Have you ever attended a minyan when nine people are in the room? The leader of the minyan counts the people as “Not one, not two, not three, . . . .” Or the leader recites a verse from Psalm 28 (it’s also in the liturgy, page 86 of the Shabbat Sim Shalom), “Hoshi-ah et amecha . . .,” because the verse contains ten words. An Orthodox rabbi, and many Conservative rabbis, won’t count people directly, despite that the Book of B’midbar opens with a census of all males aged 20 and upwards except the Levites.
Why is that? Two Books ago, in Sh’mot 30:11-16, God commands Moses to take a census. Everybody recorded in the census was obligated to pay a half-shekel, “that no plague may come upon them through their being [counted].”
Four centuries later, David, again prompted by God, counted the able-bodied in Israel and Judah. David, however, did not make the counted people pay a half-shekel. As a consequence, a plague killed 70,000 people. The Talmud, in Tractate Berachot, blames the plague on the failure of David’s to exact a half-shekel from the counted people.
Rashi comments on Sh’mot 30:12, “Things that have been numbered are subject to the influence of the ‘evil eye.'” We are at the end of counting the omer, and the Torah mandates a number of countings (outside the censuses): eight days for circumcision, eight days for an ox or sheep to be acceptable for a sacrifice, Sukkot lasts seven days, a mother is unclean for seven days (or 14 days, depending on the sex of the child), and she remains in a state of blood purification for 33 days (or 66 days, depending on the sex of the child).
The entire calendar is a counting. The first of the seventh month, the tenth of the seventh month, the 15th of the seventh month. The 14th day of the first month. The 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. The entire week is a counting: six days you shall work, and the seventh day you shall rest. The priests were skilled in counting the days of the moon’s cycle.
You may say, all of these countings were ordained by God. Consequently, there can be nothing wrong with them. The censuses, however, were dependent on the people giving a half-shekel. Must we demand of the congregants a half-shekel to count them?
Before we answer that question, why are censuses is Israel (or for that matter, in Lakewood) permitted? Most rabbis say that modern censuses are allowable for many reasons. Three of them are the censuses are taken for a good reason, and we don’t count people. We count forms that people complete. And the third reason is that we don’t count the entire Jewish people; we count only Israeli Jews, or American Jews, or British Jews.
So to answer the question: must we demand of the congregants a half-shekel to count them? God commands us to count many ways, as I said before. Why would God do that, if God didn’t want us to count?
There is a three-thousand-year tradition about not-counting, and I am not so smart or learned to upset the apple-cart. But I think not-counting the congregants is silly.