A number is a sort of adjective that defines the quality of quantity. In Hebrew, there are mainly two kinds of numbers:
- Cardinal Numbers tell how many things there are (in a set), for example, one, two, three, and so on.
- Ordinal Numbers tell the order or priority of elements in a series, for example, first, second, third, and so on.
A numeral is a symbolic representation of a number. Biblical Hebrew does not use any Arabic numerals in the modern sense but instead uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to express quantities. Often distinct words are used to describe larger numbers, such as ma’ah for 100 and elef for 1,000.
In the Jewish scribal arts, Hebrew letters (as numbers) are used for counting things like chapters (perekim) and verses (pasukim) of the Tanakh, page numbers, and footnote references in annotated sacred texts such as the Talmud.
Properties of Numbers
In Hebrew, numbers have their own gender, masculine and feminine. This means that you will need to be familiar with two sets of numbers, one set that modifies masculine nouns and the other that modifies feminine nouns. Like other adjectives, then, the gender of the number must agree with the noun it modifies.
To make things a bit more murky, Hebrew uses characteristically feminine endings for the first three masculine numbers, and conversely. This will be explained in Unit 8.3.
It seems obvious that the Bible uses numbers in patterns, and there is significance in many of these patterns. For example, the number seven recurs throughout the Hebrew calendar in regular intervals and multiples (think of Shabbat, Shemitah, Yovel, and the weeks of years in Daniel’s prophecy). The study of these sorts of patterns is called Numerology.
Gematria is a type of numerological study that may be defined as a system for calculating the numerical equivalence of letters, words, and phrases in a particular Hebrew text. This system is used for the purpose of gaining insight into interrelating concepts and for finding correspondences between words and concepts. Although not identical, gematria is also in the same orbit as the so-called “Bible Codes” and “Equi-distant Letter Sequences” (ELS) that have become fashionable recently.
Since each letter of the alphabet has a numeric value, it is child’s play to add up each letter to determine the numeric value for a given word found in the Tanakh. For example, consider the sacred name YHVH:
Yod = Y
Hey = H
Vav = V
Hey = H
In gematria, YHVH it adds up like this:
Yod = 10
Hey = 5
Vav = 6
Hey = 5
TOTAL = 26 or (10 + 5 + 6 + 5 = 26)
26 is thus the number of YHVH (called the "Total"). Additionally, practitioners of gematria speak of the “Sum” which is simply the addition of the respective digits of the numbers (irrespective of their power). For example, the "Sum" of 26 is 2 + 6 = 8.
Practitioners of this craft often claim that words that have the same numeric value are considered to be somehow connected. Therefore it is a matter of some concern to identify other words that equal the Total (and/or Sum) for the Name of the LORD. Often this leads to speculations that fall outside the pale of standard Biblical exegesis.
In short, gematria has to do with the letters of the Hebrew words throughout the Tanakh considered from the point of view of their numeric values rather than their normal, denotative and historic meaning. We will take a brief look at this subject in Unit 8.5.