Who Knows 49? The Many Things We Count
What are the things you count in your own life, why do you count them, and how do you count them?
In the Jewish tradition, we count all kinds of things throughout the year. We count shofar blasts on Yom Kippur, days of Chanukah, plagues at the Seder on Passover, years for the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and so much more! What else can you think of?
This sheet will highlight just a few of the things we count, and one, in particular, which we really don't like to count!
1. In the lead-up to Shavuot, we count out loud and name the number of days and weeks that have passed since the second night of Passover:
(טו) וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃ (טז) עַ֣ד מִֽמָּחֳרַ֤ת הַשַּׁבָּת֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תִּסְפְּר֖וּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים י֑וֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֛ם מִנְחָ֥ה חֲדָשָׁ֖ה לַיהוָֽה׃
(15) And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: (16) you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD.
(ג) ו'שבועות' הוא יום 'מתן תורה'. ולהגדיל היום ההוא ימנו הימים מן המועד הראשון אליו - כמי שממתין בוא הנאמן שבאוהביו שהוא מונה היום וגם השעות. וזאת היא סיבת 'ספירת העומר' מיום צאתם ממצרים עד יום 'מתן תורה' שהוא היה הכונה והתכלית ביציאתם - כאמרו "ואביא אתכם אלי".
(3) The Feast of Weeks is the anniversary of the Revelation on Mount Sinai. In order to raise the importance of this day, we count the days that pass since the preceding festival, just as one who expects his most intimate friend on a certain day counts the days and even the hours. This is the reason why we count the days that pass since the offering of the Omer, between the anniversary of our departure from Egypt and the anniversary of the Lawgiving. The latter was the aim and object of the exodus from Egypt, and thus God said, "I brought you unto myself" (Exod. 19:4).
2. Do you know how many mitzvot (commandments) there are? If you do, how do you know? Have you ever counted? And which of the many Torah commands are included? From the times of the Talmud onward, many have sought to count and categorize the mitzvot - and guess what? Not all lists match up one-to-one!
דרש רבי שמלאי שש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות נאמרו לו למשה שלש מאות וששים וחמש לאוין כמנין ימות החמה ומאתים וארבעים ושמונה עשה כנגד איבריו של אדם אמר רב המנונא מאי קרא (דברים לג, ד) תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה תורה בגימטריא שית מאה וחד סרי הוי אנכי ולא יהיה לך מפי הגבורה שמענום
§ Rabbi Simlai taught: There were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding to the number of a person’s limbs. Rav Hamnuna said: What is the verse that alludes to this? It is written: “Moses commanded to us the Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). The word Torah, in terms of its numerical value [gimatriyya], is 611, the number of mitzvot that were received and taught by Moses our teacher. In addition, there are two mitzvot: “I am the Lord your God” and: “You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:2, 3), the first two of the Ten Commandments, that we heard from the mouth of the Almighty, for a total of 613.
3. Counting the mitzvot is a tough job, but doable! What about counting letters and verses? That must take a lot of time!
לפיכך נקראו ראשונים סופרים שהיו סופרים כל האותיות שבתורה שהיו אומרים וא"ו (ויקרא יא, מב) דגחון חציין של אותיות של ס"ת (ויקרא י, טז) דרש דרש חציין של תיבות (ויקרא יג, לג) "והתגלח" של פסוקים (תהלים פ, יד) יכרסמנה חזיר מיער עי"ן דיער חציין של תהלים (תהלים עח, לח) והוא רחום יכפר עון חציו דפסוקים
Therefore, because they devoted so much time to the Bible, the first Sages were called: Those who count [soferim], because they would count all the letters in the Torah, as they would say that the letter vav in the word “belly [gaḥon]” (Leviticus 11:42) is the midpoint of the letters in a Torah scroll. The words: “Diligently inquired [darosh darash]” (Leviticus 10:16), are the midpoint of the words in a Torah scroll. And the verse that begins with: “Then he shall be shaven” (Leviticus 13:33), is the midpoint of the verses. Similarly, in the expression: “The boar out of the wood [miya’ar] ravages it” (Psalms 80:14), the ayin in the word wood [ya’ar] is the midpoint of Psalms, with regard to its number of letters. The verse: “But He, being full of compassion, forgives iniquity” (Psalms 78:38), is the midpoint of verses in the book of Psalms.
