Posts Tagged ‘gematria’

Shabbat, Mesopotamia, and the number 60…

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

We know that numbers are important in Judaism, both in terms of "special" numbers (like 7, 40 and 10), as well as the gematria (numerology) that comes from the use of Hebrew letters explicitly as numbers.

Sixty, though, doesn’t seem to be one of the special numbers. Yet it crops up here, and, in an intriguing way, it tells us something very special about Shabbas. Listen:

The Mesopotamian number system is called "sexagesimal:" it is based on the number 60. It is from this system that we get the notion of sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a circle, to name the most famously persistent influences.

Sixty, however, was derived from the combination of two more fundamental numbers: six and ten. Six had a primary application: it was the number of days in the Mesopotamian week. (Weeks attempted to approximate the lunar month, and 30 – half of 60, and a multiple of 6 – is a slightly better approximation than 28, a multiple of our 7).

The spiritual magic of our seven-day week fully emerges in the context of the Mesopotamian week. The seventh day – Shabbat – is an extra day, literally a day out of time. We took the secular week practiced by everyone around us – six days – and added a seventh, making it devoted to G!d.

Doing so immediately set us out of synch with the world around us: our weekdays would only align every 42 days! In so doing, we literally made ourselves a people apart, not just because we spent a day differently, but because we had an entirely different structure of time!

In this light, Ahad Ha’am’s famous statement – "More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel" takes on a new depth. Even more spectacular is the fact that the seven-day week survives as the foundation of modern calendars, despite the pressure for six that must have been exerted by the pervasive secular world.

A single yud…

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

Tazria / Metzora - A single yud...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

Tazria / Metzorah: Leviticus 12:1-15:33

"And if a woman have an issue of her blood… she is unclean." (Leviticus 15:25)

I want to begin the discussion with a basic principle of how one applies Torah to modern life. We often read sections of the Scripture that, at face value, may be disturbing; for example, the laws relating to the treatment of slaves. Does the fact that we are told how to acquire and manage slaves mean that we believe slavery is a good thing? Of course not; but then, how are we to understand and apply such texts today?

The answer, simply, is that Torah does not present us with an end point, but a direction. The Sages of the Talmud understood and applied this principle, as have the Sages and Rabbis who followed. What we must do is consider what were circumstances before the Law, what are the circumstances prescribed by the Law, and then project that direction forward.

"An eye for an eye" was a tremendous step beyond the blood feuds that took place before it was law: the loss of an eye in a fight could result in the death of the offender. The Sages, however, did not stop there: they said that no eye was to be taken, but its monetary equivalent. They took the value taught by Torah and applied it forward.

With this text, the midrashists wonder: how can the sign of life be impure? They ask this with a poetic application from the Song of Songs: how can hair be both gold and black? From this intriguing question, R. Ze’era takes an astounding leap to a principle that might appear quite esoteric, until we wrestle with it a bit. Listen:

This has a bearing on the text, His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are in curls, and black as a raven (Song of Songs 5:11). R. Ze’era said: ‘His locks (kewuzzah) are in curls (taltalim)’ means: Even those things in the Torah which appear useless, for instance the thin strokes of letters (kozin) are taltale taltalim, i.e. mounds upon mounds, meaning they have it in their power to bring about the destruction of the world and make it into a mound (tel).

For example, if you make the letter daleth into the letter resh you cause the destruction of the whole of the Universe: it is written, For thou shalt bow down to no other god (Ex. 34:14) (N.B.: the effect would be to change acheir – other or strange – into echad – One, our G!d! After this, many examples follow…)

R. Hina said, in the name of R. Aha: The letter yod which the Holy One, blessed be He, took away from the name of Sarai, He divided into two equal portions; one half he gave to Abraham, and the other half to Sarah. R. Joshua b. Karhah said: The yod of Sarai’s name ascended, and prostrated itself before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said to Him: ‘Lord of the Universe! Thou hast pulled me out from the name of that righteous woman!’ The Holy One, blessed be He, answered: ‘Go! Hitherto you were in the name of a female, and at the end of the word; now I shall place you in the name of a male, and at the beginning of the word.’ So, indeed, it is written, And Moses called Hoshea, the son of Nun, Joshua (Num. 13:16).

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XIX:2

Let me begin with the little bit of gematria – Hebrew numerology – that is necessary to understand the last paragraph. The letter yod – the smallest letter – has the numeric value of 10. The letter heh has the numeric value of 5; thus, one yod is equal to two heh’s. According to this argument, when G!d changed Sarai’s name to Sarah, this was accomplished by replacing the yod with two heh’s: in her name, changing shin-resh-yod to shin-resh-heh, and also in changing Abram’s name to Abraham (through the addition of the remaining heh). That left the original yod removed from the Torah! R. Hina proposes that the Eternal One further blessed the yod by putting it at the beginning of Hoshea’s name, changing it to Joshua.

What can all this possibly mean that is relevant to us?

At its simplest, pshat (literal) level, a woman’s name has been elevated by allowing it to participate in two men’s names – what could be more sexist? Come, let’s look deeper:

Remove the gender issue for a moment; there are two powerful meanings here. One is that every little stroke – even the smallest letter possible to write! – of G!d’s efforts in this world has a purpose. As in the Song of Songs, the tiniest curls in our beloved’s hair can serve to remind us of the twists and turns that our lives take, all within the sphere of the Holy One’s loving gaze.

But deeper still.

The sacrifices we make in our lives, the changes we undertake which seem to diminish us, can benefit others, whether they be the person closest to us, across the room, as Abraham was from Sarah, or by another removed by hundreds of miles and years, as was Joshua. Should we wait until we know who will benefit from the good we do? No! says the midrash.Do the good, and perhaps we will be blessed to see its outcome – or perhaps we will be doubly blessed to never know, just to trust that good will out.

May we each live our lives in readiness for the surprises of goodness that will come our way, instead of the insistence that we be paid in fair measure for our effort.