Counting Jews – King David

One of the most frightening incidences in Tanach is when Hashem tempts Dovid Hamelech to count the Jewish people for no perceivable reason, leading to a disastrous plague. As the verse states, “The anger of Hashem again flared against Yisroel and he incited Dovid against them, saying, ‘Go count Yisroel and Yehuda!’”

What caused Hashem’s anger to flare up against Yisroel? With typical humility, Rashi admits: “I do not know for what reason!”

On the other hand, the Yalkut Shimoninot only offers a surprising explanation for Hashem’s anger, but also explains how this incident left a permanent stamp on our davening until this day.


According to the Yalkut Shimoni, this tragic plague was rooted in an episode that occurred years earlier when Dovid finished defeating his enemies and decided that it was high time to build Hashem a Beis Hamikdash of wood and stone.

Does the Torah (Devorim 12:10) not say, “You will cross the Yarden and settle in the land…, and He will give you rest from all your enemies around and dwell securely,” and then state immediately afterwards, “And the place Hashem yourG-d chooses to rest His name there, to there you shall bring all that I command you, your burnt offerings?”

This clearly indicates that once the Jewish people gain peace and security inEretz Yisroel, they should immediately build a Beis Hamikdash in Yerushalayim where Hashem chose to rest His name.

Initially, even Noson the Novi thought that this was self-evident. When Dovid said to him, “See now, I am sitting in a house of cedars, while the ark of G-dis sitting in a curtain!” Noson responded, “All that is in your heart, go and do, for Hashem is with you.”

Then came the bombshell; Hashem had different plans. That very night, He instructed Noson to tell Dovid that theBeis Hamikdash would be built not by him, but by his son, Shlomo. As Dovid later told Shlomo (Divrei Hayamim I 22:8) “The word of Hashem came upon me, saying, ‘You have spilt much blood and made great wars. You will not build a house for My name, for much blood have you spilt earthwards before Me.’”

Simply understood, although Dovid’s conquering of the land was a tremendous mitzvah, nevertheless, just as one may not lift iron on the altar stones, so Dovid who spilt the blood of Yisroel’s enemies was unworthy to build Hashem’s House. The Yalkut Shimoni (Shmuel II ch.

7), however, says the verse means the absolute opposite:

“When Dovid heard this [that he could not build the Beis Hamikdashbecause he had shed blood], he was afraid and said, ‘I am disqualified from building the Beis Hamikdash!’

“Said R. Yehuda b’ R. Ilai, the Holy One said to him, ‘Dovid, do not fear, By your life, they [those whom you killed] are like… sacrifices….’

“He said to him, ‘If so, why can’t I build it?’

“The Holy One said to him, ‘Because if you build it, it will last forever, and never be destroyed.’

“He said to him, ‘If so, that would be good!’

“The Holy One said to him, ‘It is revealed before Me that they will sin and I will vent My rage on it [the Beis Hamikdash] and destroy it, and they will be saved as it is written, ‘He poured His wrath like fire on the tent of the daughter of Tzion.’’

“The Holy One said to him, ‘By your life, because you thought of building it, even though Shlomo your son built it, I will inscribe it in your name [as it says], “Mizmor, a song of the dedication of the House to Dovid.”’”

Although prevented from building Hashem’s house, Dovid made huge preparations for its future construction:

Rav Huna says in the Yalkut Shimoni, “He dug 1,500 amah to reach the virgin earth when he built the foundations of the house.” He also made the gates. That is why Yirmiyahu writes in Eicha (ch. 2), “Its gates sunk in the ground.” The enemy could not destroy the Temple gates since everything Dovid built lasted forever (Sota 9a).

Dovid Hamelech also drew up the plans for the future Beis Hamikdashand collected tons of gold and silver, and endless amounts of copper, iron, wood, and stones for the future House (Divrei Hayamim II ch. 29).

Klal Yisroel must have been devastated. Over three hundred years had passed since the Jews arrived inEretz Yisroel, and then, just when the time was ripe, Hashem announced that the Beis Hamikdash must wait for yet another generation. What could they do about it? A decree is a decree! People turned to their Torah studies and work and the matter drifted from their minds.

According to the Yalkut Shimoni, this is what brought a plague upon them:

“All those many people that fell [in the plague], [died] because they did not demand the building of the Beis Hamikdash. Is this not a kal vachomer?

If such for these people who never saw the Beis Hamikdash, how much more does it apply to us? Therefore the early prophets decreed that Yisroel should pray three times each day, ‘Please, return Your Shechina to Tziyon.’”

