KI SISA (Exodus, 30:11-34:35) — “How Do I Count Thee? …”

QUESTION: What is the significance of the following verse?  Deliver Your People, and bless Your inheritance; tend them and uplift them forever.  (Psalms, 28:9) 

HINT: The verse has ten words (in the original Hebrew). 

ANSWER: This verse is commonly used to count the men in a Minyan. When you walk into Shul and want to know if the required quorum of ten has arrived, it is customary not to count people directly.  Rather than pointing to Tom, Dick, and Harry while saying “One, two, three…” instead we recite, “Hoshia es amecha…Deliver Your People…”


Why don’t we count people?  It actually goes back to the census in this week’s Torah Portion. 

The Nation of Israel had sinned by worshiping the Golden Calf.  This sin led to a plague that killed thousands.  After the plague, G-d wanted to 1) provide Moses with a means to count the survivors, and 2) provide Israel with a Mitzvah that would serve to atone for their sin. 

“When you will take a census of the Israelites … every man will give to G-d an atonement for his soul … and there will be no plague among them when counting them.  This is what they should give … a half-shekel as a portion to G-d.  The wealthy may not give more, and the poor may not give less than a half-shekel…”  (Exodus, 30:12-14) 

This money was to be counted, giving Moses an accurate census of the contributors.  The silver was melted down and used to make the sockets that supported the beams of the Tabernacle.  In subsequent years, the half-shekels were used to purchase communal offerings. 

A half-shekel is not a great deal of money.  In fact, Midrash Tanchuma (Section 10) tells us that Moses expected that “atonement money” would be a large amount, comparable to the fines levied for some of the various sins listed in the Torah.  Certainly, the sin of the Golden Calf was a heinous crime for which the Israelites would have to pay dearly.  To his surprise, the amount was nominal, small enough that “the poor may not give less…”


How did we get caught up in worshiping the Golden Calf?  How could we have strayed so far from the Second Commandment –“You will have no other gods before Me”? (Ibid, 20:3) 

Actually, it was only a small group that began to worship the calf.  And look at what they said: “This is your god, Israel, who took you out of Egypt.” (32:4) 

Why did the worshipers say, “…YOUR god, Israel, who took YOU out of Egypt?  Why didn’t they say “this is OUR god… who took US out of Egypt?  

The reason is that WE were not the ones who worshiped the Golden Calf!  Rashi explains that the original Calf worshipers were the “mixed multitude,” (Ibid, 12:38) the Egyptian “converts” who joined us in leaving Egypt.  They began the idolatry, and enticed some of the Israelites to join them.  But the overwhelming majority did not participate in the idolatry. 

So what was the problem?  What did we do that was so terrible?  Why is the Golden Calf considered a great national sin when most of our people didn’t get involved?  Why did Israel need an atonement at all?  They didn’t do anything!!!! 

That’s exactly the problem.  They didn’t do anything. 

When Moses came down from the mountain, he stared in amazement at what had happened in his absence.  “Whoever is for G-d, come to me!” and all of the Levites gathered toward him. (Ibid, 32:26) (For this reason, the Levites were exempt from donating half-shekels for the Tabernacle –Tosafos, Menachos, 21b) 

Why just the Levites?  Where was everyone else?!  Wouldn’t ANYONE take a stand for what was right? 

A small percentage of the nation was guilty of a sin of COMMISSION.  The rest of the people were guilty of a crime of OMISSION.  You can’t just watch a Golden Calf being worshiped and shrug your shoulders and go about your business.


When you count the people of Israel, you need to count people who are willing to stand up and be counted!  People who are willing to DO SOMETHING!  It doesn’t have to be something overwhelming.  It can be a half-shekel of Tzedakah. But it’s got to be something! 

“Who is a Jew” is a controversial and divisive question.  But there is a more fundamental question.  What is a Jew?  We are defined not just by who we are, but also by what we do.  Therefore, Moses counted Jews by collecting donations for the Tabernacle.  Therefore, when we need a Minyan, we don’t just count heads.  We recite a Psalm.


In Yiddish, when one wishes to ask his fellow how he is, he says, “Vos macht ir?”  (Literal translation — “What do you do?”)  An alternate version is “Vos macht ah Yid?”  (Literal translation — “What does a Jew [i.e., you,] do?”) 

The other day I overheard the following conversation: 

“Sholom Aleichem! Vos macht ah Yid?” (What does a Jew do?)

Reply: “Mitzvos and Maasim Tovim (good deeds)!”

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz


From the Archives 

“Fool’s Gold” (2010)

“The statistics linking smoking to lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and burn marks on furniture are inconclusive.”

