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Permutations & Combinations

Permutations & Combinations


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 We’re fairly eclectic in our tastesinto 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 G‑dly 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 I never fit in with the wicked peoplewith 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 G‑dliness and seeking out the underlying purpose of each phrase and phase of life.

Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum is spiritual leader of Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation and co-director of L’Chaim Chabad in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia.
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Anonymous Ashland November 16, 2013

permutations& Combinations Content and Context is beautiful to the mind than numerology, though numbers are fundamental in our daily lives. C &C provides the platform for creativity, while linear generation of numbers affirm in the infinite nature of the universe. so I choose both. Reply

Yisroel Cotlar November 13, 2013

Re: Two Sisters There are several answers that have been given to this question. In a well-known talk of the Rebbe, he explained that although they did indeed keep the Torah and Mitzvos, being that this was due to their Ruach Hakodesh and not it being instructed to them, it always had the status of a personal stringency they took upon themselves, not a strict obligation. That being said, since Yaakov promised that he'd marry Rochel, obeying a promise, something universally observed, took precedence over the Torah's prohibition of marrying 2 sisters.

You can read about this and other answer here: Reply

David Jones Brandon November 11, 2013

Spend time w/ G-d Is not that always the "real" problem: our struggle with the "real" world? No matter what religion or culture we come from, the world wants us to incorporate, change, add to, get off this path for another path. Jacob might not have known exactly what was going to happen to him or when, but it sounds like he studied Torah so much that he wasn't going to be easily shaken. He learned the ways of G-d from his father; he learned the ways of the world from Laban. I believe we all need to evaluate how much time and true effort we put into study and prayer.There is no way around the world and its ways; it is going creep into our lives or yell at us until we notice it. Like Jacob, we have to make ourselves worthy. Struggle, fight, carry on. As if, like our children, to say: "Hey G-d, Look at me! Notice me!" Reach out to G-d louder than the world reaches out for you. I think this is the only way to progress. We should be stronger than the year before, even yesterday. The only way is to carry on! Reply

Amnon Yaacov Rafael November 11, 2013

I have a problem with garti gematria equal 613 , but see Yaacov Avinu married two sisters and their hand maiden which is forbidden by torah Law. How could yaacov avinu mentioned garti I have kept 613 mitzvots, although torah was not yet given to Jewish people. Reply

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