Now this Medrash is incredible for two reasons. First, once Hashem explicitly told Dovid that he could not build the Beis Hamikdash for very good reason, what hope did the Jews have of rescinding His decision? Second, did Dovid’s digging of the Temple foundation, building its gates, and collecting building materials not prove that everything possible was being done for the future Beis Mamikdash?


Amazingly, the Ramban (Bamidbar16:21) not only says the same explanation as the Yalkut Shimoniwithout ever having seen it, but he also answers our two questions. After citing the verses and Rashi’s admission that he does not know why Hashem punished Yisroel, the Ramban continues:

“I say, by way of logic, that this was a punishment of Yisroel for delaying the building of the Beis Habechira, for the ark was going from tent to tent, like a stranger in the land. The tribes did not rise up saying, ‘Let us seek Hashem and build the house for His name,’ as it says, ‘You shall seek His presence and come there’ (Devorim 12:5), until Dovid arose after many days and a long time as it says… Hashem held Dovid back as it says… and the building was delayed further until Shlomo’s rule.

“Had Yisroel desired it earlier and arose from the beginning, it would have been done in the days of one of the judges or in the days of Shaul, or even in the days of Dovid. Because if the tribes of Yisroel arose in the matter, [Dovid] would not have been the builder; rather they would have been the builders.

“But when the people paid no attention, and Dovid paid attention and arose and prepared everything, he was the builder…. Therefore, the building was delayed all the days of Dovid through the sin of Yisroel. Thus, the wrath came on them. And therefore the place that Hashem chose to place His name there was known (identified) with their punishment and their plague.”

How did “the place that Hashem chose to place His name” become identified with their punishment and plague? Let’s explore the incident further.


Blinded by Hashem’s decree, Dovid ordered his top general, Yoav ben Tzeruya, to travel throughout the nation, from Dan to Be’er Sheva, and count the people, and when Yoav tried to dissuade

him, Dovid retorted, “Either you are the king and I am the general, or I am king and you are the general!”

Yoav made every attempt to foil Dovid’s plans, first going to the obstinate tribe of Gad in the hope that they would resist and refuse to be counted, then omitting the tribe of Levi since Moshe had not counted them among Klal Yisroel, and omitting Dan as they had been decimated in the episode of the Pilegesh b’Givah.

In addition, he stretched out the count over nine months and twenty days hoping that Dovid might change his mind. Finally, he returned to Dovid and gave him the count: “Yisroel were 800,000 soldiers who drew the sword, and the people of Yehuda were 500,000 men.” (Shmuel II 24:13)

Only then when it was too late, did Dovid realize what he had done and confess, “I have sinned greatly with what I did. And now, Hashem, remove your servant’s sin as I have been very foolish” (Ibid v. 10).

When Gad the Novi gave Dovid a choice of three punishments: “Either seven years of famine in your land, or three months that you flee before your pursuing enemy, or three days of plague in your land,” Dovid answered with the words of Tachanun, “I am greatly troubled. Let us fall in the hand of Hashem as His mercies are many, and let me fall not in the hand of man.” He preferred the plague where only Hashem would decide who lives or dies, and where wealth and power make no difference.

The plague lasted only a few hours. “Hashem put a plague on Yisroel from morning until the same time [the next day]. Seventy thousand people died of the nation from Dan to Be’er Sheva.”

Now, Hashem hinted why he had brought this plague upon the people. As the destroying angel reached the threshing field of Arneva the Yevusite in Yerushalayim, Hashem told it to cease its destruction, and Gad then ordered Dovid to go to buy the field from Arneva and offer sacrifices to Hashem. Why here? Because as theRamban said earlier, “the place that Hashem chose to place His name there was [now] known (identified) with their punishment and their plague.”

This field was the site of the future Beis Hamikdash. By buying it and offering sacrifices, Dovid atoned for the people’s sin of failing to earnestly seek the building of the Beis Hamikdash.

Why did the field belong to Arneva the Yevusite? Could Hashem not have arranged that Dovid buy it from a Jew?

Mekubalim say that Arneva was the incarnationofEfronHachitiwhohadbeen stingy when he sold the Machpeila Cave to Avrohom and hinted at a hefty price. Now, Arneva rectified this shortcoming by not only offering Dovid the field for nothing, but also providing him with his cattle and plowing equipment in order to bring offerings on this future site of the Beis Hamikdash.

However, in order to gain full atonement for the people, Dovid refused to accept the field for free and paid for it by taking fifty shekels from each tribe. The verses conclude (v. 25): “Dovid built an altar to Hashem there and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. And Hashem heeded the land, and the plague ceased from Yisroel.”

(Sources: Shmuel II chapters 7 and 24, Yalkut Shimoni ibid.)

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