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

This weekend:  a new book and a lesser-known major holiday

The book is called Numbers in English, Bamidbar (in the wilderness) or Bemidbar (in [the] wilderness of…i.e., Sinai) in Hebrew.  While Bamidbar suits the book as a whole, Numbers actually better fits this week’s portion, which is indeed full of numbers and counting, as the Lord calls for a census.

It’s only 13 months since the Exodus and we just had a census, that half-shekel head tax. Why do we need another?  The head tax was simply for upkeep of the Tabernacle. This is a census of men aged 20+, able to bear arms. Remember, the Israelites think their conquest of the Promised Land will begin in a matter of months. But counting was a serious activity in the ancient world.  When you count, you are singling out individuals, thereby making them vulnerable (e.g., to the evil eye). As I wrote last year, “Numbers can lead us toward a truth.  But numbers do not equal truth…Using numbers as a substitute for truth is dangerous.  You end up aiming for the number, not for the reality.”

Once counted, the tribes are assigned positions 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.  In 2017, I finally looked up some commentaries concerning the tribes’ placement. It’s basically a combination of military strategy, family birth order and mother’s rank, and future potential of the tribe (e.g., even though Judah was only the 4th son, he is the de facto leader and that tribe goes first).

The Levites are special.  They supported Moses and the Lord after the Golden Calf incident, and now they will be dedicated to the service of the Lord in place of the first-born Israelites.  In the wilderness, they take care of the Tabernacle and are camped around it.  Each clan (Gershon, Kohath, Merari) is assigned specific chores for its maintenance, set up, disassembly, and portage.   They are counted separately, from the age of one month up.  At this point, 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 pidyon haben ritual, the re-enacted redemption of a month-old, Israelite, first-born son.

These censuses each serve a defined, clear purpose.  That is not necessarily always the case.  There is a lot of controversy about whether citizenship should be included in the 2020 U.S. census questionnaire.  I’ve often seen such data on old census forms in my genealogical research, so I thought I’d look into the history.  The census exists to apportion Representatives and the Constitution (Article 1, Section 2) does not limit the counting to citizens.  Then I looked at the questions for each census, 1790 through 2010. The 1790 census asked for the number of free white males, free white females, other free persons, and slaves.  Later, all sorts of other questions were included that went beyond a simple count. A citizenship question was included (sometimes only for some of those questioned) 4 times in the 180o’s, 9 in the 1900’s, and in 2000.  The issue is not history but the motivation of those who want it reinstated and anticipated consequences. Urban Institute researchers Diana Elliott and Robert Santos found “political discourse about immigration and the citizenship question has created a potential chill among some groups in the country, including those who are Hispanic/Latinx-identified and immigrants.”  A citizenship question is likely to discourage immigrants from answering, leading to a depressed, inaccurate count.

The Book of Ruth tells of another immigrant, Ruth, who is lovingly supported by her adopted community because she’s been so good to her mother-in-law, Naomi.  We read (actually, chant) this book on Shavuot, which starts Saturday night.  The story occurs at the time of the wheat harvest and Ruth’s acceptance of the Torah nicely echoes the Israelites’ acceptance of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, which we celebrate on this holiday.

Although it’s only two days long (one for Reform), Shavuot is indeed a major holiday.  Here is your crib sheet of the readings:

 First DaySecond Day (Orthodox, Conservative)
TorahExodus 19:1-20:23, Ten Commandments. Numbers 28:26-31, sacrifices.Deut. 15:19-16:17, holidays. Numbers 28:26-31, sacrifices.
HaftarahEzekiel 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 textAkdamut, 11th c. poemBook of Ruth, celebrating conversion, spring harvest time

Shavuot is a harvest festival, like Sukkot and Pesach.   Michael Carasik has called it the orphan among Jewish holidays; it is the forgotten festival.” The celebration of “matan Torah” (the giving of the Law) as a focus on Shavuot is found nowhere in the Torah.   Even the date of Shavuot is not clear; compare the ambiguity of Deut. 16:9-10 with the ambiguity of Lev. 23:15-16.  Eventually, the 6th of Sivan was agreed upon, 7 weeks (whence the name, “Shavuot” meaning weeks) after the second day of Pesach.   Some customs include all-night study sessions, decorating with flowers, Confirmation (mainly Reform), chanting Akdamut, a long, 11th century liturgical poem , and eating only dairy.  My synagogue usually serves cheesecake at the night-time study session and ice cream after services the next day.  My husband plans to make Horn & Hardart’s macaroni and cheese, which I’m looking forward to.

Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach,


An accountant is having a hard time sleeping and goes to see his doctor. “Doctor, I just can’t get to sleep at night.” The Doctor replied, “Have you tried counting sheep?” The accountant stated, “That’s the problem – I make a mistake and then spend three hours trying to find it.”





I don’t know if this is where I had ice cream when we were in Kotor, Montenegro last fall, but this is how it was swirled. The display was as enjoyable as the taste.



A Questionable Conversion

submitted by: Bernie

A Jewish immigrant arrives by ship to New York City from Europe. The immigration inspector at Ellis Island asks him his first and last name, age, and national origin. Because of all the suffering he went through in his native land, when inspector asks him what religion he belongs to, the Jew is very uncomfortable and hesitates before answering.

Finally, he lifts his head, on top of which is his peasant hat and he responds with questionable pride, “I am Christian!”

To that, the immigration inspector answers him with a question, “Christian Ashkenazi or Christian Sephardi?”




Quotes about Counting

It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything. Joseph Stalin

Summer is the annual permission slip to be lazy. To do nothing and have it count for something. To lie in the grass and count the stars. To sit on a branch and study the clouds. Regina Brett

If you can actually count your money, then you’re not a rich man. J. Paul Getty

If you want an accounting of your worth, count your friends. Mary Browne

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