Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20), Shavuot

Numbers!  Lots of them!

Actually, though its English name is Numbers, the book’s (and weekly portion’s) Hebrew name, “Bamidbar,” means in the wilderness, (or, directly from the text, “Bemidbar,” in the wilderness of…). Of course, that’s how many people feel when confronting numbers.

But not in my family.  My oldest sister doesn’t recall this (Hi, Sar!), but when I was about 6, we were sitting at the kitchen table, and she tried to teach me multiplication. I wasn’t paying attention until I heard, “3 plus 2 equals 5, but 3 times 2 is 6.”  I responded, “Then 4 times 1 is 6?” thinking it was rather silly to have a whole big thing called “multiplication” just for adding 1 to a sum.  Sarah tried again, saying that “3 times 2” means you have two threes, a total of 6, so that made more sense.

My daughter Roz was particularly drawn to subtraction as a toddler, especially with food (“3 grapes take away 1 grape leaves 2 grapes,” munch, repeat). When my son’s teacher wrote 4 minus 7 on the board and asked the class if that was doable, everybody else said “No.”  Alan, a Jeopardy fan, said, “Yes, it’s a negative number.”  I don’t have any cute stories about my husband as a child with numbers.  Yet.

Back to the Torah portion.

After a little over a year at Mount Sinai, the Israelites are preparing to head off to the Promised Land. They are commanded to take a census of Israelite men aged 20+, except for the Levites.   The tribes are told how to arrange themselves in camping around the Tabernacle, three tribes on each side. This also determines the order of march: first, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun; second, Reuben, Shimon, and Gad; third, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin; and fourth, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali.  Total: 603,550, not evenly distributed.  Last year, I finally looked up some opinions as why the tribes are distributed as they are. It’s basically a combination of family rank and future potential.

The census of the Levites is then begun, by house, from one month old and up, each house assigned the duties that normally would have been the responsibility of the first-born Israelites.  At this stage, however, there are more first-born Israelites than Levites, so 5 shekels is to be collected to redeem each “excess” first-born. Israelite.  This is where we get the ritual called pidyon haben, the re-enacted redemption of a month-old, Israelite, first-born son.

There is something about being counted that, from ancient times, has had negative connotations.  Nowadays, in the U.S., people who do not want to be counted are those who do not want to be found.  Unfortunately, this has negative effects on the apportionment of money and Representatives.

Jewish law throws in additional monkey wrenches.  The Talmud contains several statements that it is forbidden to count the Jewish people directly, usually drawing for support on the half-shekel head tax for the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:12).  Also, in Hosea 2:1 in this week’s haftarah, as well as Genesis 33:12, the people are supposed to be uncountable, like grains of sand.  A more primal source of fear of counting is fear of drawing the evil eye (Rashi, “the evil eye controls something which is counted,” Abarbanel).  Besides a head tax, items like words in a verse or shards of pottery could be used to count people indirectly. Some sources conclude that a census of the population is allowed when there’s a good reason, some of these preferring an indirect count.

Numbers can lead us toward a truth.  But numbers do not equal truth. In “The Evil Eye Controls Something Which is Counted: Gaza, Israel, and the Nature of Numbering,” Larry Gilman writes,

“Strange but true: people are both countable objects and distinct universes of absolute worth on which no number can be laid. But the scientific habit of mind does not find this double vision congenial.  The more time we spend quantifying everything in the universe, including people…the less plausible non-quantifiable human value seems. It cannot be detected or measured, which to the scientific mind is suspicious. It smacks of superstition, prescientific thinking, dualism.”

Using numbers as a substitute for truth is dangerous.  You end up aiming for the number, not for the reality.  If you are sick, and the thermometer reads 102 ºF, your goal should be to understand why and figure out how to get well; it’s not to figure out how to get the thermometer to read 98.6 or thereabouts. Yet that’s what our teachers and students are subjected to, when test scores become the goal instead of being recognized as merely a crude indicator.

Saturday night, Shavuot.  Like Sukkot and Passover, it’s a harvest festival.  We also celebrate the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai.  Summary of readings:

  First Day Second Day (Orthodox, Conservative)
Torah Exodus 19:1-20:23, Ten Commandments.

Numbers 28:26-31, sacrifices.

Deut. 15:19-16:17, holidays. Numbers 28:26-31, sacrifices.
Haftarah Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12, Chariot visions. Habakkuk 2:20-3:19, prayer for mercy in exile.  Yetziv Pitgam mystical song of praise, may be inserted.
Other text Akdamut, 11th c. poem Book of Ruth, celebrating conversion, spring harvest time

From 2016:
“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,

tph dry bones dumb user


Largest known prime number [integer that is evenly divisible only by 1 and itself]
The largest known prime number (as of March 2018) is 277,232,917 − 1, a number with 23,249,425 digits. It was found by the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) in 2017.

Euclid proved that there is no largest prime number, and many mathematicians and hobbyists continue to search for large prime numbers.

Expect the next one any time now. See graph below. IGP

tph Prime number digits

Plot of the number of digits in largest known prime by year, since the electronic computer. The vertical scale is logarithmic. The red line is the exponential curve of best fity = exp(0.187394 t – 360.527), where t is in years.


Math Jokes

Halloween Math

Q: What do you get if you divide the circumference of a jack-o-lantern by its diameter?
A: Pumpkin pi

The Calculating Sheepdog

After a talking sheepdog gets all the sheep in the pen, he reports back to the farmer: “All 40 accounted for.”

“But I only have 36 sheep,” says the farmer.

“I know,” says the sheepdog. “But I rounded them up.”
Submitted by Norie Bloom, Honolulu, Hawaii

Zero Sum Puns

The problem with math puns is that calculus jokes are all derivative, trigonometry jokes are too graphic, algebra jokes are usually formulaic, and arithmetic jokes are pretty basic. But I guess the occasional statistics joke is an outlier.

Submitted by Denis Everett, Coronado, California

Hear about the statistician…
Hear about the statistician who drowned crossing a river?

It was three feet deep on average.


Ten Commandments Quotes

Say what you will about the ten commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them. H. L. Mencken

We may not all break the Ten Commandments, but we are certainly all capable of it. Within us lurks the breaker of all laws, ready to spring out at the first real opportunity. Isadora Duncan

When you hear people demanding that the Ten Commandments be displayed in courtrooms and schoolrooms, always be sure to ask which set. It works every time. Christopher Hitchens

I have ten commandments. The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut. Billy Wilder

Hidden Personality Traits Revealed Through Your Favorite Ice Cream Flavor 

If you think ordering vanilla means you’re boring, see how personality traits are linked to your favorite ice cream flavor. (excerpts only – research details at the site.)

·        Vanilla lovers are impulsive…colorful, impulsive, idealistic risk-takers who “rely more on intuition than logic,”

·        Strawberry lovers are introverts… also logical and thoughtful.

·        Chocolate lovers are flirtatious…also lively, charming, dramatic, and gullible.

·        Mint chocolate chip lovers are argumentative, ambitious, confident, and frugal. “[They] aren’t fully satisfied until they find the tarnish on the silver lining,”

·        Rainbow sherbet lovers are pessimistic…analytic and decisive.

·        Rocky Road lovers are aggressive…and engaging…good listener…goal-oriented

·        Coffee lovers are…lively, dramatic, and approach life with “gusto,”

·        Chocolate chip lovers are generous…competent, and a go-getter

·        Butter pecan lovers are devoted, conscientious, respectful…hold high standards for right and wrong

(So, if you really like all of these, do you have multiple personality disorder? IGP)

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