Jews love numbers. It isn’t just the influence of the many Jewish accountants; the passion for numbers has been a part of Torah commentaries throughout the ages. Even children get introduced to the importance of numbers with the song “Who knows one?” in the Passover Haggadah. That song highlights the significance of the numbers one through thirteen. Most people don’t realize that there’s a hidden world of numbers behind all of Judaism.
Some numbers appear often enough in the Torah to suggest an importance beyond the narrative. There were ten plagues in Egypt, Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, ten statements of creation, ten generations from Adam to Noah, and again from Noah to Abraham, and ten tests of Abraham. Why did God create the world in seven days if it could have been done in one (or less)? The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. Shmittah is the seventh year. Passover lasts seven days. The spiritual parents of Judaism, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their wives, are seven. There are twelve tribes of Jacob, twelve lunar months, and twelve constellations. The number seventy shows up in the nations of the world that come from Noah, the sages taken by Moses to form the High Court, and in the sacrifices during the holiday of Succot. By repeating these numbers, the Torah is implying a deeper meaning to them. Ten creates a unity. Seven is a cycle. Seventy expresses universality. We take the numbers literally, that there actually were twelve tribes, but the numbers also signify a meaning that elucidates another nuance of the story.
The Jewish world of numbers has very little to do with “Numerology” that dates back to Pythagoras, which looks at numbers everywhere as symbols, even using numbers as a tool for divination. You can find numbers everywhere – on your house, zip code, phone bill etc. The Jewish tradition places no more significance on these numbers than any other part of God’s creation. Numbers inside the Torah, however, reveal otherwise hidden messages from God. The most famous commentary that focuses on this aspect is called the Baal HaTurim. This scholar delves into the numerical nuances in almost every verse of the Torah. The system of analysis he employs is called Gematria.
A variety of configurations make up Gematria, but all place a numerical value on a letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet. Aleph equals – one. Bet equals – two, and so on until ten, and then kaf equals twenty, lamed equals thirty, and so on until one hundred, then resh equals two hundred, etc. A word made up of two letters is equal to the sum of those two letters. If a different word has a similar sum value then it has a mystical connection with that word. The word abbah, which means father and equals eight, has a connection to the word egged, which means binding. Because Gematria is a part of the oral tradition, there are rules about how to use it. You can’t just decide on your own that since the numerical value of the word for pig (hazir) in Hebrew is 225, and that’s the same value as the word for soft (racah), therefore only soft pork is forbidden to eat but crispy bacon is permissible. The rabbis who employ Gematria are bound by the rules that came along with the information. Yet, many insights can be gleaned. Aleph, which equals one, is the symbol of God. Bet, which equals two, is the symbol of the Creation. Anything other than the original Oneness of God is more than one, able to be divided, and some form of multiplicity.
The letter Vav, which equals six, functions in Hebrew as the word “and,” and also means hook. Moreover, it also symbolizes the six directions of the physical world, i.e. connections. In other words, Vav acts as a connector, its name means connector, and it symbolizes all the connections possible. If you want to delve more into the subject, start by keeping a notebook of any significant number you come across in the Torah and what it might symbolize. When you come across it in another place, ask yourself if there is a correlation.
Insights gained from a numerical approach to Torah not only elucidate the Torah, but also give us a greater understanding of the world around us. An unusual movie named Pi suggests a specific relationship between the world of mathematics, the physical world, and Gematria; that a pattern exists in human behavior which can be expressed in a mathematical sequence that is an unknown name of God. There are indications in Torah sources that this is not so far-fetched. Similar relationships do exist between Torah, math, and the physical universe, though not so shrouded in melodrama.
Kabbalah is the area of the oral tradition most involved with Gematria. In fact, one of the most esoteric works in Jewish literature is a famous kabbalistic work called The Book of Creation. It is attributed to the Patriarch Abraham, and hints to the deepest mysteries through the vehicle of numbers. Just as a carpenter may have a saw as his most trusty and most used tool, the kabbalist may often look at Gematria as his tool of choice.
The main function of numerical symbolism, then, is to enrich our understanding of the Torah and the commandments. We love numbers because they help us understand our relationship with our Creator.
At your next Passover Seder ask yourself why there are four cups of wine, four expressions of redemption, four questions, and four types of sons – and if those groups of four have anything to do with the four letter name of God.