Hebrew Numerology: A Primer on Gematria — Part 1

While I am not a big fan of biblical numerology, I do believe that numerological patterns still play an important role in the sacred texts and spiritual imagination of a people; the mind instinctively looks for patterns in the strangest places. Such thinking is not unique to Jewish biblical interpreters or mystics; it is common with all people of all faiths–whether it be seeing the face of Jesus  or Mohammad in a cloud formation, or in some other peculiar place–as people, we impose our mental  images and conceptions about order on the world and universe  around us.

In this short posting, I thought it would be fun to show my readers some examples of how the rabbis sometimes utilize a “gematria,” to prove a point; of course, one could prove anything using this interpretive device. The great medieval commentator Abraham ibn Ezra warned us against what he considered, “bogus,” interpretations that say more about the mind of the interpreter than it does the actual text one is commenting upon.

Nevertheless, some of the numerological patterns are, if nothing else, interesting and even suggestive–especially when people talk about its significance.

אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת שֵׁם שֵׁם בֶּן־מְאַת שָׁנָה

These are the records of the generations of Shem (Gen 11:10).

Now, if you add up the first letters of the first four words, you get the number 1001. “Ok,” you say, so what?” Well, to a mystic reading the text, even such a simple passage discloses something profound. Some of the numerological patterns are, if nothing else, interesting and suggestive.

Let’s examine another verse:

וַיָּמָל אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ בֶּן־שְׁמֹנַת יָמִים כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים

When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. (Gen 21:4)

אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת שֵׁם שֵׁם בֶּן־מְאַת שָׁנָה

“These are the records of the generations of Shem” (Gen 11:10).

Also adds up to 1001; this would suggest that circumcision was originally practiced by Shem, the son of Noah! By circumcising his son, Abraham identified with a spiritual practice that presumably originated with Shem.

Needless to say, there is no scriptural interpretation indicating that Noah or Shem ever practiced circumcision, but in the interpretive mind of the Rabbis, he did!

Here is another example of the same kind of numerological pattern:

וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הָאַיִל וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ

“So he went over and got the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Gen 22:13).

Here too, the gematria of the last three words adds up to 1001; this correlation suggests that the act of circumcision is comparable to the binding of Isaac. What a provocative interpretation!

The writers of the Jewish liturgy certainly looked for interesting numerological patterns. For our last example, we will examine the Jewish prayer book known as the Siddur.  One of the  liturgical blessings reads:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהוָה מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם

“Blessed are You LORD, Shield of Abraham.”

Writers of the Jewish liturgy frequently looked for interesting numerological patterns. With respect to this particular blessing, the letters all add up to 1001;  hence the act of circumcision has traditionally served as a “shield” of Abraham. When Jews identify with the covenant of Abraham, God promises to protect them from the forces of assimilation.

In summary, while gematria may not be scientifically correct, it inspires the minds of readers to make associations that are dormant in the text. Numerology may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but now you know the rest of the story!

4 thoughts on “Hebrew Numerology: A Primer on Gematria — Part 1

  1. Jane Brenner says:

    I love calculating gematrias, Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, because I believe that the whole world around us is governed by numbers. I tried doing that on paper but that just took too much time and online calculators require Internet connection. Now I am using Gematriel (version 2.0) software made by Rabbi Raphael Polyakov (http://raphael.eu.pn/gematriel/). It really speeds up the process. Now I am slowly assembling huge lists of numbers. Hope to share them soon.

    • admin says:

      I would be interested in knowing your results. The human mind loves to discover order in seeming random sequences.

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