Notions of Numerology

Notions of Numerology

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.

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