“And God spoke to Moshe saying. When you take the sum of the
Children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every
man a ransom for his soul unto God, when you number them, that there
be no plague among them, when you number them.”
Our section speaks about a census for soldiers. The count is associated with a “ransom”, in efforts to
ward off pestilence. The means to tally the warriors features a silver coin collection, called machtzit
ha’shekel. After all the coins were counted, then the men’s number was duly ascertained.
Abarbanel asks: Why does the Torah demand this roundabout method? A more straightforward way would have been to simply count heads and thereby short circuit the coin count.
Answering that question, actually, pits Abarbanel against all other classic Bible commentators, including
Rashi and the Ramban. According to the commentators, head counts are prohibited by the Torah, as the
act invites the wrath of the evil eye. They are incorrect. While the Bible does record the disastrous
effects of the evil eye in King David’s time, that discussion is for a different time.
Was the machtzit ha’shekel brought here as subterfuge, a tricky way to forestall pestilence? Hardly. Here
One has to do with God’s command at present. He did not call for a census by coin collection, or for that
matter, by any other object. When God finds something desirable – He lets people know by issuing a
command. The Maker does not mince His words.
Two, if counting by object represents the preferred methodology for successive times and generations
and if it is considered a positive commandment, incumbent upon the Jews (to use coins or other means),
as well as a negative precept (not to perform headcounts), we need to answer why the sages who list
the Torah’s six hundred thirteen mitzvot do not include them in their count?
Three, how can anyone assert that the Jews were not counted, when the Torah writes explicitly: “This
they shall give, every one who passes among them are numbered.” The words speak for themselves –
this is the Biblical way to describe body counting.
More reasons could be supplied, but these suffice. Let us share Abarbanel’s interpretation, in shorthand,
of our section’s lead verses to count Hebrews.
In the Torah, context matters. Six successive paragraphs pertain to the building and funding of the
Tabernacle. Apropos, the Creator foresaw that the Jews would donate small quantities of silver to the
holy enterprise. For a simple reason. International currency during those years centered on silver, the
machtzit ha’shekel being the common currency.
We add some backstory to the forty-year desert march. The encampment regularly enjoyed visits from
traveling Gentile merchants hawking, well, just about everything. When it came to funding the
Tabernacle, Jews were quite generous. Generous with their gold. Generous with their copper. Generous
with their valuables. Nearly all their valuables.
Silver proved the exception. Jews did not part with silver, because it enabled them to buy things from
traveling salesmen. Those merchants only accepted silver as payment for goods. Now we can better
understand our section.
After the Torah dedicated paragraph after paragraph to the building and funding of the Tabernacle, it
segued into our section, beginning with taking a census of the men. “When you take the sum of the
Children of Israel…” The Tabernacle included many silver vessels, but silver donations were scant, for the
reason stated above.
God came with a fix. He had Moshe take a census whereby each counted man would donate a machtzit
ha’shekel. This would provide the Hebrew leader with vital information about his available fighting
forces, a requirement every military leader finds indispensable. After all, Moshe believed the Jewish
incursion into Canaan was imminent. Knowing his troops numbers made perfect sense, something every
general ascertains prior to war.
In closing, let us demonstrate how God aligned disparate goals. “And God spoke to Moshe saying. When
you take the sum of the Children of Israel”, in the main, had little to do with warding off the evil eye.
Mustering up troops is fully justified, as suggested. God observed that the Mishkan was in sore need of
silver, to manufacture certain, sacred vessels. Alignment occurred when the Creator offered sound
counsel to Moshe, bidding him to collect much silver.
Separately, Moshe sought to count the troops as a means of preparing an offensive to take Canaan.
Headcounts court danger, in the form of the evil eye (Read: a count or sum reaches large proportions).
The Maker provided an antidote. He directed Moshe to order the fighting corps to bring “a ransom for
his soul unto God.”
Abarbanel proposes that the silver was tzedakah (charity). He further holds that a direct headcount took place. As
for the threat posed by a direct tally, charity served as a life preserver. Each man safeguarded his life
from the evil eye on the merit of the machtzit ha’shekel he donated to the Mishkan.