Is it appropriate to look for, and publicize, gematrias and Torah codes
related to the current coronavirus pandemic?
Well, it certainly gives people with a lot of time on their hands something to do. For sure, “Hafoch ba vahafoch ba d’chola ba – Turn and turn in it [Torah] because everything is in it” (Avot 5:22).
The Torah is the repository of G-d’s wisdom, and thus it is unsurprising that it is a fount of information and insight on all matters. Searching for allusions in the Torah to all events – from dire crises to birthdays – has been a Jewish parlor game since ancient times.
Nevertheless, we should realize the limitations of the exercise and its propriety. Obviously, the data can easily be manipulated to produce a desired result, and often the deductions are strained and the sources of limited value.
If the point is to show that G-d is master of the universe, the endeavor will engender humility in mankind, which is often lacking today. However, if the subtext is “We have precise knowledge on how G-d runs His world because we have deciphered these references,” the endeavor is improper as this subtext is incorrect, troubling, and spiritually self-defeating. It is the antithesis of what we should be learning from this calamity.
Ultimately, the pursuit of hints and codes reflects a quest for security in an insecure time – that we shouldn’t feel vulnerable because it was all so predictable to “insiders.” This conclusion is also unhelpful.
It would have been helpful if the purveyors of this information had warned us of the coming catastrophe last December rather than last week or last month. Then we could have avoided much spiritual, physical, emotional, and financial hardship. But somehow that never happens. It thus smacks too much of the chacham l’achar ma’aseh (the “genius after the fact”) syndrome.
— Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, mara d’asra of
Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, NJ
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The answer depends on your attitude to gematrias and Torah codes. Avot (3:18) tells us that R. Eliezer b. Hisma considered gematriot parpera’ot lachachmah – “desserts” of wisdom – which sounds like they are an adjunct to true Torah ideas, not the generator of them.
Yet, gematriot are paired in this mishnah with tekufot (calculation of the calendar), which is an essential halachic activity. The Gemara also occasionally features gematriot that seem to have real halachic implications. Rav Hamnuna in Makkot 23b, for example, uses a gematria to support R. Samlai’s assertion that there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah: The Torah says, “Torah tziva lanu Moshe” – the gematria of Torah is 611 + 2 dibrot we heard directly from Hashem at Har Sinai = 613.
A baraita on Shabbat 70a seems to derive the number of prohibited categories of work on Shabbat – 39 – from the word “eleh” (whose gematria is 36) and “ha’devarim” (indicating an additional three).
These gematri’ot, though, might be nice additions without necessarily adding substantive content.
And then we have the esoteric/exoteric question. While kabbalah is much bandied today, early kabbalists (including the Ramban) strongly resisted its spread (which is partially why the Ramban’s kabbalistic asides are so difficult to decipher). It was only for the initiated.
I suppose someone who thinks 1) that gematriot and Torah codes provide true and accurate Torah knowledge (and thinks the ones that people find today are as accurate as any in tradition) and 2) that they are meant for mass consumption should feel comfortable publicizing them.
I personally think neither of these. I think gematriot and Torah codes serve the predetermined purposes of whoever “finds” them and have no more authority than if the person came up with the idea on his/her own. To me, they also distract from much plainer and simpler points of Torah that people today neglect.
— Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein, author,
regular contributor to www.Torahmusings.com
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Gematriot and Torah codes that come from a serious source are true – on the condition that they are “compliments to wisdom.” That is how our Sages categorized them. “Rabbi Eliezer ben Chiasma said: Bird offerings and the onset of niddah are essentials of halacha, but the calculation of seasons and gematriot are the compliments of wisdom” (Avot 3:18).
In the language of today, “compliments to wisdom” are like a dessert that comes at the end of a meal. It is especially delicious, and its taste lasts for a considerable time. However, it is not the principal nutritional part of the meal.
Therefore, if we have the principal matter – the Torah – the compliments can be used for embellishment, like a spice that adds taste and flavor. For example, if we discover a pleasant gematria that deepens the understanding that aliyah is a basic foundation of Torah, it can be considered reliable because in reading the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, we learn that this is true. In this case, the gematria adds depth and support.
But if we found a clever gematria that says that Jewish life in New York is the essence of the Torah, then we have taken a tasty dessert and transformed it into the main dish of the meal. And this erroneous assertion does not line with the teachings of our Sages.
— Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Tzefas
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Generally speaking, this approach is frowned upon. It can also lend itself to sensationalism.
While there may indeed be hints in the Torah to different historical events, including our current one, the proper approach is characterized by Devarim 18:13: “Tamim tiyeh im Hashem Elokecha – Be wholehearted with G-d.” Rashi explains: “Conduct yourself with Him with simplicity and depend on Him. Do not inquire of the future; rather, accept whatever happens to you with [unadulterated] simplicity and then you will be with Him and to His portion.”
The Torah advocates above all to serve Hashem without resorting to gimmicks and shortcuts. Moreover, once one begins to look in Chazal for signs and codes, there really is no end to the process.
That being said, there can be room for someone to cite a Midrash or other Chazal that describe a particular sign of our times (for example, Shir Hashirim Rabba, 2:29, that states that close to Moshiach’s coming there will be a plague in the world) in order to inspire people to serve Hashem better. But the condition is the sign lead to personal responsibility and not serve as a sensational stunt.
In times like these, we must strengthen our emunah and bitachon while meticulously following all the instructions from medical and rabbinic authorities, knowing and trusting that Hashem runs the world, and will protect us all. In the classic words of the Tzemech Tzedek: “Think good, and it will be good.”
— Rabbi Simon Jacobson, renowned Lubavitch author and lecturer
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Rabbi Yoel Kahan [a preeminent thinker and chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe] was once giving a class describing why one of the names of Hashem – “Elokim” – reflects Hashem acting through nature.
After a number of minutes, he saw the students didn’t understand what he was saying, so he told them “Elokim” has the same gematria – 86 – as the word for nature in Hebrew [ha’tevah]. At that point, one of the boys said, “Ah, I got it!”
Reb Yoel chuckled when the boy said that because of the following: There are relationships between certain ideas, but gematrias are merely expressions of these relationships. They don’t create them.
The reason two things are connected is not because they share the same gematria. It’s because they are inherently connected, and Hashem embedded that connection in the letters of the Hebrew language.
So if there is indeed a relationship between, say, doing teshuvah and plagues, and that happens to express itself in certain words, that’s interesting, but the gematria is not what creates the relationship; it’s what expresses it. So finding expressions of Torah truths in letters and words is wonderful, but to create new ideas or theories based on numerology is improper.
— Rabbi Raleigh Resnick, lecturer
and Chabad shliach in Pleasanton, CA