“Seat belts are too restrictive. Many people have died because they couldn’t get out of their cars quickly enough.”

“I’m only going to taste one tiny sliver of this Double-Decadent Chocolate Cream Pie…”

“Honest, Mom, It’s only a date… ”

“Marijuana is NOT addictive! It’s not as if it will lead to taking something dangerous …”

“I don’t need to hire a Mohel. I can do it myself. I’ve watched it being done dozens of times…”

Do we really believe the lies we tell ourselves? …

Read more.


 “Who WAS That Masked Man?” (2009)

 It was to be the very first Yom Kippur.   Moses was returning from the summit of Mount Sinai. He was carrying in his hands two blocks of sapphire.

 This was his second such journey. Last time Moses came down the mountain carrying stone blocks he was dismayed by what he saw… He discovered his People dancing around a Golden Calf…Moses smashed the Tablets; his People weren’t ready for them.

Now Moses was bringing a new set of Tablets. G-d had accepted Moses’ prayers for forgiveness for His People. Every year we commemorate that day as Yom Kippur, a day when G-d is prepared to forgive his People for their shortcomings.

 Yes, Moses was back. He had returned to his nation… But something was different… it was… his face!…

 Read more.


“Hot Cash” (2008)

 The Children of Israel sinned.  They sinned egregiously.  They melted their gold and formed it into a statue of a calf.  They danced around that statue, referring to it as their god who had taken them out of Egypt.  This was a terrible sin.  G-d almost wiped out the entire nation as a punishment.

 They needed to atone for their sin…

 Simply put, the Israelites sinned against G-d by melting their gold into an idol.  They atoned for this sin by melting their silver into a Temple for G-d.

 …This is what they must give …a half-shekel… 

 There were certain commandments that Moses didn’t fully understand.  The Half Shekel was one of them.  The Torah says …This is what they must give …a half shekel… The Talmud says that G-d showed Moses a fiery half-shekel coin, and said, “It should be like this.”

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin asked why Moses was so confused.  Why did he need to see what a half-shekel looked like?  Had he never seen such a coin before?  And why did G-d show him a half-shekel of fire?  Wouldn’t a regular silver coin have sufficed to clarify the requirement?

 … Moses knew quite well what a silver coin looked like; that wasn’t his question… 

Read more.


“‘Los ANGELES’ (‘City of ANGELS’) or San Francisco?” (2004)

 .. It is very important to defer to the protocols of the community you visit. Even angels do it for humans, and humans do it for the angels:

 “… He (Abraham) stood by them (three angels who appeared to be men) under the tree, and they ate.” (Genesis, 18:8)

 “… He (Moses) was there (Mt. Sinai/Heaven) with G-d for forty days and forty nights. He ate no bread and drank no water.” (Exodus, 34:28)

 Based upon the above two verses, the Talmud (Bava Metzia, 86b) advises us to respect local custom. Humans require food for sustenance. Angels, who are spiritual beings, do not. Yet, the angels, out of respect for Abraham, honored him by accepting his offer of food, while Moses had to adhere to the angelic way of life by engaging in a forty-day fast…

 We just read that one should follow the customs that are acceptable in the locale in which he finds himself. Does this mean that we should have one set of values in Jerusalem, Monsey and Boro Park, and a different set of values in San Francisco, New Paltz, and Massachusetts?!…

Read more.


“How Do I Count Thee? …” (2003)

 … How did we get caught up in worshiping the Golden Calf? How could we have strayed so far from the Second Commandment …

Read more.


“Cut Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning” (2002)

 G-d was angry… Moses said to the people, “… I will go back up to G-d and try to gain forgiveness for your crime.” …

Sounds pretty easy. Too easy. Is that all it takes to be forgiven for sinning? Did you worship idols and rebel against G-d today? Maybe a little murder and adultery while you’re at it? No Problem! Take two Tablets, say thirteen attributes and a few “Hail Moses-es” and call me in the morning! You’re all set! All is forgiven!… Is that what Judaism is all about?! Do whatever you want, and then say a few verses and then everything is okay?! Sounds like another religion!…

Read more.


“Abs of Steel/Calves of Gold” (2001)

This week, it seems, is the “Week of the Cows.” …The Red Heifer is a Mitzvah that is, in all due respect, totally illogical…

Is there a link between the two colored cows in this week’s Torah Readings? Can we find a connection between the calf of gold and his crimson “mother?” … Is there any logical connection between the sin of bowing down to a calf-shaped molten image, and being sprinkled with a mix containing the ashes of a cow? …

 Read more.


 This is the weekly message at   Copyright © 2000-2015 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on February 20, 2003 at 6:47 am  Leave a Comment  

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