“Take a census of the whole Israelite community…from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to go forth to war you shall record them” (Numbers 1:2-3).
The book of Numbers is called by Chazal the book of censuses (Yoma, chapter 7, mishna 1). Nachmanides wrote, in his introduction to the book of Numbers: “And this entire book is commandments for one specific time only, that they were commanded when they were in the desert…this book has no commandments which last through the generations except for a few commandments about sacrifices.” (Sefer haHinuch lists 51 commandments for this book, including those which last through the generations, like the commandment of tzitzit, but the main thrust is indeed as Nachmanides wrote.)
This whole portion deals with the census of the Israelites. They are not counted only once, but twice. In chapter one the Israelites are counted (aside from the Levites–1:47) and in chapter two they are counted with an additional explanation of how each tribe camps around the Tent of Meeting; in chapter three the tribe of Levi is counted. Remember that Moses already counted the Israelites before the Tabernacle was erected, in Exodus 28:26, “For each one who was entered in the records, from the age of twenty up, 603,550 men.” He once again counted them before they entered the Land of Israel, and all chapter 26 of the book of Numbers is devoted to that count. About this Rashi wrote, “Because of His affection for them He counts them often.” We have already discussed in many places (the portions of Tazria and Metzorah) that the Torah expands and duplicates what is insignificant and leaves the main points to the sages. Just as the foot-washing of the forefathers’ servants and the negotiations for the Cave of the Patriarchs is dear to the Lord, so too is the counting of the Israelites dear to Him, and they are counted again and again.
But one who is intellectually honest will check, without favoritism, why the census of the Israelites is repeated after only seven months. The first census was conducted after the Day of Atonement in the first year after the exodus from Egypt (Rashi on Exodus 30:16), and the census in our portion was conducted “On the first day of the second month in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt” (1:1). First we will see something very odd, that the results of the two censuses (separated by seven months) are equal! In Exodus 38:26 and in Numbers 1:46 it is written, “603,550 men.” See Rashi on Exodus 38:26, who noticed this oddity; it is impossible to say that there were no 19 and a half year olds who were not counted in the first census but were in the second, as they had turned 20. About this it is written that the figuring of adolescence is not from the birth date, but by year, counted from Tishrei. The first census occurred after Tishrei had begun, so the age for counting purposes had not changed, though seven months had passed. Rashi’s words are beyond us, for if they are true we find that they conducted a second census for no purpose whatsoever. They knew that no one’s age, for counting purposes, had changed, not for a single, solitary man, and Moses probably knew that there had been no deaths amongst the people during this time (for if there were deaths the number would have changed and would not be identical to the previous census), so why did they bother counting when they knew the results in advance? We really cannot understand Rashi; see Nachmanides on Exodus 30:12, where he gives a different reason.
Our opinion on the matter of the duplications, as we have said many times, is that two different authors wrote the census of Israelites in two different versions (and this is a better way to view it than to attribute useless acts to the holy One, blessed be He). There is some support for our words, for in the first count there was a demand: “When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled” (Exodus 30:11), the ransom was giving the half-shekel. In the census in our portion not even a hint is given about the half-shekel; Moses countedIsrael and there was no fear of plague amongst the Israelite people. That is why we say we are dealing with two different authors: One greatly fears counting the Israelites without the half-shekel and is certain that counting the nation without protective means will lead to a great disaster and plague. The other author, who writes in Numbers, does not fear this at all and he simply recounts the census without protection from plagues. It is clear that the two authors are relying upon their opinions.
