Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)

This week we begin reading the book of Numbers, in Hebrew Bemidbar (in the wilderness of… i.e., Sinai) or Bamidbar (in the wilderness).  Bemidbar is the first major word in the text, which is how the books and portions are typically designated, but Bamidbar makes more sense as the name of a book, and I’ve seen both used.   Anyhow, while the Hebrew is more descriptive of the book as a whole, the English name better describes this portion, which is dominated by numbers.  The Lord commands Moses to take a census of males for the army, aged 20 and up, except for the Levites.  The tribal leaders are named and the tribes counted, for a grand total of 603,550.  (No, I’m not going to get into the question of how or whether the wilderness could support the huge population implied by an armed force of 603,550.)  The counting takes place in the Hebrew month of Iyar, 13 months after the Exodus, and it’s appropriate for us to read this portion at this time of year, since we too are in the month of Iyar and are still counting the omer, counting down to the holiday of Shavuot.

The Levites are special, having supported Moses and the Lord after the Golden Calf incident, and are counted separately.  They substitute for the firstborn of Israel in terms of being dedicated to the service of the Lord.  Specifically, in the wilderness, they take care of the Tabernacle, each clan (Gershon, Kohath, Merari) assigned specific chores for its maintenance, set up, disassembly, and portage.  They are counted from the age of one month and up, and one month is still the age at which a firstborn son is “redeemed” at a Pidyon HaBen ceremony.

The counted tribes camp on different sides of the Tabernacle, three tribes per side, each with its own flag.  The Levites camp next to and around the Tabernacle.  That brings me to the first of two resonances I feel with this Torah portion: memories of summer camp.  I went to Camp Galil, a Habonim (Labor Zionist) camp (where I deduced that socialism would never work, but that’s a different story) one month each of two summers.   I generally enjoyed camp, except for homesickness and deep water.  I liked the pool (shallow end), bunk beds, woods, creek, nearby fields, singing, dancing, schedules, and some of the people (Hi, Rachel!).  My husband went to two different Ramah camps, one summer each, one of which he enjoyed (the Berkshires, as I recall). The kids both went to Galil, which seemed the best fit for them among Jewish summer camps, and I got to see how it had and hadn’t changed in the ensuing decades.

The second resonance?  Numbers.  I’ve always liked numbers, though not as much as words.  People generally recognize how much words can be twisted, but they are far more innocent regarding numbers and attribute more certainty to them than they usually deserve.  When you measure something, produce a number, and make decisions based on that number, you’ve got to make sure your number (like a test score) actually measures what you want it to measure (like mastery of a subject). But I do like counting.  My then-boyfriend-now-husband and I liked to watch Sesame Street when it was still rather new, and the Count was one of our favorites.

tph count

Our kids also had fun with numbers.  Our daughter learned subtraction (“take away”) quite precociously, even before addition, linking it to eating, i.e., “three grapes take away one grape leaves two grapes” (pause, eat), “two grapes take away one grape leaves one grape” (pause, eat), etc.  Years later, as she analyzed an algebra problem, her little brother solved for x in his head, explaining “I just undid it.”

Shabbat shalom,



The traditional number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah is 613.  The question arose recently at my shul, in a teen class discussion about prime numbers in prayers, as to whether 613 is a prime number, i.e., evenly divisible only by 1 and itself.  Turns out, it is.  From Wikipedia (Thanks, Mel!), at

Mathematical properties

613 is a prime number, the first number of prime triplet (pp + 4, p + 6), middle number of sexy prime triple (p − 6, pp + 6). It is the index of a prime Lucas number.[1]

613 is a centered square number with 18 per side, a circular number of 21 with a square grid and 27 using a triangular grid. It is also 17-gonal.

613 is the sum of squares of two consecutive integers, 17 and 18, and is also a lucky number.

Other occurrences

The 613 commandments (Hebrew: תרי”ג מצוות‎: taryag mitzvot, “613 Mitzvot”) – 613 is the number of mitzvot in the Jewish Torah.

In Jewish Kabbalah the number 613 is very significant, every complete entity is seen as being divisible into 613 parts: 613 parts of every Sefirah; 613 parts of divine mitzvot in the Torah; 613 parts of the human body.

The number 613 hangs from the rafters at Madison Square Garden in honor of legendary New York Knicks coach Red Holzman‘s 613 victories.

The Beatles mentioned “love” in their lyrics 613 times.[2]

In Scandal, the secret agency is known as B613.


  1. Jump up^ What’s Special About This Number?
  2. Jump up^ Beatles lyrics and the words they used most


The Largest Known Prime Number

A mathematician at the University of Central Missouri has discovered the largest-known prime number to date — and it’s 17,425,170 digits long. The number, 2 raised to the 57,885,161 power minus 1, was discovered using a network of computers making 150 trillion calculations per second, and is also the 48th example of a rare type known as Mersenne Primes. The last largest prime number was found in 2008 and was 12,978,189 digits long. (2/5/13)


tph Nerd-Jokes-01-685x484

Camper Comments (selected)

These are actual comments left on U. S. Forest Service registration sheets and comment cards by backpackers completing wilderness camping trips:

  • “A small deer came into my camp and stole my bag of pickles. Is there a way I can get reimbursed? Please call.”
  • “Escalators would help on steep uphill sections.”
  •  “Trails need to be wider so people can walk while holding hands.”
  •  “Found a smoldering cigarette left by a horse.”
  • “Trails need to be reconstructed. Please avoid building trails that go uphill.”
  • “Too many bugs and leeches and spiders and spider webs. Please spray the wilderness to rid the area of these pests.”
  • “Need more signs to keep area pristine.”
  • “A McDonald’s would be nice at the trail head.”
  • “The places where trails do not exist are not well marked.”
  • “Too many rocks in the mountains.”

Setting Up Camp

The loaded mini-van pulled into the only remaining campsite. Four children leaped from the vehicle and began feverishly unloading gear and setting up the tent. The boys rushed to gather firewood, while the girls and their mother set up the camp stove and cooking utensils.

A nearby camper marveled to the youngsters’ father, “That, sir, is some display of teamwork.”

The father replied, “I have a system — no one goes to the bathroom until the camp is set up.”

A Pigeon Called Richard

Covina, Calif: I recall reading something years ago about the Pledge of Allegiance. Some child thought it began, “I led the pigeons to the flag.”
Cleveland, Ohio: When I was little, I often wondered who Richard Stands was. You know – “I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Republic for Richard Stands.”

Red lingerie to lure Hungarians online for census

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary has produced a provocative video advertisement to encourage more people to fill out its national census online next month.

In a video posted on social networking sites on Wednesday, a topless young woman in red underwear, lacy black stockings and holding a whip opens the door to a census taker, who, realising he has arrived at an inopportune moment — offers her the option of completing the census online.

“We want to reach the younger generation as well, and the internet is more for this generation, it uses their language,” Imre Dobossy, a top communications official at the Central Statistics Office (KSH) told Reuters.

The last time Hungarians were counted was 10 years ago, and this will be first time they will be able to fill out the questionnaire online.

More than 37,000 census takers will collect data nationwide in October, the KSH said on its official census website

(Reporting by Krisztina Than, editing by Paul Casciato)


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1 Response to Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)

  1. een1096 says:

    Thanks, I! I love the way your kids learned math when they were little. They were so precocious. But then what do you expect?:D


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