Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Talmud on counting Jews

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: What the Talmud Would Say About the Pew Survey of American Jews: Stop Counting. An ancient principle of Judaism, debated at length in the Oral Law, is that it is a sin to count Jews—or is it?.
It doesn’t take any particular news event to make Jews start worrying about the future of Judaism. But this fall, the release of the Pew survey “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” with its findings about high rates of assimilation and intermarriage, added some fuel to the fire. As community leaders debated what to do about the problem—if it is, in fact, a problem—one suggestion was conspicuous by its absence: No one proposed that we simply stop doing censuses of Jews.

Yet this would be the most Jewish solution of all, since an ancient principle of Judaism is that it is a sin to count Jews. God says as much in Exodus 30, when he instructs Moses that if he counts the Israelites directly, a plague will fall on them. Instead, the census is to be taken indirectly: Each adult over the age of 20 is to contribute a half-shekel coin, and then the coins are to be counted. This precaution is ignored by King David, in II Samuel 24, when he impetuously conducts a census of his kingdom; and as promised, he is punished by God with three days of pestilence.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.