The special parshah that we will be reading this week iy”H, parshas Shekalim, discusses collecting one half-shekel from each member of B’nei Yisrael who is to be counted in a census. This is so that we can count the half-shekels, rather than count the B’nei Yisrael themselves. Various limudim teach how we derive from here the yearly obligation to give a half-shekel to the Mishkan, and later to the Beis Hamikdash, with which to purchase the public korbanos. This is actually the reason why we read this parshah this coming Shabbos, since the ‘year’ vis a vis korbanos starts in Nissan. Thus, thirty days earlier, we are to start collecting those half-shekels. However, we will be addressing the aspect of the half-shekel collection being a means that enabled the ‘indirect’ census of B’nei Yisrael.  The nature of how counting half-shekels instead of people averts counting the people themselves is not as clear as it might seem.

Rashi at the beginning of the parshah (Shemos 30:12) explains that in order to avoid ayin hara, which can affect things that are counted (we will explain this concept in detail later), B’nei Yisrael gave the half-shekels, and it was the half-shekels which were counted, rather than B’nei Yisrael. Thus, any ayin hara would be avoided.

However, if that is the case, why does the passuk refer to the giving of the half-shekel as a ‘kofer-nefesh’ —atonement for one’s soul? That would seem to imply that a reason for a potential punishment had existed, and that the donation of monies towards a special cause —in this case, the Mishkan— would be, as we would say, ‘ah kapparah.’ But why should that be the case, if the whole problem was preempted by the giving and counting of the half-shekels instead of the people. Yet Rashi explains the words (ibid. 15) “to atone for your souls”— ‘so that you not be punished because of the count.’ Didn’t Rashi say just three pesukim earlier that the half-shekels were to be counted and not the people in order to avoid the whole problem?

The Gemara (Yoma 22b) discusses a lottery system employed in the Beis Hamikdash to determine which kohanim would serve in that day’s avodah (sacrificial services) and what task each of these kohanim would perform. For each role in the avodah, the eligible kohanim would stand in a circle and stretch out one or two fingers, which were then counted until a pre-determined number was reached. The kohein by whose finger the count ended ‘won’ the lottery for that part of the service. The Gemara asks, why count the fingers? (This method had given rise to several concerns of subterfuge.) Why not just count the kohanim themselves? The Gemara answers that since it is prohibited to count B’nei Yisrael, those in charge of the avodah had to count the fingers, rather than the kohanim. The Gemara then cites a passuk in Hoshei’a (2:1) as the scriptural source of the prohibition. The Maharsha (ad loc.) wonders why the Gemara does not bring the pesukim of parshas Shekalim, where the Torah itself states that we must not count B’nei Yisrael directly!

The Chasam Sofer offers the following explanation. There is another aspect of the Gemara in Yoma that seems a bit strange. After all, they were not actually counting the number of the kohanim in the Beis Hamikdash! They were not interested in how many or how few there were. It was only a means to conduct the ‘lottery.’ What kind of prohibited ‘counting’ is that?

The Chasam Sofer suggests that there are two distinct, separate issues involved. One is to know and clarify the sum total of B’nei Yisrael. The second is the act of counting them, one by one. True, in the Beis Hamikdash there was no intent to ascertain the amount of kohanim present at any time. Nonetheless, the process of the lottery necessitated a counting of the Kohanim —one, two, three, four… That too is forbidden, and thus required that the outstretched fingers be counted instead. This is why the Gemara there needs to cite the passuk in Hoshei’a, because the pesukim of parshas Shekalim teach us only that we are not to clarify the number, the sum total, of B’nei Yisrael. Only the passuk in Hoshei’a, which states that B’nei Yisrael ‘cannot be counted’ teaches us that the act of directly ‘counting’ Jews is forbidden in and of itself, no matter what we are trying to determine.

This can resolve the difficulty in understanding the seemingly contradictory explanations of Rashi in Ki Sisa/Shekalim. Why was there a need for the half-shekels if there was a kofer nefesh? And why was there a need for kofer nefesh if all they were counting was the half-shekels? Now, the answer is clear. The act of counting B’nei Yisrael is prohibited; thus, the need to count by way of the half-shekel. However, one would still know the exact sum total of B’nei Yisrael by counting the half-shekels! This was the problem that the kofer nefesh was coming to avert; the ayin hara inherent in obtaining the total count of B’nei Yisrael.

We can now delve somewhat deeper to understand the rationale of these two issues —the act of counting, and knowing the total count of B’nei Yisrael.

Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher, in his commentary on Chumash, gives two explanations of the problem with counting B’nei Yisrael. In his introduction to parshas Ki Sisa, he explains that in our lives, we are constantly surrounded by hidden miracles —nissim nistarim. In general, Hashem conducts the world according to a set pattern, which we call teva (nature). When there is a greater need that necessitates His going beyond that set pattern, this is what is called ness (miracle). However, there are still two types of ness. One type does not proclaim itself loudly, for no ‘laws’ of nature are violated. Everything happens in a ‘normal’ manner. Yet fortuitously, coincidentally, ‘luckily,’ someone is in the right place at the right time —and the yeshuah (salvation) comes a la Purim. We can also point to the victory of the few over the many on Chanukah —where no natural laws were violated. Or, for instance, the way you landed that job or made that shidduch. Rabbeinu Bachya says the nissim nistarim are constantly happening —precisely because they remain nissim nistarim. Once an open miracle is “required”, a splitting of the sea, a burning of a small amount of oil for eight days —that will not happen in our period of history, for that is too open a manifestation of Hashem’s reality for us to merit.

Rabbeinu Bachya continues: The Gemara in Bava Metzia (42a) speaks of Hashem’s blessing increasing one’s possessions  and states that once something  is counted, it is no longer subject to that special berachah, because “Berachah  is only to be found in something that is hidden from the  eye (i.e., uncounted).” Rabbeinu Bachya takes this to mean that counting produce creates a situation where now it would require  a ness niglah  to increase it —and that’s not happening, or at least not to us. Berachah happens to something ‘hidden from the eye’ —when we can still experience it as a ness nistar. So too, says Rabbeinu Bachya, we  want to avoid counting B’nei Yisrael, since we want to experience Hashem’s berachah, which will only manifest itself as a ness nistar.

To be continued…