Why does it say that there will be a plague amongst the Israelite people if the half-shekel is not given? Rashi wrote on Exodus 30:12: “‘No plague may come upon them’ — the census brings the evil eye upon them.” Thus is the instruction of G-d turned into the source for superstition; if the coins given by each man are counted the evil eye will have no dominion, but if the people themselves are counted the evil eye will have dominion and they will be struck with a plague. We find that David counted the people in II Samuel 24 and was punished. The prophet Gad offered David his choice of three punishments, and David chose “Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for His compassion is great, and let me not fall into the hands of men.” And what was G-d’s compassion? “The Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel…and 70,000 of the people died, from Dan to Beer-sheba.” David, the one who conducted the census and the one who sinned, was not punished. Who was punished? The people! This David calls falling into the hands of the Lord? This is G-d’s compassion? Killing 70,000 people who were completely innocent? The mind cannot comprehend the lack of justice and compassion here. Nachmanides on Exodus 30:12 writes: “David erred and counted them without shekalim, and the pestilence came upon them.” David erred, but the people were infected. Did Nachmanides’s pen not shake as he wrote these words? (Nachmanides contradicts himself; in Numbers 1:2 he wrote: “It seems strange to me that David should not be careful about what was explicitly written, ‘that no plague may come upon them’,” and the matter needs clarification.)
We also find that the priests in the Tabernacle must cast lots and be counted. How do they overcome the evil eye? In tractate Yoma 22b it is written: “We have learned: they [the priests] stuck their fingers out to be counted. Why not count them [the priests themselves and not their fingers]? This supports Rabbi Isaac’s viewpoint, for Rabbi Isaac said, “one is forbidden to count the people of Israel, even for something which fulfills a commandment, as is written (I Samuel 11:8) ‘and he counted them by bezek‘ [Rashi says this is broken shard of pottery, that Saul counted the pottery shards given by people and so did not count the people themselves]. Rav Ashi asks: ‘How do you know bezekmeans pottery and isn’t the name of a place? It is written (Judges 1:5) “At Bezek they found Adoni-Bezek,” but here, (I Samuel 15:4) “And Saul heard the people and he counted them by lambs (telaim)” [he ordered them to take lambs…and the lambs were counted–Rashi]’.” But we ask the Gemara where it learns that the meaning of telaim is from the root of taleh, lamb. Perhaps this, too, is the name of a place? Not only does it seem to be so, the Tosfot Yashanim wrote explicitly: “And he counted them at telaim: this is a place name according to the plain text.” Similarly, Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Deuteronomy6:16, “And he counted them at telaim: a place name.”
Anyway, in the Gemara we find something which arouses ridicule, that if one counts pottery or lambs or people’s fingers the evil eye is not predominant, but if one counts people, it is a great sin and one is punished for it. To this very day religious people follow this superstition, as is written in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, paragraph 15, section three: “One must be careful not to count people’s heads to know if there is a prayer quorum, for it is forbidden to count people’s heads…It is customary to count them by reciting the verse, “Redeem Your people…” which contains ten words.” Here you have another trick to keep away the evil eye: instead of counting objects, as suggested in the Scriptures, we count actual people, but not with numbers, with words instead. Any who hears this will laugh.
Know that the evil eye even causes actual financial losses, as written in the Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 378, section five: “A man is forbidden to stand in his friend’s field while the corn is standing there.”
Maimonides, who had common sense and examination and investigation always lit his path, came out against these beliefs in incantations, witchcraft, and the evil eye. Therefore, concerning what is said in tractate Avot, second chapter, eleventh mishnah, “Rabbi Joshua says the evil eye (ayin hara), the evil inclination, and hate for his fellow-man remove a person from this world,” Maimonides interpreted ayin hara as one who loves money and runs after it until this takes him out of the world. He did not interpret ayin hara in its plain sense (see the “Magen Avot” commentary by Rashbatz). Similarly he wrote in his book Moreh Nevuchim, third section, chapter 37: “And anything which resembles this, which was not derived by natural analogy, is forbidden as the ways of the Amorites…it should not puzzle you that they allowed a nail from a crucifixion or the tooth of a fox [in tractate Shabbat 67a Chazal allows leaving one’s home on the Sabbath with the tooth of a fox, as it helps those with sleep disorders] for those things, in those times, were considered proven and a sort of medicine…For everything which has been proven to work, though it was not drawn by analogy, is permitted…adopt these wonders from this my work, and keep them, for they shall be a charm for your head.” And thus he ruled in Yad haHazakah, Laws of the Sabbath, chapter 19, halacha 13: “A person may go out [on Sabbath]…with a fox tooth or any other thing he wears as a medicinal item, which the doctors have said is of therapeutic value.” (See also Laws of Idolatry, chapter 11, halacha 11.) In pamphlet 3 we cited the opinion of Abraham, son of Maimonides: “We find them [Chazal] saying [things] untrue and nonexistent in the Gemara, matters of medicine and things like the even tekuma which they say prevents miscarriages and [this] is untrue.”
