“The Lord spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: ‘Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names.’”
Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often. When they left Egypt, He counted them (Exod. 12:37); when [many] fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf, He counted them to know the number of the survivors (Exod. 32:28); when He came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan, the Mishkan was erected, and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often. When they left Egypt, He counted them (Exod. 12:37); when [many] fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf, He counted them to know the number of the survivors (Exod. 32:28); when He came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan, the Mishkan was erected, and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.Because they are dear to Him, He counted them often. When they left Egypt, He counted them; when they fell because of the golden calf, He counted them to know the number who survived; when He came to rest His Shechina among them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan the Tabernacle was set up, on the first of Iyyar He counted them. [Rashi]
Background: The Prohibition of Counting Am Yisrael
The implication of Rashi’s comment is that God counts the Israelites simply as an expression of His affection, without any defined reason (other than the count following the sin of the golden calf). However, this is problematic, since counting Am Yisrael is forbidden. Chazal (Our Sages) teach:
“If the Lord has incited you against me, He will accept an offering;” [Shmuel I 26:19] – Rabbi Elazar said: “the Holy One, blessed be He, said to David ‘You called me an inciter? I will cause you to be mistaken in a matter that even school children know, as is written “When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.”’[Sh’mot 30:12] Immediately, ”Now Satan arose upon Israel, and he moved David to count Israel,” [Divrei haYamim aleph 21:1] and it is written “And He moved David against them, saying ‘Go count Israel and Judah.’” [Shmuel bet 24:1]
Necessarily we understand that Rashi’s intention is that God’s expression of His fondness for Am Yisrael constitutes at least a minor reason to count them and that a minor reason is the equivalent of a major reason in allowing Israel to be counted.
Ramban deduces from Midrash Rabba [Bemidbar 2:17] that it is forbidden to count Am Yisrael even through half shekels if there is no valid reason for the census, as the Midrash states:
Rabbi Eliezer says, in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Zimra: “Whenever Israel was counted for a (valid) reason, they were not diminished; (when they were counted) without a valid reason, they were diminished. When were they counted for a valid reason? In the days of Moshe, with the (tribal) flags and in the division of the Land (among the tribes); without a valid reason – during the days of King David.”
In the days of Moshe, when God entrusted Am Yisrael to the care of Moshe, it was necessary that he know, more or less, their number in order to know how to manage the nation. The Israelites were counted again in Moshes’ time, when they were organized according to tribes in preparation for entering Eretz Yisrael and dividing the Land among them, as is mentioned in Parashat Pincḥas [Bamidbar Perek 26].
Indeed, the division of the Land required knowing the number of Israelites to facilitate suitable apportioning, in accordance with the size of the tribe; however, why was it necessary to count Am Yisrael prior to organizing the tribal units (according to the Midrash) and when God rested His Shechina on them (as Rashi states)? Why is there a need for a specific number to facilitate resting the Shechina, after all, the Shechina rests even an individual who sits and studies Torah [Avot 3:6]?
The Need For Six Hundred Thousand in order to Sanctify Eretz Yisrael
It seems that the number six hundred thousand is necessary to facilitate the Shechina resting among Am Yisrael and to sanctify Eretz Yisrael, as Rashi comments [Avoda Zara 20b]: Aram Ẓova is close to Eretz Yisrael and David captured it, connecting it to the sanctity of the Land without Divine mandate and without six hundred thousand, and therefore it is considered a personal conquest.
That is, Syria (Aram Ẓova) is considered part of Eretz Yisrael in a limited sense only, as the Gemara specifies. The reason is that King David was not commanded by God to conquer it and there were not six hundred thousand Israelites to completely sanctify it with the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael. The Gaon of Vilna commented to his student Rabbi Hillel of Shklov, as quoted in Kol haTor, “The essence of the ingathering of exiles requires no fewer than six hundred thousand.” There is something unique about having (at least) six hundred thousand Israelites in Israel, and this is necessary for the Shechina to rest within Israel and to facilitate Divine assistance in the process of redemption.
Tzitz Eliezer (Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg) also quotes the comment of the Gaon of Vilna and applies it to explain the Talmudic comment “Had you rendered yourselves like a wall and all ascended (to Eretz Yisrael) in the days of Ezra, you would have been likened to silver.” Rashi comments “You would not have lacked the Shechina.” Rabbi Waldenberg explains that the intention is that had six hundred thousand Israelites ascended, the Shechina would not have been absent.
