Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tazria-Metzora

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5759/1999

Israel Independence Day and Counting the Omer

Prof. Yaakov Spiegel

Department of Talmud

The Rabbis taught, "Moses established that Israel inquire (... dorshin) into the concerns of the day: the laws of Passover on Passover, the laws of Atzeret at the Feast of Weeks, and the laws of The Festival at Sukkot" (Megillah 32b). Although this remark literally refers to studying halakhah, it has been extended to apply to giving sermons as well. Perhaps this is the result of giving a broader interpretation to the word dorshin, which in its context above means to inquire into the halakhah, but also has the sense of giving a sermon, or derasha. It is thus common practice in Jewish communities to give a sermon on the subject of the current holiday, such as the traditional Shabbat Hagadol Derasha.

Unlike other Jewish holidays, Yom Ha-Atzmaut--Israel Independence Day--has not been the subject of many sermons. Perhaps this is due to its being such a recent holiday, or perhaps because some rabbis prefer not to preach about it but rather to treat it as another ordinary day. This prompted me to do my part to close the gap, and I here present a brief sermon on Yom ha-Atzmaut. Sermons can take many shapes; most are structured around midrash and legend, with a bit of moralizing and various other ideas mixed in. Others are founded on halakhah, building on this in a special way. I decided to present a sermon built on halakhic components, as some preachers do, so that the reader can also learn about a special sort of sermon not commonly heard these days.

The early rabbis noted that the gentiles have a strong case against the Jews, since Scriptures explicitly say: "Indeed, you are the smallest of peoples" (Deut. 7:7); hence it could be argued that the Jews become insignificant among the many nations of the world, based on the law of bittul be-rov, and consequently, Heaven forfend, ought to assimilate to the majority and become as them.[1] One counter-argument is that the Jews are davar she-be-minyan, or countable, and it is a well-known principle of halakhah that anything which is countable, even if it is only one in a thousand, is never insignificant [afilu be'elef lo batil].

Indeed, on several occasions we see that the Lord actually counts the Jews individually, as Rashi remarked (Num. 1:1): "Because they are dear to Him, He counts them every now and then." This brings us to the meaning of the words, "because they are dear to Him"; which accord the Jews the status of being something countable and hence not insignificant. Here it is appropriate to cite the remarks of R. Moshe Hayyim Ha-Cohen Schneider: [2]

"Take a census of the whole Israelite community" (Num. 1:1), is interpreted in the midrash (Numbers Rabbah 1.5) as follows: "That is the sense of the words, 'He did not do so for any other nation' (Ps. 147:20)..." The Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that they continually be counted, so that we be something countable [davar she-be-minyan], and for this reason we do not become insignificant among the many nations of the world, since that which is countable is not considered insignificant. Thus, the fact of our being counted enables us to worship the Lord, to stand fast by the Torah, and to be a chosen people. This could be the sense of the Talmudic remark (Bava Batra 10b), "In what way is Israel exalted?'--in being chosen from among all the nations, as expressed by 'When you take a census (Ex.30:12),' i.e., by being counted they become 'a countable commodity' [davar she-be-minyan] and are not insignificant among the nations. In this way they shall be exalted."[3]

Perhaps one should interpret in like manner the verse, "The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted" (Hosea 2:1). The Sages noted a difficulty in this verse (Yoma 21b), for it begins by talking of the "number" and ends by saying they "cannot be measured or counted," an apparent contradiction. In view of what we said above, however, it becomes clear that by counting them they become important, as if they were so numerous that they could not be counted, so that they never become insignificant even when measured against everyone in the entire wide world. Thus, even if the nations of the world are as numerous as grains of sand, the Jews are not insignificant among them, for something which can be counted never becomes insignificant. The very fact of being counted, mispar, renders them as numerous as the sand, which can never be batel or assimilated to anything else.

