Dear Rabbi,

Today I encountered a most bizarre situation. I passed by a synagogue and someone asked me to join the prayer service. He explained that they needed at least ten worshippers to complete the quorum for the public prayer service.

I readily accepted. But right before the prayer service began, the person standing next to me pointed his finger at each person in the room and muttered some words under his breath. I felt disoriented. Was this some kind of blessing, curse, or something else?


No worries! A curse it certainly was not, for you assisted them in doing something good. However, it also was not a blessing. What happened there was that prior to beginning the prayer service, they did a final count to make sure all ten people were in the room.

I imagine he was counting to ten by using Psalms 28:9, which is comprised of exactly ten words.1 Typically, one person recites the verse word by word while pointing at each person in the quorum. When he reaches the last word, everyone knows that there are ten people in the room, and prayers can begin.

This stems from an ancient tradition not to count Jews with numbers.2

The Source

What is the source for this custom?

When the Jews escaped from Egypt and began their journey through the desert to the Land of Israel, G‑d requested that a census be carried out. However the actual counting of the Jews was not done in the conventional way. G‑d commanded each person to give a half of the ancient shekel coin in a nationwide collection, following which Moses would count the coins and know how many Jews there were.

In Exodus 30:11–13 we read: “And G‑d spoke to Moses, saying: When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to G‑d an atonement for his soul when they are counted, then there will be no plague among them when they are counted. This they shall give, everyone who passes through the counting, half a shekel [coin] . . .”

The same method of counting was used when King Saul wanted to know how many soldiers there were. He asked each of them to bring a kid goat, then he counted the goats to assess how many soldiers there were.3

On the other hand, we see that King David counted the Jews in the conventional way, “from [the city of] Beersheba to [the city of] Dan . . . so that I may know their number.”4 Unfortunately, when the counting was finished, a great plague struck and many Jews died.5

Accordingly the verse reads (Hosea 2:1), “And the number of children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted.”

From these verses we learn that it is best, on every occasion, to refrain from counting the Jewish people in the conventional way. One should look for an alternative, such as the verse used in the synagogue, or counting “not one, not two,” etc. Whichever way you do it, you can use the final number and say, for example, “There are five hundred people in this wedding hall.”

Why No Counting?

While we can never know exactly why G‑d chose that the Jews should never be counted with a census, there are several explanations which give insight into this ancient custom.

  1. The Talmud teaches us that blessing is not found “in something that has been weighed, nor in something that has been measured, nor in something that has been counted, only in something that is hidden from the eyes.”6
  2. Rabbi Bachya ben Asher explains that we do not count separate individuals, since we do not want to single them out and bring judgment upon them. An individual may not have enough merit to pass that judgment. However, when counting as a community, even if judgment is brought upon us, there are sure to be enough good deeds in the community to ensure that they pass the judgment and are found worthy of G‑d’s mercy.7
  3. Some add that when Jews are united, blessings are abundant, but when we divide the nation into individuals, there will be individual scrutiny.8