DAY 656: To Count and Not To Count

April 17, 2014
By bethmordecai
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DAY 656: To Count and Not To Count


Human beings love to count. Whether we are counting sheep in our sleep or attendees at services, there is something built into our DNA that enjoys the act of counting. It soothes us and it gives us a sense of accomplishment, especially when we reach a desired number at the end of our counting. Yet, Judaism teaches us that while counting is an inevitable part of life, we must also be wary of the dangers of putting too much stock in numbers.
As the Magen Avraham, a 17th century Polish commentator on the Shulkhan Arukh, writes in one of his long comments on Orah Hayyim (156:2), it is forbidden to count Jews:

אסור למנות ישראל אפילו אינו מכוון למנות רק להטיל גורל אפילו לדבר מצוה אלא מוציאין אצבעותיהם ומונין אצבעותיהם [יומא דף “כב” עמוד “ב”]ש

It is forbidden to count even if the intention is only to “count lots,” even for the matter of a mitzvah, but rather they must raise their fingers and you can count their fingers (Talmud Bavli: Masekhet Yoma — 22b)

The section of the Talmud (Yoma 22b) that Magen Avraham refers to elaborates on this principle, and how you can get around the issue of counting individual Jews by counting fingers instead:

ואם היו שניהן שוין הממונה אומר להם הצביעו וכו’. תנא: הוציאו אצבעותיכם למנין, ונימנינהו לדידהו! – מסייע ליה לרבי יצחק, דאמר רבי יצחק: אסור למנות את ישראל אפילו לדבר מצוה, דכתיב (א שמואל יא:ח) “ויפקדם בבזק.” מתקיף לה רב אשי: ממאי דהאי בזק? לישנא דמיבזק הוא, ודילמא שמא דמתא הוא, כדכתיב (שופטים א:ה)“וימצאו אדי בזק.” אלא מהכא. (א שמואל טו:ד) “וישמע שאול את העם ויפקדם בטלאים.”

IF TWO WERE EVEN, THE OFFICER WOULD SAY TO THEM RAISE THE FINGER, etc. A Tanna taught: “Put forth your fingers for the count, but let him count them!” That supports the statement of Rabbi Isaac, for Rabbi Isaac said: “It is forbidden to count Israel even [for the purpose of fulfilling] a commandment, as it is written: “And he numbered themb’vazek [with pebbles] (I Samuel 11:8). Rabbi Ashi argued against this: “How do we know that the word “bezek” is here used in the sense of “being broken” [i.e. “pebbles”]? Perhaps it is the name of a place, as it is written: “And they found Adoni-vezek in Bezek” (Judges 1:5)! — Rather [the true proof text that you count people by counting objects] is from here: “And Saul summoned the people and numbered them with t’laim [sheep]” (1 Samuel 15:4).

By counting objects like fingers, or pebbles, or sheep instead of people, our tradition teaches us that the value of each individual person is immeasurable, while still upholding the value of counting. We need to count people for a minyan, we need to count how we’re growing as a synagogue, but instead of counting individuals we count objects (or words, as in the case of counting people for a minyan), to stand in for people. 
Or, as in the case of this time between Passover and Shavuot, we count an omer as a stand-in for the growth of our souls. 
As we move between the end of our slavery at Passover to the establishment of our connection with God at Shavuot, we have an opportunity for each of us to grow our souls and count our progress towards a greater connection with God. This spiritual journey is not an exact science with a precise number of steps, but by counting the omer as individuals or together as a community we can use the act of counting to help us along that journey.
Kol Tuv,
Rabbi Ari Saks
P.S. Yesterday, that spiritual journey began for a few members of our community who participated in our Second Day of Passover “Come Omer To My House” program, and it will continue for the rest of our community either online or during our services over the next two months. 
P.P.S. Below you’ll find a listing of the days and times we will be counting the omer as a community and during each of these times we will have an opportunity to use the act of counting to build a closer spiritual connection with God using some teachings from “Counting The Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide” by Rabbi Min Kantrowitz.

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