web analytics
July 8, 2015 / 21 Tammuz, 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post


Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

Permutations & Combinations

Gematria is more than random wordplay.

hebrew-alphabet-gematria-chart

Originally published at Chabad.org.

By Elisha Greenbaum

Some people just don’t appreciate gematria.

In our synagogue I try to find something to say during the pauses in the Torah reading every Shabbat. We’re fairly eclectic in our tastes, and you might find us flitting between an ethical teaching, a play on words, a chassidic interpretation, or a piece of numerology during the break between one reading to the next.

Many of our regulars question my occasional use of gematria or other types of numerology.

Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value. Aleph = 1, bet = 2, etc., and adding up the letters gives you the unique numerical value, or gematria, of each word and phrase. Comparing and contrasting the relative value of different words and phrases often affords surprising insight into the text and allows us to correlate seemingly unconnected Torah topics.

I admit it does sometimes seem somewhat random. One congregant of mine frequently observes, often after I’ve just introduced a particularly obscure piece of numerology, that you can read whatever you wish into numbers, and if you try hard enough you could probably find a tenuous connection between most topics.

He’s right, in a way. These methods are described as parparaot la-chochmah, the condiments of wisdom. They’re not the main meal of Judaism, just the seasoning that gives Judaism its taste. Torah is Godly and infinite, and all wisdom is contained within her words. You’d never decide a law on the basis of gematria; but, used properly, they can help give a new and deeper appreciation and understanding of the text.

Take one of the most famous examples of word and number play in the Torah. As Jacob leaves his father-in-law’s house on his journey back to Israel, he sends a message to his brother, Esau. Im Lavan garti, I have lived with Laban.

Rashi pointed out that the gematria of garti is 613, which is also the number of commandments in the Torah, and thus interprets Jacob’s message to be saying, “Throughout the years that I lived with the evil Laban, I kept the 613 commandments.”

But would my friend be convinced? So the word garti equals 613; it’s surely not the only word in the Torah with that value. Where do you get mitzvahs from “I have dwelled”? Why would Rashi assume that Jacob is doing more than just describing his living arrangements for the last 20 years, and is rather making a metaphysical point about his commitment to the commandments?

Gematria is more than random wordplay. Legitimate tools of Torah interpretation treat the text as a living document: an interplay of content and context, with each letter, word and phrase redolent with meaning. In our example, the correlation between garti and mitzvah observance is deeper than just adding up the letters; rather, the context leads to the conclusion.

The word garti, from the root ger, “stranger” or “convert,” is unusual. Had Jacob just wished to say “I lived with Laban,” there are other, seemingly more appropriate verbs that he could have used. Garti has connotations of “I was a stranger”; I was different, I never fit in with the wicked people because I lived and acted differently than they. Jacob was saying, “The whole time I was away from home, I stayed true to the lessons that I learned in my parents’ home.”

It was in this context that the rabbis observed that there is also numeric support for this supposition. “I was able to keep the 613 mitzvot, even in Lavan’s house, because I remained a stranger to their way of life.”

Wherever a Jew is, no matter how far from home he may have traveled, he can always maintain his connection to the words and letters of Torah by appreciating the value of each letter and word of Godliness and seeking out the underlying purpose of each phrase and phase of life.

About the Author: Chabad.org is a division of the Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center, under the auspices of the Lubavitch World Headquarters


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Permutations & Combinations”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
jstreet-time
Obama Officials Tout J Street Polls for Jewish Support on Iran Deal
Latest Indepth Stories
Billboard posted by CAMERA during the Hamas war against Israel.

NY Times praises US killing of terrorist leaders; a different story when Israel kills the bad guys

Terms of Surrender

Dear Pres. Obama, A “deal” in which one side makes all the concessions is, of course, a “surrender.”

Michael Oren, Israel's Former Ambassador to the United States

ALLY is a terrific read because Oren has a mission: Defending&protecting the Jewish State of Israel.

George Soros: No friend of Israel

George Soros: “European anti-Semitism is the result of the policies of Israel and the United States”

Sources say seemingly irreconcilable differences between the 2 main parties, Washington and Tehran.

Instead of accepting reality, the President is trying to hold on to an illusion.

Those who suggest further capitulation to Iran are wrongly harming the interests of the West.

Few Arab Israelis found anything positive in the decision of its MKS to join any Gaza flotilla.

US Jews prefer to be like their non-Jewish liberal friends complaining about “settlements” and Bibi

New Israel Fund & its supporters must be countered; Israel’s in the midst of an unprecedented storm

PM Netanyahu this week identified ISIS and Iran as Israel’s primary threat. It is a planetary threat that carries the promise of peace.

Haym Solomon, overlooked hero of the Revolutionary War, was America’s “Funding Father.”

Latvia, July 4, 1941 they forced many Jews in the shul putting it on fire; everyone was burned alive

There’s blood on the reporters’ hands AND New Israel Fund for funding groups feeding lies to the UN

Respect & appreciation for our country is not only a civic value but an essential Jewish one as well

When words lose meaning, the world becomes an Orwellian dystopia; a veritable Tower of Babel

More Articles from Chabad.org
A rocket fell near a Synagogue in the Ukraine during some of the worst of the fighting between pro-Russia separatists and government forces. (archive)

“This is yet another extraordinarily difficult day that we have endured, and sadly, we have recently known many especially difficult and terrible days.”

Gabriel Felder was selected for the prestigious honor of representing his graduating class at The George Washington University commencement, marking the second year in a row that a Jewish student leader has done so.

Felder said he and his fellow students learned well the teaching of the Rebbe.

Chabad Rabbi Michael Oishie had left the building just 20 minutes before the attack.

Canadian Chabad rabbis accompanied Harper on his trip.

“It was quite an institutionalized racism, and we didn’t come to get involved in politics.”

Gematria is more than random wordplay.

We are brought into this confusing, fascinating, infuriating world for such a short amount of time, and it’s our mission to accomplish what we can for the several decades we are allotted.

If one has only enough money to afford either a cup of wine for Shabbat kiddush or oil for his Hanukkah lamp, the mitzvah of Hanukkah takes precedence.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/permutations-combinations/2013/11/13/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: