The Jews were counted several times during their journey through the desert to the Promised Land. Beyond historical records, these Divinely-ordained censuses displayed G‑d’s infinite love for each individual. Read on for 11 facts about the methodology, minutiae, and meaning of these tallies.

1. There Were Three Censuses

The Jews were counted three times during their 40 years in the desert.

  • The first census took place in the Hebrew month of Tishrei in the year 2449 (1312 BCE), about six months after they left Egypt.1
  • They were tallied a second time half a year later, on 1 Iyar.2
  • Finally, 39 years later (in 2488/1273 BCE), they were counted again, shortly before Moses’ passing and the nation’s entry to the Land of Israel.3

Read: How Do We Know When Moses Died?

2. Each Jew Gave Half a Shekel

Rather than employing a head count, each Jew was required to donate a half-shekel coin, all of which were then counted to provide a total.4 The coins did not go to waste; those given at the first census were melted down into silver sockets for the Tabernacle, while the coins of the next two censuses were used to purchase public sacrifices.5 Although donating a half shekel for public sacrifices was an annual duty,6 the coins were utilized for census purposes specifically in these two instances.

Read: What Was the Tabernacle?

3. Only Warrior-Aged Males Were Counted

Far from being a comprehensive accounting of all men, women, and children, only males above the age of 20 were counted—the age suited to wage war.7

Read: Don’t Women Count?

4. Leaders Were Census Takers

While the first census was relatively informal,8 the second was led by no less prestigious a personage as Moses himself, accompanied by his brother Aaron and the 12 tribal leaders.9 For the third census, which took place after Aaron’s passing, Aaron’s son Elazar filled his role.10

Read: Census Takers

5. The Levites Were Different

In the second and third censuses, the tribe of Levi was counted separately and their sum was not included in the overall tally of Jewish men.11

Read: Why Was Levi Not Counted?

Also unique to the Levites was the age of counting: where the members of the other tribes were counted from age 20, the Levites began with infants just one month old.12

Watch: Counting the Baby Levites

6. Two of the Totals Were Identical

Here are the grand totals of each census:13

First census


Second census


Third census


How is it possible that the first two counts were identical if half a year passed in between? Some suggest that the surplus caused by those turning 20 between Tishrei and Iyar was offset by those who passed away in the interim, or by not including the Levites in the second census.14 Alternatively, it is suggested that only their ages on the first day of the year were considered, making the sums identical since both censuses occurred in the same calendar year.15

7. Desert Plagues Took Their Toll

Although births (or in this case, new 20-year-olds) usually outpace deaths, the grand total in the third census was short 1,820 of the previous two. This disparity can be understood in light of the plagues that had occurred in the interim as Divine punishment for the sins committed in the desert.16

Read: Trials in the Desert

8. Simeon Had the Greatest Discrepancy

In addition to the grand total, the last two censuses list the totals of each individual tribe, as follows:17

Census #2

Census #3








































The significant discrepancy in the tribe of Simeon—a loss of 37,100 men in 39 years—was due in part to the plague at Shittim which decimated 24,000 of its members.18

Read: Who Cares How Many Reubenites There Were!

9. Direct Counting Was (and Is) Avoided

Why was the count conducted via half-shekel coins instead of a simple head count? This was done to avoid the potential negative consequences associated with the “evil eye.”19 Even today, indirect methods are used when tallying Jews20 (such as a 10-word verse when counting for a minyan21).

Read: Laws of Counting Jews

10. King David Counted Too—the Wrong Way

Scripture records that when King David arranged a census some 450 years later, he counted the people directly, resulting in a plague that killed some 70,000 Jews.22 According to another tradition, the reason for the plague was that David counted the Jews to satisfy his curiosity and not for a specific purpose, which is also forbidden.23

Read: The Story of King David

11. They Demonstrated G‑d’s Love

G‑d, of course, knows how many of us there are without counting. But rather than being technical mechanisms, these censuses served to demonstrate the value of every individual and how much G‑d cherishes each one.24 The Chassidic masters add that each person was counted equally, irrespective of his level of observance, talents, and social status. This highlights our common denominator—the G‑dly soul within each Jew, with unlimited potential for us to reveal.

Read: The 603,550th Jew