counting the Jews exposes their sins.

Chizkuni writes regarding v. 49:

ורבותינו אמרו לא נפקד ממנו לדבר עבירה.

Our sages therefore do not understand the word נפקד here in the conventional sense, but they translate it to mean that none of the 12000 soldiers in this campaign had become guilty of a personal sin, which might have resulted in Satan having an excuse to kill him.”

Chizkuni says that being counted could have lead to a plague, but the phrase “ולא נפקד ממנו איש” means that no individual of the 12,000 men (or perhaps their officers) had a personal sin that would increase the likelihood he would die in battle.

Chizkuni here refers back to Rashi and the same Gemara in Shabbat when he says that these officers, who did not sin, are nonetheless atoning from having been tempted to sin. The classical interpretation of these verses, then, is that the donation of these officers is a rare example of leadership gone right in Sefer Bemidbar – leaders confronted with a bad choice who made a good one, which becomes a significant positive part of a story (Ba’al Pe’or) whose ending could have been much worse.

Rashi does something very characteristic on these verses: he lists the words that describe the gold items donated and explains which types of jewelry were included in the list. He notes that the final one is an item in the shape of a uterus to atone for the same sin – the unfulfilled desire the warriors felt for the women of Midian.

אצעדה. אֵלּוּ צְמִידִים שֶׁל רֶגֶל: (ב) וצמיד. שֶׁל יָד: (ג) עגיל. נִזְמֵי אֹזֶן: (ד) וכומז. דְּפוּס שֶׁל בֵּית הָרֶחֶם, לְכַפֵּר הִרְהוּר הַלֵּב שֶׁל בְּנוֹת מִדְיָן (שבת ס”ד):

We expect something like this from Rashi because he likes to take apart lists and give every item on the list additional meaning or detail (see, for example, his commentary on the first few verses of Sefer Devarim.). However, though this type of commentary is characteristic of Rashi, it does make a careful reader aware that he is focusing on the detail in these few verses without saying much about the detail in the lists of spoils.

A more ‘plain text’ approach to the phrase “וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אִֽישׁ” is given by Nachmanides, who writes

הנה השם עשה תשועה גדולה על ידינו שלא מת במלחמה אחד מכל אנשי הצבא אשר בידינו

Behold, Hashem made through us a great salvation that no one from all of our army died in the war. (Translation mine)

When Nachmanides says no one died, he’s continuing a theme he has built in many places. What do we think about the possibility that there were no casualties? While this seems unlikely, it is nonetheless a possible outcome if the Midianites were truly outmatched, says Rabbi Michael Hattin. (See Part 2 of this shiur from Similarly, Rashbam writes that the real miracle was that no one died of a plague (presumably of the type that were common among encamped soldiers lacking a modern understanding of germ theory.)

Nachmanides’ take on the ‘too much detail question’ is along the same lines as his later commentary (on 31:49):

הוצרך הכתוב לפרט הזה להזכיר כמה המחצה וכמה המכס להודיע כי מיום שלקחו המלקוח עד שמנו אותו וחצו אותו והפרישו ממנו המכס ונתנו לאלעזר הכהן לא מת מכל המקנה הגדול הזה אחד וכן במחצת העדה ללויים וזה נס:  

The Torah needed to include this much detail, noting how much was each half, to let us know that from the day they took the spoils, through the time they counted it and divided it in half, separated the ‘duty’ share and gave it to Elazar the Cohen, not one animal of this great amount died. Also, when the nation divided it up and gave their share to the Leviim [none died either] – which was a miracle. (31:36, translation mine)

This position of Nachmanides here in 31:36 foreshadows the officers later: just as not one of the officers died, so too, none of the animals died. This commentary is similar to Nachmanides’ commentary in 2:4, where he says that the two censuses (In Shmot 30 and Bemidbar 2) have the same count because no one died. We can tell he’s reading ahead to our text at that time because he uses the phrase “לא נפקד מהם איש”, reminiscent of verse 49’s “וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אִֽישׁ׃”. (Indeed, our text is the only place in Tanach where the phrase “וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד … אִֽישׁ׃” is used, but all kinds of commentaries pick it up later (Rashi, Radak, Metzudat David and others) and use it to mean ‘not one is missing.’)

So now we have a war where no soldier sinned and an aftermath where no sheep died. These might be pretty extraordinary miracles. I said earlier that we are perhaps commending the leaders for finishing the terrible story of Ba’al Pe’or off well, with retribution to those who scorned the will of God and a taking of responsibility by the new tribal leaders. The idea that not one died – neither soldier nor animal – can also be showing God’s total forgiveness – no remnant of the sin remains.

