Lectures on the
weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Parashat Shekalim: When I make an Accounting
Dr. Gabriel H. Cohn
Department of Bible
Parashat Shekalim (Ex. 30:11-16), which we will read this Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh Adar II (Shekalim is always read on the Sabbath before Rosh Hodesh), raises a difficult exegetical question.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord. . . .The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering as expiation for your persons. You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before the Lord, as expiation for your persons.
The Torah commands taking the census by means of the half-shekel that each person give as “ransom for himself” (v. 12), and later it says again that the contribution of a half-shekel that each person shall give serves as “expiation for your persons” (vv. 15-16), “that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” For what sin must expiation be made for when taking a count of the Israelites? What crime was committed?
Here we offer three solutions, taken from Jewish exegesis through the centuries, all of which are based on the plain sense of the text, the peshat.
A . Rashi’s brief explanation of the subject (commentary on v. 12) is well known: “That no plague may come upon them – for the evil eye rules over taking a census, and it can befall them as we see in the days of David (see 2 Sam. 24; 1 Chron. 21).”
In contrast to Hebrew expressions such as ayin tovah ( lit. ‘with a good eye’, one who does not begrudge another’s possessions or success; cf. Avot 2.9) and ayin yafah (‘with a nice eye’, i.e. one who tithes generously, see Terumot 4.3) which are metaphors, the expression “the evil eye” has mystical connotations. However later exegetes interpreted the term ‘evil eye’ with respect to counting the Israelites in a rational sense. For example, Shadal (S.D. Luzzatto) wrote on this verse:
When a person counts his silver or
his gold, or when the king counts his soldiers, it is very likely that he will
put his trust in his wealth or in his large army and will pride himself,
saying: My own power and the might of my
own hand have enabled me to succeed or will enable me to succeed (cf.
Deut.8:17); and then most likely the tables will be turned on him and a
catastrophe greater than he had ever known will befall him.
This gave rise among all peoples to believe
in the evil eye, and apparently this belief spread to
The Lord did not want to do away with this belief entirely, since it rests on faith in providence and keeps a person from trusting in his own might and wealth; and this is the main point of the entire Torah. Therefore what did He do? He commanded that they be counted at that time, when they first became one nation, and that they give expiation of a bekah per head and that the money be given to the worship in the Tent of Meeting for remembrance before the Lord to expiate for their souls, so that from that day on they could be counted without fearing the evil eye, since the Tabernacle, made of the expiation money, would atone for them.
M. D. Cassuto puts it differently in his commentary on Exodus, p. 273:
Apparently this was because the census was considered a sort of sin, exhibiting lack of faith in G-d, and therefore it had to be accompanied by a ritual of expiation and cleansing from sin… In other words, by giving this expiation the Israelites would be saved from the punishment that might come upon them on account of the sin of taking a census.
The sin of the census was that when a person counts his might, he is likely to feel more independent of G- d’s providence and to become weaker in his faith.
B . Many homilies associate the census with the sin of the golden calf. One such derasha is an impressive proem (petihta) which explicates the verse, “For it is G-d who gives judgment; He brings down one man [Heb. zeh], He lifts up another [Heb. zeh]” (Ps. 75:8). Emphasizing the use of the Hebrew word zeh, Rabbi Jonah in the Midrash applies the verse to the sin of the Golden Calf and to Parashat Shekalim. “[Psalms] uses the word zeh to lift him up, and zeh to bring him down; likewise the word zeh was used when they [the Israelites] were brought down [in the sin of the Golden Calf] – “for that man [zeh] Moses” (Ex. 32:1) – and zeh was used when they were lifted up [ by their contributions to the Mishkan] – “This [zeh] is what everyone … shall pay” (Ex. 30:13).
According to this homily, the census about which we read on Shabbat Shekalim provided spiritual elation as against the Israelites’ fall in making the golden calf. Indeed, the language used by Scripture at the end of the story of the golden calf reinforces such an interpretation (Ex. 32:30-35):
The next day Moses said to the people, “You have been guilty of a great sin. Yet I will now go up to the Lord; perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin.” Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Alas, the people is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold. Now, if you will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written!” But the Lord said to Moses, “He who has sinned against Me, him only will I erase from My record. Go now, lead the people where I told you. See, My angel shall go before you. But when I make an accounting [Heb. pokdi, using same root as mifkad, census] I will bring them to account for their sins. Then the Lord sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.
The Israelites received a conditional sentence for making the golden calf, a sentence that might be executed on the day of the census – “when I make an accounting I will bring them to account for their sins” (Ex. 32:34). In time of census there is a certain danger of sinning again as they had sinned with the golden calf, relying on their visible, tangible strength as illustrated by their numbers, as opposed to faith in a hidden and abstract G-d. All the key words of Parashat Shekalim appear in Ex. 32:34 (“I will win forgiveness,” “if You will forgive,” “when I make an accounting I will bring them to account,” “sent a plague”), and Scripture certainly gives prominence to the word sin, which is absent from Parashat Shekalim, a passage that speaks of the need for expiation.
Liturgical poems, piyyutim, which mostly continue ideas from the Midrash, further embellish upon the connection between the census in Parashat Shekalim and the sin of the golden calf. For example, the Kerovah poem for Shabbat Shekalim (“As me- az zamota be-khol po’al”) describes poetically the people’s sin of the golden calf, abandoning their faith in G-d, and Moses’ entreating the Lord on their behalf, then being told to bear the burden on leading them, including taking a census of the people in the weekly reading, Ki Tissa (the passage read on Shabbat Shekalim).
C . In his commentary on Exodus, Benno Jacob (1862-1945) connects Parashat Shekalim with the preparations for battle described in Numbers (pp. 831-832): 
The expression, “to pay the Lord ransom (kofer nefesh) for himself,” appears in the Torah two more times. In Exodus 21:30 it denotes the expiation money paid by a person who caused the death of another, yet nevertheless his own life is not taken [the reference is to a person whose ox killed someone after the ox was declared dangerous, and therefore the person is responsible for the death of his fellow]. In Numbers 35:31-32 it appears in conjunction with someone who commits premeditated murder and from whom one may not take expiation money.
A soldier [those being counted in Parashat Shekalim were of age to go into battle] is in a certain sense a murderer, or at least a killer who sheds blood. Therefore he is essentially doomed to die, and if he remains alive he must pay ransom for his life, since before G-d every human life has value and requires expiation.
Benno Jacob explains that although a person who sheds blood in battle is exempt from punishment, he must nevertheless be careful in his fighting and see to it that he pays ransom for himself as he goes out to kill, even if he kills unwillingly.
Benno Jacob’s commentary is strongly substantiated by what Scripture says about the conclusion of the war on Midian in the time of Moses, where all the key words of Parashat Shekalim appear, as well (Num. 31:47-54):
From this half-share of the Israelites, Moses withheld… The commanders [Heb. pekudim] … approached Moses. They said to Moses, “Your servants have made a check [Heb. nas’u et rosh – using the same expression as that which begins Ex. 30:11-16] of the warriors in our charge, and not one of us [Heb. ish] is missing [Heb. nifkad], … So we have brought as an offering … that expiation may be made for our persons before the Lord.” … as a reminder in behalf of the Israelites before the Lord.
To sum up, we presented three answers to the question of what sin required expiation by the people being counted in the census, at the time they were counted: one explained the need for expiation as having to do with the present (the evil eye), one with the past (the sin of the Golden Calf), and one with the future (killing in a future war). All the explanations are well-vested in the plain sense of Scripture and in the broader context. Thus, it appears that all of the explanations “are the words of the Ever-living G-d” ( Eruvin 13b and parallel texts).
Jacob’s commentary, written in German between 1935-1940, was not published
until recently: Benno
Jacob, Das Buch Exodus,