By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
My husband and I have refrained thus far from filling out the census forms sent to us by the government, as we know the Torah forbids Jews to take part in a census. Does this apply to the census on hand from the U.S. government, or is this permissible and why?
The prohibition you are referring to is in the verses “When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, every man shall give G-d an atonement for his soul when counting them, so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them. This shall they give, everyone who passes through the census, a half shekel of the sacred shekel…” (Exodus 30:12-13). This teaches that when it is necessary to conduct a census of the Jews, it must be done by having the people contribute items, and the items would be counted rather than the people themselves.
At different times throughout the Jews’ sojourn in the desert and afterward, a census was taken, such as at the beginning of the book of Bamidbar/Numbers. There the commentaries explain that because of G-d’s intense love for the Jewish nation, He counted them, as one counts again and again that which he loves. The commentators point out that the census mentioned there, as well, was conducted by the contribution of coins to the Temple; the coins, not the people themselves, were counted.
Nachmanides, one of the classical commentaries to the Torah in the beginning of his explanation of the book of Numbers, goes to great lengths discussing the proscription against counting the Jews and the mistake made by King David in the Second Book of Samuel (Ch. 24), when he took a census and counted the Jews, indeed bringing on a terrible plague which killed some 70,000 Jews. According to Nachmanides, better known as Ramban, the mistake was not that David counted the Jews; this is permissible whenever necessary for the sake of national needs. His mistake was that he counted them for no need whatsoever; the king, out of his love for the Jews, wanted to know their number. This is implicit by his counting from the age of 13, rather than the standard age of 20 which obliges one to army duty and would have shown that the count was necessary for military reasons. One of David’s chief advisers actually warned the king of this mistake, but David, unfortunately, did not heed his warning.
Ramban points out that the Torah calls a census, literally, “raising the heads of the Jews.” It is a time of elevation. G-d does not want the entire Jewish people counted, as they should remain elevated above the mundane world and be as uncountable as the stars in the heavens. By counting the Jews by number, we would be considering them as just a number, not regarding each one as the unique individual every Jew is. Rather than “raising their heads” we would be lowering them and rendering the Jewish nation as just another nation of numbers of people. When we count the shekels, their donations, which is effect counting a mitzvah they have done, this is truly an elevation of the people.
Much discussion among contemporary authorities of Jewish law has taken place concerning the census conducted by the government of Israel. Some, including certain chief rabbis, have listed numerous reasons that a census taken of Jews in the land of Israel comes under the prohibition against counting Jews. Other opinions permit the government-sponsored census. (A thorough discussion of this question can be found on yutorah.org, in an article by Rabbi Dr. J. David Bleich on the controversy around the census in Israel.)
In the United States, however, for many decades it has been the nearly unanimous opinion of authorities of Jewish law that since the purpose is to count American citizens and not to count Jews, it is totally permitted, even if one lists his or her religion as Jewish. And since it is permitted, it is also obligatory and praiseworthy to do so in the eyes of halachah, as it is the law of the land, by which we are required to abide as citizens of this country and as Jews.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.