Shekalim: The imperative to never diminish people by reducing them to numbers on a list

“The ETERNAL spoke to Moses, 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 to God, when you number them; that there be no plague among them, when you numbers them. This they shall give, every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary–the shekel is twenty gerahs–half a shekel for an offering to the ETERNAL. Every one that passes among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the offering of the ETERNAL. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the ETERNAL, to make atonement for your souls. And you shall take the atonement money from the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the ETERNAL to make atonement for your souls.'(Ex 30 11-16)”

Shabbat Shekalim comes around the beginning of the new month of Adar, in order to give a good month’s notice of the beginning of the month of Nisan, the month in which Pesach falls at the full moon. It is also read at this time because, according to tradition, the census of which it speaks was taken on the first of Nisan, so the reading is also acting of a reminder of that census and its purpose. The passage reminds us of the census taken in the wilderness through the donation of a half shekel coin, given not apparently only for the purpose of counting people, but also as a kind of sacrifice to offer atonement for sin, and also to provide for the maintenance of the Tent of Meeting – the forerunner to Temple and Synagogue as the space which reminds the people that God is among them. On Shabbat Shekalim, we also read a haftarah portion from 2 Kings which also makes reference to the census money and the use of it for Temple maintenance.

It is a complex text raising a lot of questions. What is the atonement being offered? What plague is being avoided? What could possibly be the difficulty with a census, a direct count of the military age men? There seems to be an ancient taboo against counting people which operates still today. By tradition one never counts people – when checking that there are ten people for a minyan a verse from the psalms is read “Hoshia et amekha, u’varekh et nahalatekha, ur’em v’nas’em ad ha’olam” [Save Your nation and bless Your inheritance, tend to them and raise them up, forever – Psalm 28:9]. It has ten words, each used to check off the people until it is clear that there are ten or over.

So why don’t we count people? Rashi suggests that numbering people means we don’t see their full humanity, and in some way we diminish them. He brings to his argument the ancient text of the Hebrew bible translated by Onkelos into Aramaic – the word for census becomes ‘taking’ – in some way by numbering people we take from them something essential. So he tells us we should never do a head count, but instead take from each of them a token, and then count those tokens. If we do not, we risk a plague coming upon us, as happened when David conducted a census. The Talmud also asks and answers our question – but differently:

“Why are people not counted directly? … Rabbi Isaac says ‘It is forbidden to count Israel, even for the performance of a mitzvah.’ … “The Talmudic discussion focuses on the verse: “The number of B’nei Yisrael will be like the sands of the sea which cannot be measured or counted …” (Hosea 2:1). In other words it is a sort of denial of faith, that the promise given to Abraham that his descendants would be beyond counting would somehow be compromised by the act of counting.

I am not sure that either of these responses gives us the authoritative reason for why counting people is so viscerally wrong. But there is something very powerful in the refusal to see people in terms of numbers. And interesting too that in the act of finding out how many men of military age are available in the community – for that must be the primary purpose of this counting – other things are woven in. Each person who is eligible gives half a shekel, something we are reminded is based on a known weight of silver equal to twenty gerahs. So each person gives the equivalent of ten gerahs. This half shekel coin must have been one of the smallest – but possibly not THE smallest – coin, something that was within everyone’s reach to donate. But add to that is the instruction – both rich and poor will contribute the same amount, neither more nor less. This reminds us that both rich and poor are equally valued in the eyes of God. The contribution of each one is of equal importance. So in the act of assessing capacity for military strength, everyone is expected to give something, and relative wealth is made irrelevant – everyone contributes the same. The fact that it is coins and not people being counted for this is also a salutary lesson – on the one hand there is something that seems to be a little coldly dispassionate about counting the silver tokens rather than the human beings, but at the same time the humanity of the individuals is being preserved – only the contribution they give is being counted. And then the piece de resistance – the silver tokens that are given are to be used not for war, not in any way for aggrandizing the powerful or for claiming the territory of others – all the contributions are used to maintain the Tent of Meeting – in effect they are the synagogue subscriptions. It is no accident that many synagogues finish their financial years at this time – the Torah reading reminds everyone of the need to give, to contribute to the well-being of the community. Without such offerings no synagogue or Jewish institution would survive.

The passage we read as maftir for Shabbat Shekalim is a well known one with clear parallels in today’s practice. The need to be able to call together a force to defend the people and the land; the need for the humanity of that force to be defended too so that the soldiers do not lose their essential souls in the fighting they do is vital, and there is much to be said about how that particular lesson is not being applied well in the current situation in Israel – just look at the website of Breaking the Silence, the testimony of Israeli soldiers, to see how values and humanity can be eroded. The imperative to never diminish people by reducing them to numbers on a list is one to which our own recent history bears painful testimony. But something else struck me powerfully this year when reading the piece. The half-ness of the shekel and the fact that a half shekel is ten gerahs.

Why a half shekel? One response is that this is a coin within reach of everyone, something that is not too big a sacrifice to give but not so small as to be insignificant. That may well be true, there is no clear economic scale for us to check it against but it has a sort of inherent likelihood. But think a little more and other values emerge. A half shekel is not complete – it requires another half to complete it. What we are saying by giving this ‘half’ is that we are making a contribution, but on its own it is not powerful enough – we need to be part of a community in order to play out our values successfully.

To be part of a community, we have first to count ourselves, to give something that can itself be noted and counted. The half shekel that we give demonstrates that we need someone else in the community to fulfill us and make us whole, to partner us and complete us. Judaism teaches that life is not to be lived as an ascetic, removing ourselves from the pleasures of people – life is to be lived in community – so public prayer for example requires a minyan – hence the need to count the people to ensure ten are present. Community is an essential tool in tikkun olam, in repairing the world. It is certainly true that one person alone can make a difference, but working together with others creates a whole world of other possibilities. We all need other people to fulfill us and the offer of a half shekel not only allows ourselves into the community, it invites others to be our partner.

One thought on “Shekalim: The imperative to never diminish people by reducing them to numbers on a list

  1. Really interesting, thank you very much for this – and I might also add that treating people as numbers is not only dehumanising on a basic level, but contextually is almost always carried out by ‘bad leaders’.

    A Roy Horniman novel from 1907 described one character for whom names (as opposed to titles of nobility) were “merely ciphers by which the lower classes were differentiated, one from the other. She would probably have thought it more convenient if the lower classes had been known by numbers like cabs and convicts; and, after all, they were not so interesting as convicts, and not so useful as cabs.”

    It’s an abuse of authority thing, a lack of concern for the individual and a feeling of unwarranted superiority that leads to treating everyone else as an indistinguishable mass. And I reckon I’m with Rashi on this one!

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