Gematria

Assigning numerical values to letters yields infinite interpretations.

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Assessing the Significance

In the Kabbalah the gematria principle is applied to produce an extremely complicated series of divine names, believed to represent various aspects of divine creativity.

There are numerous ways in which gematria can be worked out in addition to the simple form mentioned above. If we imagine that gematria could operate with regard to English, e.g. a=1, b=2, and so forth, two among many of these complicated forms can be mentioned:

The process known as "filling," in which each letter is first spelled out in full. The word "cat" in the simple form has a total of 24 (c (3) + a (1) + t (20) = 24) but in the "filling" method this is: ce = 3 + 5 = 8; ay = 1 + 25 =2 6; te = 20 + 5 = 25; = 8 + 26 + 25 = 59. The process is known as "adding," e.g. c = 3, ca = 3 + 1 = 4; cat = 3 + 1 +20 = 24; 3 + 4 +24 =31. It is possible to combine the two methods, e.g. 59 + 31 = 88, and so on ad infinitum.

Among the Kabbalists, the process of gematria is said to be part of the divine revelation in which the words of the Torah, as the very word of God, are capable of being understood in these complex ways. Yet even the Kabbalists are occasionally obliged to resort to artificial constructions, when, for instance, one of the two words has a numerical value of one less than that of the other, the word itself is counted as one to make up the total. Gematria thus often becomes a kind of religious, mathematical game, with an element of sheer playfulness.

In his critique of the Kabbalah, [17th-century scholar] Leon de Modena observed that the use of gematria makes everything possible. It can yield the thought, for instance, that a woman can be addressed as "honey," since the numerical value of devash ("honey") and ishah ("woman") is the same. 

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.