What is unique about the number six hundred thousand which makes it the condition for manifestation of the Shechina and sanctifying the Land in relation to the mitzvot which depend upon the Land, to the point where it is considered a halachic need which allows counting Israel?
Six Hundred Thousand Faces
The number six hundred thousand is mentioned in connection with the blessing ‘חכם הרזים’ (“The Sage of secrets”), as the Gemara teaches:
Our rabbis taught: “If one sees a multitude of Israelites, he says ‘Blessed is He who discerns secrets.’ for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other.” … It was taught: a multitude is not fewer than six hundred thousand. [B’rachot 58a]
Maharsha understands the Gemara statement to mean that all intellectual aptitudes (ArtScroll translation) in the world amount to six hundred thousand, therefore Torah was given to this number of Israelites so it could be accepted and understood in every possible way. Therefore a “multitude” is not fewer than six hundred thousand, since this number encompasses every intellectual aptitude possible. Since the number six hundred thousand includes all intellectual aptitudes, it is the criterion for sanctifying Eretz Yisrael for mitzvot; just as all intellectual aptitudes find expression in Torah, within the boundaries of Torah itself, so God wants the sanctity of the Land to be complete and connected to every type of Israelite.
We still must understand why it is specifically the number six hundred thousand which includes all intellectual aptitudes and why this number was required for the Children of Israel to be able to receive Torah at Sinai.
Six Hundred Thousand Hints at Absolute Completion
Maharal explains the numerology of six hundred thousand, noting that any three-dimensional object has six directions: the four directions of the compass up and down. Thus, the number six represents completion with no need for any additional thing. The number six hundred thousand obviously includes the number six and expresses the completion of Israel. Maharal suggests that the number six hundred thousand represents completion in each of the units of which it is composed. Numbers consist of units (one through ten), tens, hundreds, thousands, etc. Six, as noted, represents completeness of the units. Maharal discounts the significance of tens, since we do not use the term “six tens” but sixty. Therefore, the next unit of significance is thousands. While the Torah does use the term “ribo” (“myriad” = ten thousand), Maharal dismisses this as well, since it is rarely used and as well since it is related to the word “ribui” (multitude) it hints at more than is necessary and therefore cannot express completeness. As far as the number “million,” it was unknown in Biblical times and in the time of Maharal. Thus, the number six hundred thousand is the quintessential expression of completeness in all mathematical units.
The central point Maharal makes is that the number six hundred thousand represents the Nation of Israel in its completeness, since this number is complete in all its factors. Thus, this number of Israelites is required in order to sanctify Eretz Yisrael, to have the Shechina rest within her and to bring the complete redemption. Thus it was necessary to count Israel prior to entering the Land to ascertain that they still had this critical mass.
We presented two explanations of the significance of the number six hundred thousand in connection with manifestation of the Shechina and the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael:
One, there are six hundred thousand intellectual aptitudes within Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), and God wanted Eretz Yisrael to be connected to every type of Israelite.
Two, the number six hundred thousand indicates completeness which leaves nothing lacking, and it is therefore the requisite number for manifestation of the Shechina when Am Yisrael connects to its Land.
Miraculous and Natural Redemption
As noted above, the Gaon of Vilna commented to his disciple: “If it is possible to bring six hundred thousand Jews to Eretz Yisrael together, we must do so immediately, for this number has great and complete power to defeat the “other side” (kabbalistic term for the forces of evil) at the gates of Jerusalem, and then the redemption will immediately be completed through Divine miracles.” However, the Gaon himself wrote that the redemption will not be through our own merit, but through that of our ancestors, as we pray thrice daily “Who remembers the loving kindness of the fathers and will bring a Redeemer to their children’s children,” and therefore the redemption will not be through miracles, but via a gradual and natural process.
We can see this from the perspective of a drawback, in the fact that the redemption process requires generations. However, it is appropriate to view this as an advantage, in the fact that we have the privilege of being active participants in the redemptive process. Rabbi Avigdor Nebentzal made a similar comment in connection with the apparent contradiction among sources concerning building the Third Temple, some saying it will be built by us, others asserting it will descend in fire from heaven. The resolution, says Rabbi Nebentzal is that if we are worthy, we will be privileged to build the Temple, if not, it will descend from heaven.
We were granted from Heaven the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 when there were
six hundred thousand Jews in our land.
May it be His will that we “act with God” [Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 6:9] to build Eretz Yisrael with our own hands and work towards complete ingathering of all the exiles of Am Yisrael. Amen.