Where did the practice of not counting people come from? People count not-one, not-two, not-three etc. What is wrong with counting one, two, three etc? This is often found when counting to see if there is a minyan in shul.

2 Answers 2


In the Torah (Ex. 30:11), Hashem commands Moshe to count the Jewish People via half-shekel donations, "so that there not be a plague when they are counted." Later, too, we find David conducting a direct census, and a plague breaking out (II Sam. 24:1ff). The exact cause-and-effect mechanism is variously explained by the commentaries, but at any rate, we see that there is reason to use some kind of proxy for counting Jews.

King Saul, we are told, used first stones (I Sam. 11:8) and later sheep (ibid. 15:4) for his censuses - both as explained by the Gemara (Yoma 22b). In the Temple, when they had to count the Kohanim to decide who would perform the various services, they had each of them stick out a forefinger (ibid.; Rambam, Laws of Daily and Additional Offerings 4:3).

The Rambam rules (ibid. 4:4) based on the above that indeed it is halachically prohibited to count Jews directly.

A common practice, when counting for a minyan, is to use the verse "Hoshiah es amecha..." (Psalms 28:9), which has exactly ten words; this is cited in Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 15:3. In one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's (o.b.m.) talks (published in Shaarei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 1, pp. 237-238 - available online here), he points out that using this verse (in contrast to an older custom, recorded by Rashi, of using instead Psalms 5:8) has the additional benefit of expressing our most urgent wish for the salvation and redemption of the Jewish People by Moshiach.

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    I don't have a Kitzur handy at the moment, but I believe the same section (15:3) also starts off by first saying that it is forbidden to numerically count Jews (for a minyan) and then proceeds to offer the advice of "Hoshiah..." Commented Jan 6, 2010 at 9:19
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    You're absolutely right - I just checked it myself. He cites the same verse as does the Rambam. (What's new in KSA is the idea of using "Hoshiah es amecha"; as far as I know, that's not found in any earlier source.)
    – Alex
    Commented Jan 6, 2010 at 17:05

This is specifically for Jews. When we were in the desert, the census was made with rocks. Instead of counting the people, we would do it indirectly: each person would put a small rock in a pile, and then we would count the rocks.

David HaMelech counted the people for the census, and we got a kelala (plague).

An alternative (and funnier) way to count people for a minyan is: "baruch ata Hashem Elokenu melech Ha'olam HaMosi lehem min haares"

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    When we were in the desert, we used silver, no?
    – msh210
    Commented Sep 15, 2011 at 4:02
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    @msh210: in I Kings 10:27 it says that Shlomo Hamelech "made silver in Jerusalem [as common] as stones." So evidently Avraham is claiming that this state of affairs was true in the desert too. :)
    – Alex
    Commented Sep 15, 2011 at 16:08
  • silver I believe you are referring to the half shekel, which was only during the times of the bet hamicdash
    – Avraham
    Commented Sep 17, 2011 at 21:26

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