Numbers 1:2 – The Census

Bamidbar is the fourth book in the Torah. In English it is called Numbers because it records the countings of the Jewish people in the wilderness.

The book begins right away with God commanding Moses to count the people. Though the focus of this article is Numbers 1:2, let’s look at the first 3 verses:

Numbers 1

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out from the land of Egypt, saying,
2. Take a census [Hebrew: se’u et rosh] of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls [Hebrew: gulg’lotam];
3. From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go forth to war in Israel; you and Aaron shall count them by their armies.

Why does God want Moses to count the people? Why in verses 2 and 3 are there so many details about what to count?

Every Census in the Bible

This was not the first time God had counted the Jewish people. A midrash enumerates the 10 times the Jewish people were counted.

Israel Counted 10 Times

Here are the 10 times the Bible tells us the Jewish people were counted:

  1. When Jacob went down to Egypt (Genesis 46:7-27)
  2. When God brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 12:37)
  3. After the Golden Calf (Exodus 30:12, 38:26)
  4. To arrange them around the Tabernacle (Numbers 1:2)
  5. Before entering the land of Israel (Numbers 26:2)
  6. Saul counted them in Bazek (1 Samuel 11:8)
  7. Saul counted them in Telaim (1 Samuel 15:4)
  8. David commanded Joab to take a census (2 Samuel 24:2)
  9. Ezra counted those who came from Babylon (Ezra 2:1-64)
  10. God will count them in the future (Jeremiah 33:13, see Rashi and Radak)

This list is based on Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 2:11.

David’s counting recorded in 2 Samuel is the only time that taking a census resulted in a punishment. I’ll write more about that later in this article.

Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.

Why a Census in the Wilderness Now?

God ordered this census at the beginning of Iyar, the second month of the Jewish year. Why?

Rabbi Sorotzkin gives a detailed answer that lists 4 reasons for this census:

1. To elevate the Jewish people and arrange them in order around the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was completed the month before. They are being elevated to attain the status of “hosts of God” on earth, similar to the role of the angels in heaven.

2. To determine the family and tribe of each person. In this way God showed the other nations that the Jewish people were special and chosen by Him because they had maintained their marital purity.

3. To accurately count the number who had come out of Egypt. According R. Sorotzkin, the division of the Land of Israel was based on this census. Even though this generation did not enter the land, the next generation was treated as if they were their heirs.

4. To put them into order as a fighting force. This is especially clear in Number 1:3. The plan was that soon they would be entering the Land of Israel and would require an army (see Numbers 10:11).

Meaning of “se’u et rosh”

The Hebrew words “se’u et rosh” have a literal translation of “lift up the head.”

Daat Mikra writes that “se’u et rosh” in this context means to count the people.

Ramban, based a midrash, points out that the phrase “se’u et rosh” hints at two different meanings.

As I wrote above, the literal translation is “lift up the head.”

In one context this can be a command to the executioner to take off a person’s head!

In other contexts, it means to elevate someone.

We see both of these meanings in Genesis 40 when Joseph interprets the dreams of the cup bearer and the baker.

Genesis 40

13. And within three days shall Pharaoh lift up your head, and restore you to your place …

19. And within three days shall Pharaoh lift up your head off you, and shall hang you on a tree …

In both verses, the English “lift up” is from the same root as “se’u” in our verse.

Ramban writes that God is hinting to Moses that the future of the Jewish people can proceed along either of 2 paths. If they are worthy, then they will be elevated and enter into the Land of Israel soon.

But if they are not worthy, then they will die in the wilderness. This is what came to pass following the sin of spies.

Family, Tribe, Individual

Why does the verse mention these 3 phrases: families, house of their fathers, and number of names?

Some commentators equate “families” and “house of their fathers” and make no distinction between them.

Rashi says that they are not the same. The word “families” teaches us that one purpose of the census was to determine the size of every tribe.

The phrase “house of their fathers” teaches that if a man’s mother and father were from different tribes, he is to be included in the count of his father’s tribe. To this day it’s the father’s lineage that determines if a person is a priest, levite, or regular Jew.

Malbim writes that “number of names” teaches that during the census each person told his name and it was written down in a ledger. Then they counted the written names to determine the totals for the tribes and the nation.

Shekel coin
Shekel coin from the Roman period.

How to do a Census

The first time God commands Moses to do a census He specifies a process to follow.

Exodus 30

12. When you take the census of the people of Israel according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to the Lord, when you count them; that there should be no plague among them, when you count them.
13. This they shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary…

Many people understand that these verses prohibit counting the Jewish people directly. Rather, the person to be counted gives a coin or some other object and these objects are counted to arrive at a total.

The commentators disagree if giving a half-shekel coin is required for every census of the Jewish people.

Rashi and Ramban both write that giving a coin is always required.

Abarbanel (commentary on 2 Samuel 24) states that the command to count by means of half-shekel coins only applied to that particular census. Any other census can be done by directly counting the people.

What is gulg’lotam?

Verse 2 uses two words to indicate the people being counted: “rosh” (head) and “gulg’lotam” (their polls).

The word “gulg’lotam” implies counting each person directly.

Rashi, following his understanding of how to do a census, writes that also with this census the men gave coins that were counted.

Malbim writes that the men passed in front of Moses and he counted them. Malbim suggests that they did this count by each person giving a half-shekel coin to avoid directly counting the person.

Two Counts According to Malbim

We now see that the Malbim is saying that two counting methods were used simultaneously.

He wrote both that the men gave coins that were counted and that their written names were counted. Why two different methods?

The Malbim writes that there are 2 aspects to being a Jew. One is being part of the entire Jewish people. The other is the aspect of being a unique individual.

As the Malbim calls it, the Jewish people are meant to be a “chariot for the divine presence.” In this aspect, the important thing is the total number.

This is the counting by “gulg’lotam” or “polls.” Each person gives a coin and all of those coins are identical and of equal value.

The recording of each name and then counting those names is because each person is unique. Each person has a different role to play in life and as part of the larger community.

Why Was David Punished?

I began this article with a list of the 10 times the Jewish people were counted. The only counting that resulted in a punishment was when David commanded Joab to count the people.

Ramban offers 3 explanations:

1. The census David commanded was not necessary since there was no military threat at that time.

2. He counted all of the “men” which implies from the age of 13 and above. But he should only have counted from the age of 20 and above as in Numbers 1:3.

3. David counted them directly without using half-shekels. Ramban on Exodus 30:12 says that the Torah did not make it clear whether counting by means of the half-shekels was a law for all time or not. Hence, David sinned by counting the people without counting the half-shekel coins.

We don’t know for sure why David and the Jewish people were punished at that time. However, it seems that the Ramban leans toward the first reason given above.

Because there was no military threat at that time, the counting was an act of pride so that the king could rejoice in the size and strength of his nation.

Picture Credit: Wikimedia

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.