The Gaon of Vilna (Biur HaGra, Yoreh Deah 179, subsection 13) came out strongly against Maimonides: “All those who followed him [Maimonides] disagreed with him, for many incantations were given in the Gemara, but he followed philosophy. Therefore he wrote that witchcraft and magic names and incantations and ghosts and amulets are all false, but they have already struck him over the head, for we have found many incidents in the Gemara of magical names and witchery…Philosophy mislead him, and he used it to interpret the words of the Gemara allegorically and to deprive them of their simple meaning, G-d forbid. I do not believe them [the philosophers] nor what they say in their multitudes; but all the words [of the Gemara] are as their simple meaning. They have a spiritual meaning — not as the meaning of the philosophers, which is external, but the meaning which belongs to the masters of truth.”
The words of the Vilna Gaon are very puzzling and require clarification. First of all, what connection is their between philosophy and the words of Maimonides, who said: “the natural conclusion” “everything which has been proven to work” “which the doctors have said is of therapeutic value”–that which has facts to prove it. Perhaps when the Vilna Gaon wrote “philosophy” he meant reality? Research and wisdom? Did he object to all of these? In reality a fox’s tooth does not help bring sleep, but since reality contradicts the words of Chazal, is reality’s fate, according to the Vilna Gaon, to be cancelled? Yet what can we do–reality remains reality.
Worse than this, the Vilna Gaon writes that he accepts the sages’ words in their plain sense (and not as Maimonides, who tries to explain them based on reality, so that they should not be subject to the ridicule of man) and in the course of his words says: “they have the spiritual meaning of the masters of truth.” Perhaps he can explain to us why he had to cite this “spiritual meaning of the masters of truth”? Is there no explanation why simple reality is not as the words of the sages would have it? What did the sages mean, according to the Vilna Gaon, when they said, “It is permitted to say incantations over one who has been bitten by a scorpion, even on the Sabbath.” Didn’t they mean that the incantation would have some actual effect in this world, and would save the person from the scorpion’s sting? If this is not what they meant, which plain meaning did the Vilna Gaon refer to? And if this is the plain meaning of the text, reality has shown that incantations over a person stung by a scorpion are as helpful as cupping a dead body. But the “spiritual meaning of the masters of truth” can come and explain why it is of no help. Plain meaning flees in the face of this spiritual meaning. Why did the Vilna Gaon get angry at Maimonides? He’s worse than his predecessor.
Maimonides defends the words of Chazal and says that even though reality is not as they claimed, there words still have some standing, based on faith; some believe in these charms and therefore they might work (which is close to our present-day understanding of psychology). But the Vilna Gaon simply contradicts himself by saying that on the one hand the words should be taken based on the plain meaning (that incantations and amulets actually do help) and on the other hand that the words have the “spiritual meaning of the masters of truth” (that what we see with our own eyes, that incantations and amulets don’t actually help, has some deeper “spiritual” cause).
Know that this is the way of most believers: when they are asked about facts which contradict faith, they respond with words which contradict themselves and which turn the believer himself into a laughing-stock. In these cases it would be best were they silent, as the wisest of all men said in Proverbs 17:28, “Even a fool, if he keeps silent, is deemed wise, intelligent if he seals his lips.”