Gematria: It’s Not Numerology

The only thing I can claim to know about numerology is how strange it is. Chazal have traditions dating back to Har Sinai that consist of numerical codes hidden in letters and words. The numerical value of the words may equal that of other words, or simply signify a number, which can have implications in halachah or aggadah as a remez (a hint) or even in the simple meaning of a pasuk. This same system is used to varying degrees in commentaries written on the Torah (both pashtanim and darshanim) and in the Kabbalistic system. Some make heavy use of numerology or are enthused by it, while many others are skeptical about its truth-value.

However, most people only know about the Mispar Hechreichi or Mispar HaPanim (Absolute/Face Value), which numbers the alphabet from 1 to 400. There are, in fact, a couple dozen other methods or ciphers described by Ramak, and there are at least a couple hundred more in other Kabbalistic literature. These order the letters into different sets, make use of their positions and names, truncate or square values, and make use of a vast array of simple and advanced equations and structures. Geometry may also be present, and values may soar into the trillions. I don’t know the least about most of these, but R. Yitzchak Ginsburg is an interesting example of a mekubal who uses his mathematical expertise in this way. What’s horrifying about all of this is how much more it confuses us. There is an entire discipline within the Torah that is actually quite important and respected (albeit sometimes abused), and all we know is that joke about kugel and Shabbos apparently being equal.

Perhaps we should scrutinize math for a moment. We often relate to math as a symbolic system of Arabic numerals, Latin and Greek letters, and other somewhat strange pictures and arrangements that have developed throughout history. The values and relationships — the logic of math — is often esoteric and a feat to master. What we call math is actually a step removed from its essence. In Lashon HaKodesh (Hebrew), the letters are the values. In the most literal sense, language is the quantization of meaning. When you remove all the symbols and representations of math, you’re left with the actual reality. Gematria is not “numerology” or even “math;” “numbers” are irrelevant as far as purpose is concerned. Gematria is how our language becomes our science. (After all, the Greek γεομετρία (geometria) (known in English as “geometry”) is the “measure of the earth1.”) I can only dream of imagining what advanced mathematics looks and feels like in HaShem’s language of choice.

You may ask: Aren’t letters also just symbols? Yes, of course. But only in Lashon HaKodesh do those symbols convey the basic elements of reality by integrating orthography (how letters are written), “coronation” (how they’re crowned), phonology (how they’re spoken), and cantillation (how they’re sung). But aren’t the letters assigned numerical values? Also yes. As we have discussed, gematria takes this conveyance of the letters a step further to show how all of these elements are profoundly interrelated. What we call “numbers” we should call “values” or “measures.”

In Pirkei Avos, R. Elazar Chisma calls astronomy and gematriya’os the “spice of chochmah” (3:18), an image that bespeaks both the potential for enraptured, transcendent knowledge and an exhortation from treading too far without first knowing the “corpus of Torah.” May we reach the land of that sublimating spice.

1. To be fair, Jastrow says it’s a switcharoo (otherwise known as a transposition) of γραμματειον (grammateion), meaning accounts or calculations, which is plausible, but not as close to the Aramaic version. I guess even the name of the cipher-language needs to be deciphered.

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