Ask the Rabbi: May Israel conduct a census?

Jewish leaders continue to obsess over demographics in Israel and abroad.

Torah scroll 521 (photo credit: Stockbyte)
Torah scroll 521
(photo credit: Stockbyte)
Jewish leaders continue to obsess over demographics in Israel and abroad, ranging from debates over a two-state solution to the assimilation crisis. Yet the notion of counting the entire nation or even a segment thereof remains tangled in halachic controversy.
The Talmud states multiple times that it is forbidden to directly count the Jewish people. The clearest biblical source for this prohibition seemingly stems from the half-shekel payments made by each Israelite before the building of the Tabernacle.
“When you take a census of the Israelite people... each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled that no plague may come upon them...” (Exodus 30:12). While talk of ransom (kofer) implies protection from previous sins, most understand the payment as necessary to prevent harm from the census.
The most common explanation of this fear contends that the counting of individuals might draw the evil eye (Rashi). Some have explained that Divine Providence more favorably judges a group, whereas individuals receive more attention to their personal vices (Seforno), similar to the judgment performed on Rosh Hashana (Rabbenu Behayei). Others tried to give a more naturalistic explanation for the evil eye phenomenon (Abarbanel).
In any case, it is on this basis that Jews from the early medieval period refrained from directly counting heads to check for the requisite 10 members of a prayer quorum (Sefer Ha’itim 174). Instead, they count using each word from a 10-word biblical verse (Kitzur Shulhan Aruch 15:3).
Other talmudic sages cited as a source for this prohibition the prophecies in Genesis (32:12) and Hosea (2:1) that the people would be impossible to count, like the grains of sand (Yoma 22a). They further asserted that direct population surveys would be prohibited even when done for the sake of a mitzva. As such, the Temple priests were counted by numbering their outstretched fingers, without counting them directly (MT Tmidim Umusafim 4:3-4).
The Talmud further praises King Saul for the two military tallies he performed before going to war (I Samuel 11:8, 15:4) because he took the poll using personal items like pottery shards (Radak 15:4). To avoid this prohibition, some based general population estimates on the number of people participating in the annual Paschal sacrifice preceding Passover (Pessahim 64b).
Scholars struggled to explain how King David could commit an elementary error (Brachot 62b) in conducting a forbidden census that was punished with a plague that killed 70,000 citizens (II Samuel 24:15). Some claimed that the entire survey was a purposeless act of hubris (Ramban Numbers 1:3). Others more generously asserted that David erred in believing that a direct count was only prohibited in the desert, but not once Israel entered in the Land of Israel (Ramban Exodus 30:12). Others alternatively claimed that the firmness of the prohibition only became clear after this incident (Levush Haorah Exodus 30:12).
Some concluded from these passages that a census was only allowed when done indirectly and for the sake of a mitzva (Tosafot Rid Yoma). Other sources, however, indicate that any population survey remains permissible if done for a good reason (Bamidbar Raba 2:17), while other decisors indicate that any indirect counts circumvent the prohibition (Perush Mishnayot Yoma 2:1).
This entire question gained renewed interest with the return of the organized settlement of the Land of Israel. While the issue was already raised in the beginning of the 19th century (Kovetz She’elot Uteshuvot Hatam Sofer 8), it became a cause celebre in the 20th century. In 1937, Rabbi Benzion Uziel permitted a membership tally in preparation for labor union elections, arguing that written surveys were a sufficiently indirect method of counting and that the polling was necessary for fair elections (Piskei Uziel Beshe’elot Hazman 40).
Similar sentiments were later echoed by Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg, who argued that a census was essential for economic planning and national security (Seridei Esh 1:140). Rabbi Menachem Kasher added that the inclusion of non-Jewish citizens obviates the prohibition, along with the fact that any large-scale census is inevitably inexact (Torah Shlema Vol. 21). Rabbis Hayyim Halevi (Aseh Lecha Rav Vol. 6 p. 301, 378) and Shaul Yisrael (Amud Hayemani 13) alternatively argued that it is easier to circumvent this prohibition when it does not intend to cover the entire Jewish people.
Great reservations with the census, however, were raised by rabbis Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer 7:3) and Shlomo Goren (Torat Hemedina No. 20), even as they marshaled arguments in both directions. The fiercest opposition stemmed from anti-Zionist figures, including Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky and the Eda Haredit, who rejected the necessity of the state’s census and discouraged participation among their loyalists (Tehumin 4).
While the assistance of the chief rabbinate and the use of computer technology have helped allay some concerns, the census remains a contentious topic, particularly amongst those who reject the necessity of the Zionist state.