This Thursday, I am leaving for vacation; off to spend a week in Sweden visiting family. But I would hate to leave you without some words of Torah... even if they aren't mine. This week, I am pleased to welcome my colleague and friend, Cantor Steven Friedrich, to be a guest blogger on 'Take on Torah.' Enjoy, and I'll see you soon!
Contemporary Jews like you and me generally do not consider themselves to be superstitious. Such bubba meises are considered to be just Old Wives’ Tales, to which no modern, well-educated, liberal-thinking Jew would ever admit. Yet, superstitions prevail among us regardless of our denials. It’s not really all that surprising, as some of these superstitions go all the way back to Biblical times. I find myself falling into one of these ancient superstitions almost on a daily basis – that totally illogical Jewish tradition of ‘NOT counting’ people or things in a numerical sequence in order to forestall a plague or similar tragedy. As I count people who attend morning minyan, I find myself saying ‘NOT one, NOT two, etc..until I reach NOT ten. Only then do I know I have a minyan (quorum). But that’s not the end of it. As I wrap tefillin on my arm, I don’t count the seven windings of the strap. Instead I recite “Lcha Dodi Likrat Kallah, Pnei Shabbat N’kabbelah” saying one word for each winding rather than counting them ‘1, 2… and so on.
This is a particularly Jewish superstition whose source can actually be found in our Bible. As a matter of fact, it’s related to the census of the Israelites that we read about in this week’s Parashah, Bemidbar. Moses and Aaron are instructed three times to take a census (Nu 1:4; Nu 1:22; Nu 26:2). When you continue to read through the Book of Numbers, you find that there are three plagues that subsequently decimate the Israelite population while in the Wilderness (Numbers ch. 11, 17 and 25). Three countings of people followed by three plagues – there must be a correlation, yes? Aha! So counting people by number is some sort of sin. What could Moses and Aaron have done so wrong as to cause these plagues? There’s the answer, back in the Book of Exodus: “When you take the census of the people of Israel according to their number, then shall they give every man atonement for his soul to the Lord, when you count them, that there should be no plague among them, when you count them. They shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel…as an offering to the Lord.” (Ex30:12-13)
Well there’s our answer in plain sight: These plagues MUST have been caused by the counting of people WITHOUT the remittance of the half-shekel required by God earlier in the Bible. It is also not surprising to see that King David later tries to take a census of the Israelites in his kingdom that also leads to a plague. Clearly then, the Bible teaches us, that to count people in this manner is a sin punishable by a plague. It stands to reason, therefore, that to count anything by number in this manner is to invite horrible consequences. Why take a chance? And so, to this day we Jews invent different mnemonics for counting – such as my 7 word phrase above for putting on tefillin.
What? You don’t believe me? ACHOO!!! See? I sneezed – so it must be the truth!!!
Cantor Steven Friedrich – May 21, 2014