Questions on the Census

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 taking part in a census. Does this prohibition also apply to the census from the US government or is this permissible and why?


Dear Beverly,

The prohibition you are referring to is learned from the verse, “When you take a census of the children of Israel according to their numbers, every man shall present to God 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…”. This teaches that when it is necessary to conduct a census of the Jews it must be done by having the people contribute items, counting the items rather than the people themselves. 

At various times throughout the Jews’ sojourn in the desert and afterwards a census was taken, such as at the beginning of the book of Numbers. There, the commentaries explain that because of God’s deep love of the Jewish nation he counted them, as one counts again and again that which he loves. They point out that the census mentioned there, as well, was conducted by the contribution of coins to the Temple and the coins were counted, not the people themselves.

Nachmanides, goes to great length discussing the proscription against counting the Jews. 

He focuses upon King David’s fatal error (Samuel II, Ch. 24), when he conducted a census, bringing about a terrible plague which claimed the lives of some 70,000 Jews. According to Nachmanides counting the Jews is permissible whenever necessary for national needs. King David’s mistake was that he counted them for no need whatsoever. Instead David, out of his love for the Jews, simply wanted to know their number. This was implicit in his counting them from the age of 13 rather than the age of 20 (at which age Jewish males were subject to army duty and the census may have been necessary for military reasons). One of David’s chief advisors warned him of this mistake and its potential consequences. David, unfortunately, did not heed his warning.

Ramban points out that the Torah refers to a census as “raising the heads of the Jews” (Exodus 30:12). It is a process of elevation. God does not want the Jewish people numbered, as they should remain elevated above the physical world. They should be as uncountable, beyond numbers, as the stars in the heavens. 

By counting Jews just for the sake of counting we would be considering them as a number, detracting from their uniqueness as individuals. Rather than “raising their heads” we would be lowering them and rendering the Jewish nation as just another nation consisting of numbers of people. 

When, however we count their shekels, their donations, we are in effect counting the number of mitzvos they have done. This is truly an elevation. 

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 of counting Jews. Other opinions permit the government-sponsored census. 

In the United States, however, for many decades it has been the nearly unanimous opinion of authorities 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. 

Since it is permitted it is also obligatory and praiseworthy to do so in the eyes of halacha as it is the law of the land, which we are required to abide by as citizens of this country and as Jews. This falls under the category of Jewish obligation called “dina d’malchus dina”, meaning that the law of the land is also a Jewish law; we are required to fulfill is as if it was a Jewish law. (How different is the Jewish outlook than a certain other religion that seeks nothing but to force their host country to have their religious law trump the secular law!)


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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