Notions of Numerology

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published January 13, 2006, issue of January 13, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share
Lose Hanick from Toronto writes:“The numerical value of the Hebrew letters Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, which spell the sacred name of God, is 10+5+6+5. or 26. But so is the numerical value of ‘God,’ ‘g’ being the seventh letter of the English alphabet, ‘o’ the 15th, and ‘d’ the fourth. Is this purposeful or coincidental?”

I suppose the answer to that depends on whether one thinks of numerology as part of the nature of things or as a fanciful human creation. Since I belong to the latter school of thought, my answer to Ms. Hanick is, “Definitely coincidental.”

Numerology is the belief in the significance of numbers in non-mathematical contexts. (If I say two times 12 adds up to 24, that’s arithmetic; but if I say that the 12 tribes and the 12 signs of the Zodiac add up to the cosmic mission of Israel, that’s numerology.) The Hebrew word for numerology is gematria, an ancient rabbinic term that comes from Greek geometria (the measuring of the earth), from which also derives our English “geometry.” Although it may seem odd to think of geometry as having to do with numbers, since it is the one part of most people’s mathematical education that has nothing to do with them, this was not true of the ancient Greeks; having no knowledge of algebra, they used geometry to solve algebraic problems, thus introducing numbers into it.

The ancient rabbis used gematria occasionally in their exegesis of biblical passages, especially in regard to the numerical values of the letters of the alphabet, just as Ms. Hanik does. Thus, for instance, referring to the verse in Jeremiah mourning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, “For the mountains will I take up a weeping and wailing, and for the habitation of the wilderness… from the fowl of the heavens to the beasts, all are fled,” the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Judah stated that the prophet foresaw that 52 years would pass from Jerusalem’s destruction to its restoration by the Persian king Cyrus in 534, since (taking “to the” to mean “until the time of”) the letters of the word behemah (beasts) add up to 52. (Bet=2, Heh=5, Mem=40, Heh=5.) A better-known example concerns the biblical dictum “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand,” which on the face of it commands that bodily injury at the hands of another is to be compensated for by inflicting the same injury in return. In justifying their interpretation of this verse to mean that the compensation should be financial instead — that is, that the Bible was referring to the monetary worth of an eye, not to the eye itself — the rabbis observed that the numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew word for “eye,” ayin (which is 130), equals that of the letters of mamon, “money.”

Gematria could be used for humorous purposes, too. Playing on the fact that the Hebrew words for wine, yayin, and “secret,” sod, have the same values, the Talmud says, “When wine enters, secrets leave” — i.e., those under the influence of alcohol are not to be trusted to keep confidences.

Gematria does not begin with the rabbis, though, nor even with the Greeks; its earliest use on record is Babylonian, and it occurs in an inscription dating from the reign of Sargon II (727-707 BCE), saying that he built the wall of the city of Khorsabad to be 16,283 cubits in length because that was the number equaled by the letters of his name — the full, honorific form of which was much longer. From the Babylonians, gematria spread to the Greeks, who called it isopsepha (equal counting) and used it widely for magical and occult purposes.

But it was in medieval Judaism that gematria was most systematically employed for a wide variety of religious purposes, ranging from halachic reasoning to kabbalistic theosophy to messianic speculations on the times and dates of redemption. The 17th-century messianic movement of Sabbatianism, built around the figure of purported messiah Sabbatai Zevi, resorted to gematria repeatedly in its efforts to prove that the latter was indeed the Redeemer. Thus, for example, finding in the ancient midrashic compilation of Genesis Rabba the statement that the biblical verse in the account of Creation, “… and the spirit of the Lord hovered over the face of the water,” alluded to the spirit of the messiah, Zevi’s followers calculated that the Hebrew letters of “the Lord” and “hovered” equaled those of his name.

Needless to say, if one takes enough biblical verses and does enough calculations with them, it always will be possible to find some word or combination of words that will yield the desired results. And when one works not only with the possibilities of a single language, but also with those of two languages or more, as in juxtaposing the Hebrew Tetragrammaton and the English word “God,” the chances of hitting on something of seemingly profound significance become even greater. Gematria can be a pleasant way to pass the time, but that’s really all it is.

Questions for can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.