However, we might also be hesitant to see these as out-of-the-ordinary miracles (after all, Sihon and Og were more mighty and we defeated them, too.) Other commentaries explore alternate avenues.

The Ohr Hachaim accepts Ramban’s question, writing, “למה האריך כל כך בפרטי החשבון בדבר שיכול כל הבא למנות לידע ”, hilariously translated by Rav Eliyahu Munk as “Who amongst us cannot figure out what half of a total of 675,000 sheep amounts to?” Ohr Hachaim does not consider it to be miraculous that no animal died, in a time span he calls “מועט” – brief – but when he says “ומה גם שיצטרך הכתוב לכתוב כל הדברים בשבילו” – that this so-called ‘miracle’ would not be significant enough to make it worth recording in great detail in the Torah, he sets a high bar for his own answer!

Instead, he says

לא שהיה מונה חמש מאות ונותן אחד לה’ מפאת המכס אלא מונה תצ”ט ונותן אחד

(2) I believe that the reason that the Torah tells us what half the total of these flocks amounted to was to teach us that the calculation of the tax was based on the 500th animal being the tax rather than the 501st. This is the reason the Torah had to repeat this calculation in each instance. In other words, the tax amounted to one in 499 and not as we might have thought one in 500.

Ohr Hachaim says the Torah wants to make sure we don’t think it is a ratio of 1:500, where the 1 given to the duty is not from among the 500. By listing that 675 sheep went to Elazar for the duty, etc., we see that it is the fraction 1/500 (or 1:499). We math types would call this part-to-part as opposed to part-to-whole.

However, Ohr HaChaim’s comment might not even pass his own significance test – this is not a frequently repeated case or one with any practical ramification. 1/501 calculated as a decimal, 0.00199600798403 (repeating), can hardly be said to be much different than 0.002 as to make it worth so many extra verses from the vantage point of someone who, like Ohr Hachaim, does not like extra verses.

Ohr Hachaim, of course, has not resolved all of his problems yet. He still needs to account for the first, very long list. His second point, more meaningfully, is that the Torah’s way of writing makes it clear that the מכס – duty – was taken only out of the warriors’ share, after it was divided in half (where you might have thought it was taken off the top) and the Levites were given their share out of the half that the nation was awarded. This answer accounts for the listing of all the halves twice, to show that both sides started out with half of the original amount of spoils. It can even be argued that after the other sets of numbers are listed, we don’t need to know the exact numbers for the Levites, since we know what fraction of what whole we are calculating. Whatever we think of this answer, we can’t argue that the numbers are not significant enough to matter. This answer deals with much larger numbers. 1/500 off the top of 675,000 versus 1/500 out of 337,500 is 1350 sheep for God versus 675.

(For what it’s worth, Ohr Hachaim is completely on board with the ideas from Shabbat 64a that the soldiers donated the gold to atone for fantasizing about sin, even though none of them sinned and all came back alive.)

Our other reliable omnisignificance booster is the Malbim, who is less explicit but nonetheless does not disappoint. He connects the two sets of numbers, noting that the number of soldiers as a fraction of the nation as a whole corresponds to the fraction of the spoils given to the Levites, who are described in 31:47 as “שומרי משמרת משכן ה’”. Malbim attributes the nation’s success to the prayers of the Levites on behalf of the soldiers.


Since the Levites had an instrumental role through prayer, they are entitled to 1/50 of the spoils for protecting the 1/50 of the nation who went to fight in the war. While Malbim does not explicitly address the omnisignificance question, he clearly believes the specific numbers are significant.

As a longtime ‘math person’, I’ve always resisted any anti-counting bias I felt from the Torah’s census squeamishness. The idea that by counting you risk loss, and superstition in general, is a bit much for my Litvish way of being. Details matter!

Fortunately, I am not the first, or only, one to ever notice that counting can be an expression of love. In his first comment on the book of Bemidbar, Rashi writes, “מִתּוֹךְ חִבָּתָן לְפָנָיו מוֹנֶה אוֹתָם כָּל שָׁעָה” – “Because they were dear to him, He counts them every now and then.” This is indeed a beautiful bookend to our Sefer. For a God committed to His people’s welfare, no detail is too small to escape His care and notice – not even the number of sheep. Especially in the aftermath of Ba’al Pe’or, Hashem takes time and care to show that the relationship is mended. He enables the people to act themselves to accomplish something significant. He then lists the exact number who did so, and the exact numbers of items they earned. In this coda to the Pinchas census, we can imagine that the relationship that’s been on the rocks since Parshat BeHa’alotcha is finally on its way to being mended.

Aliza Libman Baronofsky (SBM ‘06) teaches at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD.


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