The Book of Bamidbar, which literally means ‘in the desert’, is referred to in English as Numbers. Rather appropriately, it begins with a census of the Children of Israel (Numbers 1). This is, in fact, the third census taken during the two years since the Exodus (Exodus 12:37; Exodus 30:16 and 38:26). This census records 603,550 adult Israelite males between the ages of 20 and 60, of whom 22,273 were firstborn. The census counted Levites separately, recording 22,300 Levites aged one month and older.
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah II 19) asks why the obsession with counting the people. It answers with an allegory, describing a man who has all his favorite treasures in a beautiful box. He loves them so much that he opens the box repeatedly just to take out his treasures, examine them, and count them, again and again, to make sure that they are all there. So, too, does the Eternal One count and recount those that are dear to Him and treasured.
Only the men above the age of 20 were counted because the nation was preparing to carry out the commandment of conquering the Land of Israel, and it is important for a general to know the number of his troops.
It is, in fact, prohibited to count the Children of Israel. Rather than count the people directly, the census was carried out via the mitzvah of the silver half-shekel donated annually to the Temple (Exodus 30:12). The coins were collected and then counted so that “no plague may come upon them” through being counted. One commentary explains that when dedicating the coin to the Temple, the donation acts as an atonement thus offsetting the sin of counting.
According to some, the reason why counting Jews is prohibited is that it devalues the individual. Instead of a person with a name and identity he becomes a number. If one soldier dies in battle, another will take his place. In the army of God, every ‘soldier’ is precious, even irreplaceable. If a person is a cipher, however, a faceless and nameless number in a series, it means they can be replaced by anyone else.
Perhaps for this reason Ramban (Nachmanides) quotes the midrash which explains that in order to take the census each man was asked to write his name on a piece of parchment. These parchments were then collected and counted. In this way, despite the counting, each man retained his individual identity.
The prohibition against counting the people is hinted at by the prophet Hosea:
The number of the people of Yisrael shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of being told, “You are Not-My-People,” they shall be called Children-of-the-Living-Hashem. Hosea 2:1
This prohibition was neglected by King David (II Samuel chapter 24) who performed a census in preparation for waging battle. As the Torah cautions warns (Exodus 30:12), this resulted in a plague that killed some 70,000 people.
Commentaries note the verb used in the Torah for counting. Biblical Hebrew contains many verbs meaning “to count”: limnot, lifkod, lispor, lachshov. But the Book of Numbers begins by using the word se’u et rosh kol edat bnei yisrel (שְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל), ‘take a census of the whole Israelite community’. The phrase se’u et rosh literally means ‘to raise up the heads’. By counting the Jews for the purpose of becoming God’s army, the nation was raised up both collectively and as individuals.
The evil aspect of counting Jews was manifested by the Nazis who indelibly tattooed numbers on the arms of their victims, dehumanizing God’s people. From the ashes of this horrific evil rose the miracle of the State of Israel, and once again God’s army was prepared to carry out the commandment of conquering the Land of Israel.
In 1967, 22 years after the Holocaust, the IDF again took on the mantle of ‘the Army of Hashem’ as approximately 100,000 IDF troops were deployed against a quarter million enemies bent on the annihilation of the fledgling Jewish state. In a miraculous victory, the IDF defeated their enemies and reunited the People of Israel with their eternal capital. Today, we celebrate that victory on Jerusalem Day.