Numbers are all around us and they inform our lives, but many people think of numbers purely abstractly or as a tool to be used, but this is not the case for many peoples throughout history and even today, and there is no better example of this in the modern context than Gematria.
Gematria is any process in which numerical values are assigned to letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The most common type of arrangement of Gematria is to assign the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet the numbers 1-10. Then the next ten letters will be assigned 10-100 going up by 10 each time. Then the final three letters will go from 200-400. From this system many jews contend that special/hidden meaning can be found not only in religious texts but also in the Hebrew language itself. There are many great and expansive surveys of Gematria and if one is interested, they should start here. Instead, with this basic understanding of what Gematria is I believe that we should look at a specific example that shows us how central these ideas can be. Therefore, we will look at the Gematria of a Jewish Funeral.
Numbers and the dead
The funerary process has a few distinct stages. Firstly, is Shmira (guarding) in which one person watches over the body of the deceased and reads to them (usually from the book of Psalms). The number one (represented by the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet Aleph) has strong symbolic value because it represents the unity of God and his indivisibility. The person guarding the body is referred to as Echad (the word for the number one in Hebrew), thus alluding to God. The Hebrew word Echad’s first letter is Aleph which adds even more to its symbolic significance. Next comes the ritual purification of the body (Tahara) in which the body is washed fully before being placed in a casket. Usually, Tahara is performed by three members of a Chevra Kadisha (a Burial society). Three is a significant number here because three represents a division of the sefirot which are aspects\attributes of God in which three attributes together form a self-contained triangle. After the Tahara there is a funeral service in which a eulogy is given (usually by both a family member and a Rabbi). The casket is then accompanied to the cemetery where each family member shovels three scoops of dirt into the ground where the casket lies. Again, we can see the significance of three and its connotations with the sefirot (and its letter Gimel). Stones are usually placed over the grave before a headstone is placed. Then the mourners wash their hands and leave the cemetery to begin the mourning process.
The payment for the burial is done with these Gematria numbers in mind as well. Many congregations and Rabbis will only except values with these special meanings.
As already mentioned, three and 10x multiples of three (30, 300, 3000, etc.) carry the meaning of the Sefirot. Another example that was already mentioned would be one and 10x multiples of one (10, 100, 1000, etc.) . The value 26 and its 10x multiples (260, 2600, etc.) also have a very important gematria meaning; represent the tetragrammaton the ineffable unspeakable true name of God (with the sum of the letters totaling 26).
Another would be 18 and its multiples representing the word Chai which means life in Hebrew (this number is quite important and is often used in funeral payments as it is said that to honour the dead). A final example would be seven and its multiples represented by the Hebrew letter Zayin which alludes to the seven days of creation in Genesis (all of these are just to name a few).
Even outside of the funerary context many religious Jews will only give payment or take payment in these special Gematria values, and they hold a vary revered place in some religious Jewish communities. People in these communities’ think about these numbers and the letters associated with them not as numbers or letter per se but as fragment of Truth that God has given to the world.
Acres, Kevin, Data integrity patterns of the Torah: A tale of prime, perfect and transcendental numbers (Melbourne,2004).
Lamm, Maurice, The Jewish way in Death and mourning (New York, 2000).
Likkutei Sichot pp.320-350.
Schechter, Solomon et al., ‘Gematria’, Singer, Isidore; et al. (ed.), The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York, 1901-1906) pp.589-592.
Sefer HaArachim 5,1:1-17.show less