Paralyzed By Numbers

What can we learn from counting the Israelites?

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Parashat Ki Tissa introduces the taboo against quantifying persons, enjoining the Israelites from giving themselves numbers. The sum of the people, it seems, is a dangerous thing--inviting evil, tempting fate, summoning the evil eye. Thus, God here commands that when Israel is to be counted the people are to use coins as proxy for their persons, so as to ensure ''that no plague may come upon them…'' (Exodus 30:12).

Despite the danger, the Torah seems perversely taken with memorializing tallies of persons, painstakingly recording each tribe's sum when the census is ultimately taken: Reuben numbers 46,500, Simeon 59,300, Judah 74,600 and so forth (Numbers 1:20-44).

Rather than overcome the numbering taboo, however, the tallies seem instead to underscore it. These plump, round numbers are, inescapably, estimates--concessions to the necessity of the count, obfuscations to ward off the evil and anxiety that it invites.

Counting & the Evil Eye

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.