4. One thing we don't count is people! So, how did we take a census in Biblical times? And if we count so many things, why don't we count people, too?
(יב) כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַה' בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם׃
(12) When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.
(א) כי תשא. לְשׁוֹן קַבָּלָה, כְּתַרְגּוּמוֹ; כְּשֶׁתַּחְפֹּץ לְקַבֵּל סְכוּם מִנְיָנָם לָדַעַת כַּמָּה הֵם, אַל תִּמְנֵם לַגֻּלְגֹּלֶת, אֶלָּא יִתְּנוּ כָּל אֶחָד מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל וְתִמְנֶה אֶת הַשְּׁקָלִים וְתֵדַע מִנְיָנָם:
"When you take a census" - The sense is: when you wish to obtain the sum total of their number — to know how many they are — do not take their census by their polls but each of them shall give half a shekel, and you shall count these, and so ascertain their number.
...דאמר רבי יצחק אסור למנות את ישראל אפילו לדבר מצוה דכתיב (שמואל א יא, ח) ויפקדם בבזק...רבי אלעזר כל המונה את ישראל עובר בלאו שנאמר (הושע ב, א) והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים אשר לא ימד רב נחמן בר יצחק אמר עובר בשני לאוין שנאמר לא ימד ולא יספר...
...Rabbi Yitzḥak said: It is prohibited to count Jews directly, even for the purposes of a mitzva, as it is written concerning King Saul and his count of his soldiers: “And he numbered them with bezek(I Samuel 11:8), meaning that he counted them through shards, one shard representing each man, rather than counting them directly...Rabbi Elazar said: Whoever counts a group of Jews violates a negative mitzva, as it is stated: “And the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured” (Hosea 2:1). Rabbi Elazar interprets the verse to be saying: Which may not be measured. Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: One who counts a group of Jews in fact violates two negative mitzvot, as it is stated in that verse: “Which cannot be measured and cannot be counted” (Hosea 2:1).
(ב) ולא יהיה בהם נגף. שֶׁהַמִּנְיָן שׁוֹלֵט בּוֹ עַיִן הָרָע, וְהַדֶּבֶר בָּא עֲלֵיהֶם, כְּמוֹ שֶׁמָּצִינוּ בִימֵי דָּוִד (שמואל ב כ"ד):
"That no plague may come upon them" - For numbers (i.e. things that have been numbered) are subject to the influence of the “evil eye”, and therefore if you count them by their polls pestilence may befall them, as we find happened, in the days of David (II Samuel 24:10 and 15).
5. We don't count other people, but we do count the days since we last saw a loved one. Is there anyone in your life you have not seen for a while (surely, during the pandemic, the answer is "yes" for many of us). There's a special berakha we make when it's been a certain number of days since we last saw someone:
אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי: הָרוֹאֶה אֶת חֲבֵירוֹ לְאַחַר שְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם, אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרוּךְ … שֶׁהֶחֱיָינוּ וְקִיְּימָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה״. לְאַחַר שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ, אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרוּךְ … מְחַיֵּה הַמֵּתִים״. אָמַר רַב: אֵין הַמֵּת מִשְׁתַּכֵּחַ מִן הַלֵּב אֶלָּא לְאַחַר שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״נִשְׁכַּחְתִּי כְּמֵת מִלֵּב הָיִיתִי כִּכְלִי אוֹבֵד״.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his friend after thirty days have passed since last seeing him recites: Blessed…Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time. One who sees his friend after twelve months recites: Blessed…Who revives the dead. As Rav said: A dead person is only forgotten from the heart after twelve months have elapsed, as it is stated: “I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind; I am like a lost vessel” (Psalms 31:13), and with regard to the laws of lost objects, it is human nature to despair of recovering a lost object after twelve months (see Bava Metzia 28a).
Can you think of other things that we count in Jewish tradition?
What do you count in your own life?