This interpretation is the meaning of the first Midrash which we cited from Numbers Rabbah, on the verse "Take a census" (Numbers 1:1). If you wonder why they were continually counted, this is answered by the midrash with the verse, "He did not do so for any other nation; of such rules they know nothing (Ps. 147:20)." We were given the Torah, and our ways are different from all other peoples; so one might ostensibly ask how it is that we behave differently from all the other peoples when they are the majority, considering that it says one should always "side with the multitude" (Ex. 23:2)? To avoid this difficulty, G-d commanded, "Take a census...," so that the Israelites would be counted, and that which is counted never becomes insignificant, even if it is one in a thousand; so the Jewish people lives on.

It should be added that this approach also can be used to explain the response that the Talmud gives in Tractate Yoma regarding the contradiction between the two parts of the verse in Hosea: "There is no problem here, for one part applies to the situation when we do what the Lord wishes, and the other to the situation when we do not do as He wishes." The usual understanding is that when the Jews do what G-d wants, they "cannot be measured or counted," but when they do not, then they become few and consequently can be counted. However, we can extend R. Schneider's interpretation (as he himself might have intended, had he not kept his remarks brief) to say that when the Jews do G-d's will, then they are dear to Him and therefore He counts them; this makes them important [davar she-be-minyan], and they do not become insignificant. This is not the case when, Heaven forfend, they do not do His will, for then G-d does not count them, and they become as nothing among the nations and indeed assimilate and are lost among them.[4]

Israel Independence Day and Jerusalem Day are celebrated during the counting of the Omer. Divine providence thus hints to us that these days are counted, Independence Day being the 20th day of the Omer and Jerusalem Day, the 43rd. That which is counted does not become insignificant, neither from within nor from without. These days cannot be made insignificant by other nations or by those of us who refuse to acknowledge them.

Moreover, in a plain Jewish calendar year Israel Independence Day falls either during the week of Parshat Tazria-Metzora, which discusses counting days, or during the week of Aharei-Mot and Kedoshim, the first reading counting the times blood is sprinkled during the sacrificial worship on the Day of Atonement, and the second, counting the years of orlah until the fruit of a new tree may be eaten. In a leap year it falls either during the week of Parshat Emor, which mentions the festivals and, of course, counting the Omer, or during the week of Parshat Be-Har, which contains a reckoning of the years.[5] In a plain Jewish calendar year Jerusalem Day falls during the week of Parshat Be-Midbar, which contains the census of the Israelites. In a leap year it falls during the week of Parshat Naso, which contains the census of the Levites.[6] Thus we see that both these days, Israel Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, are countable days, and this proves their importance.

[Note: The above analysis and other studies by Prof. Speigel have been published as a chapter unto itself, entitled "Derashot u-Remazim le-Yom ha-Atzmaut," in Aharon Arend's (Hebrew) book, Pirkei Mehkar le-Yom ha-Atzmaut, published by the Office of the Campus Rabbi at Bar- Ilan University.]

[1] R.Hida [Hayyim Yosef David Azulai], in his book Devash le-Fi, Letter "R", par. 21, briefly presents ten arguments rebutting this line of reasoning.

[2] From his book, Zoharei Hamah al ha-Torah, New York 1982, beginning of Parshat Be-Midbar.

[3] It should be noted that Numbers Rabbah cites the verse, "He did not do so for any other nation," and immediately thereafter says, "and as it is written, 'He has exalted the horn of His people" (Ps. 148:14), which is similar to Rabbi Schneider's interpretation that counting makes for their unique status.

[4] See Noam Elimelekh, beginning of Parshat Be-Midbar; A. D. Mandelbaum, Pardess Yosef he-Hadash, beginning of Parshat Be-Midbar, where additional sources are cited regarding the interpretation of Scripture vis-à-vis the rule about countable things. Also see the remarks of Rabbi Abraham Englard in his book, Imrei Avraham, Bnei Brak 1982, Parshat Be-Midbar.

[5] In 1948 (5708), which was a Jewish leap year, the fifth of Iyyar (Independence Day) fell on the Friday preceding the weekly reading of Emor.

[6] In 1967 (5727), which was a Jewish leap year, the 28th of Iyyar (Jerusalem Day), fell on the Wednesday preceding the weekly reading of Naso, which contains the census of the Levites participating in the sacred service--thus alluding to Jerusalem.

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