Bemidbar (1:1 – 4:20), Shavuot

This week, we start reading a new book of the Torah, variously called Bamidbar (in the desert), Bemidbar (in [the] desert of…i.e., Sinai), or B’midbar (same).  In English, it’s called Numbers, and there are a lot of them in this portion.  We are back to narrative after all those priestly instructions in Leviticus.  Thirteen months have passed since the Exodus.  The Lord orders a census of potential soldiers, men aged 20 and up.  The total is 603,550.  The Levite males are separately counted from one month and up.  They stand in for the Israelite firstborns, taking their place in performing assigned duties in connection with the Tabernacle. The Israelite tribes are camped in a square around the Tabernacle, 3 tribes per side. 

Why a census?  An obvious reason is to gauge military strength.  But the act of counting was taken very seriously in the ancient world.  When you count, you single out individuals, thereby making them vulnerable.  Taboos and superstitions abound.  For example, “you should never count money, your children or your possessions, as this can make them go away… The same is true for livestock — like counting chickens before they hatch — as well as fish and gambling winnings. Some superstitious types claim that weighing babies at birth also brings bad luck, as does counting the stones in ancient monuments.” (13 Superstitions About Numbers by BAMBI TURNER)

King David got into major trouble with an unauthorized census.  According to Song-Mi Suzie Park in Census and Censure: Sacred Threshing Floors and Counting Taboos in 2 Samuel 24  (2013), counting heads was akin to creating, as if David was denying the Lord’s role “as the ultimate king, creator and counter.”  Also, the text can be ambiguous.  In Numbers 1:2, the command is to “lift up the head” (s’u et rosh), which can connote exaltation or decapitation.  For the rest of the counting instructions, a different word is used, Then, verse 1:3 uses a different word for “you will count,” (tifk’du), which connotes taking special notice.  Again, this could be good or bad.  You could be counting precious possessions with joy or counting with anxiety, like Aunt Em in the “Wizard of Oz” movie, counting how many chicks survived an incubator malfunction

Immediately following Shabbat, we come to Shavuot, aka “Pentecost.” Like Sukkot and Pesach (Passover), it’s a harvest festival, this time the harvest of the first fruits (in Israel).  We also celebrate the Revelation at Sinai (the giving of the Ten Commandments), so naturally we read about this on the first day, Exodus 19:1-20:23.   And there is the obligatory reading about sacrifices, Numbers 28:26-31.  The haftarah is Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12, Ezekiel’s chariot visions.  An 11th century liturgical poem called Akdamut is also chanted on the first day.  Orthodox and Conservative Jews celebrate two days, on the second day reading Deut. 15:19-16:17 (holidays) and, once again, Numbers 28:26-31.  The haftarah, Habakkuk 2:20-3:19, is a prayer for merciful amid impending exile.  A mystical song of praise, Yetziv Pitgam, is often inserted into the Habakkuk haftarah. The Torah doesn’t say a whole lot about the holiday’s observance beyond offerings, not even connecting it with the Ten Commandments, its current central theme.  Even the date is ambiguous in the Torah (Lev. 23:15-16 and Deut. 16:9); we finally settled on the 6th of Sivan, 7 weeks (whence the name, “Shavuot” meaning weeks) after the second day of Pesach. 

Other customs are all-night study sessions (I just go to a 2-hour one), decorating with flowers (we’ve got lots of roses this year), reading the Book of Ruth which celebrates conversion (joining the tribe) and occurs at harvest time, and eating dairy (cheesecake, blintzes, ice cream, etc.).  It’s a nice, quiet spring holiday, requiring a whole lot less effort than Sukkot and Pesach. 

Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach,


Ron Josephson  9/16/15, FB

Number Trivia

Dr. Arthur Benjamin, math professor at Harvey Mudd College in California made the following observation [last Rosh Hashanah about the New Year according to the Hebrew calendar, 5776]:

The year 5776 is a perfect square, 76 x 76. It’s the only one you will ever see since 75^2 = 5625 was 151 years ago and 77^2 = 5929 is 153 years from now. It is also the only 4-digit square that ends with its square root. Happy new year!



There once was a business owner who was interviewing people for a division manager position. He decided to select the individual that could answer the question “how much is 2+2?”

The engineer pulled out his slide rule and shuffled it back and forth, and finally announced, “It lies between 3.98 and 4.02”.
The mathematician said, “In two hours I can demonstrate it equals 4 with the following short proof.”
The physicist declared, “It’s in the magnitude of 1×101.”
The logician paused for a long while and then said, “This problem is solvable.”
The social worker said, “I don’t know the answer, but I am glad that we discussed this important question.
The attorney stated, “In the case of Svenson vs. the State, 2+2 was declared to be 4.”
The trader asked, “Are you buying or selling?”
The accountant looked at the business owner, then got out of his chair, went to see if anyone was listening at the door and pulled the drapes. Then he returned to the business owner, leaned across the desk and said in a low voice, “What would you like it to be?”


