Articulation (mivta), writing (mihtav), and thought (mahshav) form three superimposed layers of meditation in Jewish mysticism. Letters are the elements of every one of them, elements which manifest themselves in ever more spiritual forms. From the motion of the letters of thought result the truths of reason. From the motion of the letters of thought result the truths of reason. But the mystic will not stop here. He differentiates between matter and form of the letters in order to approach closer to their spiritual nucleus; he immerses himself in the combinations of the pure forms of the letters, which now, being purely spiritual forms, impress themselves upon his soul. He endeavors to comprehend the connections between words and names formed by the Kabbalistic methods of exegesis. The numerical value of words, gematria, is here of particular importance.

(Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism)

According to the mystical view, the entire Torah is made up of holy names which have been so skillfully secreted among the letters of the text that only an expert can ferret them out. Various systems were applied to facilitate the allegorical and mystical interpretation of the Bible, and to uncover secrets and allusions. These methods included displacing the letters with other letters, abbreviations, substitutions, permutations. Among the most popular methods was gematria, the process of creating equivalences from the numerical values of individual words and of entire sentences.

Because the letters of the Hebrew alphabet also serve as numerals [aleph=1, bet=2, gimel=3, etc.], they provided an ingenious method of reading novel and unexpected meanings into a text. Writes Joshua Trachtenberg in Jewish Magic and Superstition: "This method was very popular and was elaborated in the course of time until it became an exercise in higher mathematics, which no doubt possessed intrinsic interest for its devotees in addition to its practical utility in interpreting the Bible, and in creating new [magical] names."

The use of letters to signify numbers was known to the Babylonians and the Greeks. In rabbinic literature gematria first appears in statements by the sages of the second century (tannaim). R. Nathan states that the phrase (Elleh ha-devarim; these are the words) occurring in Exodus 35:1 hint at the 39 categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath. How? The plural(devarim) indicates 2, the additional article ("ha": a third), while the numerical equivalent of elleh is 36. 36+2+1=39.[1]

Gematria has little significance in Jewish religious law (halakhah); where it does occur it is used only as a hint or a mnemonic. For example, the rabbis derive the time period for which a man is to take a nazirite vow (a period not specified in the Bible) from the numerical value of the word ("yihyeh"; he shall be"): Numbers 6:5 – 30. In this case, as in many others, the regulation or thought preceded the rabbis' numerical calculation; i.e., the gematria did not invent the regulation, custom or thought but was developed to support or promote one that already current or in effect.

The medieval collections of midrashim are rich with gematriot, used to facilitate the interpretation of the Biblical text. The use of gematriot was especially developed among the German Hasidim (Hasidei Ashkenaz)[2] in the 12th and 13th centuries. These mystics "were in the habit of counting or calculating every word in the prayers, benedictions and hymns, and they sought a reason in the Torah for the number of words in the prayers."[3] They elaborated mystical traditions regarding Holy Names of God and of the angels, although they frequently drew upon earlier mystical traditions.

Two famous commentaries, Pa'ne'ah Raza (Isaac b. Judah ha-Levi, late 13th c.) and Ba'al ha-Turim (Jacob b. Asher, c.1270-1340) are filled with these numerical word plays. The noted writer of esoteric theology and ethics Elazar of Worms (c.1165-1230) makes extensive use of gematriot (sometimes based on entire sentences) to find hints and supports for existing laws and customs; he establishes, for example, from the numerical value of the verse in Exodus 23:15, that work that can be deferred until after the festival should not be performed on the intermediary days (hol ha-moed) of a festival. He also uses numerical calculations to connect the midrashic legends with words of the biblical verses, and to reveal the hidden secrets of Merkaba[4] mysticism and of angels. For example, he determines that the numerical value of the sum of the letters in the verse "I have gone down into the nut garden" (Song of songs 6:11) is equivalent in numerical value to the mystical verse "This is the depth of the chariot."

The 17th century work Megalleh Amukot (Revealing the Depths) by Nathan Bata b. Solomon Spira is the classic kabbalistic work[5] that makes use of gematria as a means of thought and commentary; in later kabbalistic literature (18th-19th centuries) gematria appears in many major works as well. The followers of the mystic and false messiah Shabbetai Zevi (late 17th c.) used numerical calculations to prove the validity of his messianism. Opponents of the Kabbalah were quick to voice their criticism of the method. As early as the 13th century, the great scholar Nahmanides, himself a Kabbalist, recognized the inherent danger in reading meanings into the text using gematria, and warned against its exaggerated and arbitrary use: one should not, he wrote "calculate a gematria in order to deduce from it something that occurs to him."[6]

The use of gematria was widespread not only in Eastern Europe but among the Sephardim as well (particularly among North African rabbis). It is used to this day to discover the deeper meanings of the biblical text.

Other rabbinic examples of gematria:

1. (redu; "go down" — Gen. 42:12) referring to going down to Egypt. The numerical value of (resh, daled, vav) is 210, the number of years of Egyptian bondage. This reading of the text thus foretells the future.

2. The 318 men referred to in Genesis 14:14 were in fact not 318, but only Eliezer the servant of Abraham, the numerical equivalent of Eliezer's name being 318.

3. R. Judah inferred from the verse, "From the fowl of the heavens until the beast are fled and gone" (Jer. 9:9), that for 52 years no traveler passed through Judea, since the numerical value of (behemah; beast) is 52.

4. The rabbis teach: "When wine enters [one's body], secrets escape." The numerical value of both (yayin; wine) and (sod; secret) is seventy.

[1] BT Shabbat 70a [back]
[2] The Pious Ones, a term that refers to the various circles of Jewish mystics and pietists in Ashkenaz (that is, Germany (mainly the Rhineland) and northern France in the second half of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The term refers to several schools, most of them independent of each other, which developed different theologies and world views; many of their ideas and symbols were later absorbed by the Kabbalah. [back]
[3] Jacob ben Asher (c.1270-1340), codifier and author of the Arba'ah Turim, was born in Germany and immigrated to Spain with his father. [back]
[4] Mystical, esoteric speculations regarding the celestial realms, based on the vision of the celestial chariot described in Ezekiel 1. [back]
[5] esoteric, theosophical teachings that appeared in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Provence and northern Spain soon came to be designated as Kabbalah.[back]
[6] Sefer ha-Geulah. [back]

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