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    Counting people – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. I have been told that Jews do not believe in counting people, so how do you check that there are ten men for a minyan?

    A. Not directly counting people goes back to ancient times when victims of a plague or other destruction were counted. It also teaches that everyone is an individual, not just a number; everyone matters, every one is unique and precious. But, of course, we still need to know whether we have a minyan, and some people ascertain this by counting negatively, usually in Yiddish – “Not one, not two, not three”, etc. If taken too far, this could become complicated: “Do we have a minyan?” “Not yet – we need not one!”

    So what do we do? The Talmud says, “Israel must not be counted, even for religious purposes” (Yoma 22b). Hence it is customary to make an indirect count by means of a biblical verse with ten Hebrew words, e.g. Migdol yeshu’ot malko v’oseh chesed lim’shicho l’David ul’zar’o ad olam – “He is a tower of strength to His king; He shows mercy to His anointed, to David and his descendants for ever” (II Sam. 22:51; cf. Psalm 18:51), or Hoshi’ah et ammecha uvarech et nachalatecha ur’em v’nas’em ad ha’olam – “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, sustain them and tend them for ever” (Psalm 28:9).

    In each case the final word is olam, which means either “forever” or “world”; hence, if an olam is present, it is as if everybody (“tout le monde”, “the whole world”) is there.

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