Funniest Census Record Ever

(The reproduced census pages are at the website)

Posted by Lara Diamond at 5:55 PM  Tuesday, November 3, 2015

This past weekend, I did an Ancestry search for some version of Sanshuck.  I don’t remember the exact search, but in the list of results was someone named “Purity Sincerity” in the 1940 census.  Although I knew she (?) wasn’t related to me, I looked at the census record anyways–and found the best census record I’ve ever seen.

This led to more than four full pages of women, nearly all with what must not have been their true names.  At first I thought that perhaps this was a brothel or something similar, but the majority of the women are in their 50s-70s, with the professions mostly being domestics in private homes, with a few cooks in the mix.

The first page shows that this odd household was headed by 52-year-old “Bunch of Love.”  Some of the other women on this page include “Meek Humble,” “Bright Sunshine,” Friendship Kindheart,” “Big Diamond” (could she be related to me?), and “Faith Alone.”

The second page has “Purity Sincerity” (definitely not a Sanshuck), two “Mary Magdalenes” (one aged 71, one aged 58), “Four Square,” “Truth Justice,” “Rejoice Evermore,” and “Red Rose.”  Somehow “Margareta Brook” lived in this home as well.

The third page continues the theme.  “Promised Land Goal” lived in this home as did “Rose O.M. Heart,” “Happy Angel,” “Happy Smiles,” and “Truthful Daylight.”  And this odd household wraps up with women including “Missouri Harbor,” “Sweet Inspiration,” and “Maria Love.”

So what was this household?  The addresses covered span three house numbers (32, 36 & 38) on West 123rd Street in New York City.  It appears that this was part of a cult–“Father Divine Peace Mission.” Faithful Mary testified in the Supreme Court of the State of New York in 1937 that
32-38 West 123rd Street was an “Extension Heaven” (page 216).  According to the lawsuit, Father Divine “particularly condemned private ownership of property” and ended up taking his followers’ money and property.  So not so funny in the end but still worthy of a blog post.


Jokes from Graham’s, The Family Dairy

What did the heifer say to the other heifer moaning about her sore udder?
Stop milking it! (David Cox)

What type of cheese isn’t yours?
Nacho Cheese! (Graeme McShane)

What do you get if you cross a cow with a duck?
Milk and Quackers!

Did you hear about the explosion at the at the cheese factory?
There was de-Brie everywhere!

What is a pirate’s favourite cheese?
Cheddaaaaaaaaar!  (Katie Moffett)


tph only a couple work for me10-commandments-cartoon


The Yada-Yada (excerpts)

Jerry: Hey, George, you know Tim Whatley.
George: Yeah, dentist of the stars.
Jerry: What’s up?
Tim: I’ll tell you what’s up. I’m a Jew.
Jerry: Excuse me?
Tim: I’m a Jew. I finished converting two days ago.
Jerry: Well… (Thinking of something to say) Welcome aboard.
Tim: Thanks.

George: Hey, were you just at the health club?
Tim: Oh, well, I didn’t do much. I just sat in the sauna. You know, it was more like a Jewish workout. I’ll see ya. (Jerry and George give confused looks)

Elaine and Jerry at his place.
Jerry: Elaine, the guy’s Jewish two days, he’s already making Jewish jokes.

Jerry is in the dental chair
Tim: All right, it is cavity time. Ah, here we go. Which reminds me, did you hear the one about the rabbi and the farmer’s daughter? Huh?

Jerry: Tim, do you think you should be making jokes like that?
Tim: Why not? I’m Jewish, remember?
Jerry: I know, but…
Tim: Jerry, it’s our sense of humor that sustained us as a people for 3000 years.
Jerry: 5000.
Tim: 5000, even better. Okay, Chrissie. Give me a schtickle of fluoride.

Jerry and Elaine at Jerry’s apartment.
Jerry: And then he asked the assistant for a schtickle of fluoride.
Elaine: Why are you so concerned about this?
Jerry: I’ll tell you why. Because I believe Whatley converted to Judaism just for the jokes.

Later, in a confessional.
Father: Tell me your sins, my son.
Jerry: Well I should tell you that I’m Jewish.
Father: That’s no sin.
Jerry: Oh good. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism just for the jokes.
Father: And this offends you as a Jewish person.
Jerry: No, it offends me as a comedian.


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