We recently read Parshat Vayetze, and someone told the joke: “How do you know Yaakov wore a hat? Because it says, “Vayetze Yaakov” (literally, “Jacob went out”) – Do you think Yaakov would go out without a hat?” In Hassidic communities, they replace “hat” with “shtreimel.” That joke is certainly milsa bedichusa [“humorous words”] but nothing more.
Gematria (from the Greek word geometria) is the process by which numerical values are assigned to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. And so many gematrias in widespread use are as trite as that joke.
So many gematrias are sophomoric, except for a select few. In Gematria Refigured: A New Look At How The Torah Conveys Ideas Through Numbers, Rabbi Dr. Elie Feder notes that gematria, as popularly used today, is a most simplistic representation of both Torah and mathematics. And when used in that manner, it can be used to convey any message and justify any theory.
As it’s written in the publisher’s promotion of the book, “Gematria is a polarizing topic. While many love it, many others view it with skepticism. What is the purpose of gematria? Can we truly learn anything from the numerical representation of words? What is beneath these creative yet apparently simplistic interpretations? While jointly pursuing semichah and a PhD in mathematics, it seemed natural for Feder to love gematria. However, he was bothered by these compelling questions. That is, until he discovered the purpose of gematria.”
What is the purpose of gematria?
Gematria Refigured presents the discoveries that led to the author’s transformation from a gematria skeptic to a gematria lover. It develops a theory which elucidates how the Torah and the sages use gematria to direct us toward a very specific type of idea. Through its many examples, this work illustrates how gematria can help us uncover novel insights, while providing interesting and clearly formulated perspectives into many mitzvot, themes, and stories in the Tanach.
At its most simplistic and absurd level, during Donald Trump’s first run for president, some shared how Trump and Melech Moshiach had the same gematria. Finally, ask yourself this question: Do you know anyone who opened a dvar Torah with one of these silly gematrias who followed it up with profound, meaningful ideas? Neither do I.
So if many gematrias are ultimately a joke, why write a book about it? Feder writes how it has a limited, yet meaningful use in a few exceptional cases. The book showcases 15 examples of gematria. And rather than their being simplistic, he uses them to develop meaningful Torah thoughts.
Of the 15 gematrias he expounds on beautifully, six are from Beresheet, three from Shmot, and two each, respectively, from Bamidbar, Devarim, and Megilat Esther. As noted, Feder uses gematria as a springboard for a deep Torah insight, not the reason for the insight itself.
As someone with a doctorate in mathematics, I hoped to see more math in this book. Particularly about when people use gematrias to determine if a certain shidduch [potential arranged marriage] should or should not be pursued. But Feder disappointingly does not get into the math of how gematrias work or how the simple gematrias of today are mathematically meaningless.
If gematria is a meit mitzvah [a body that is found that must be buried immediately], then Feder is the one who has brought it back to life here. The author has spent years trying to find an underlying system to gematria and articulately presents it here. He uses this system with the 15 gematrias he has found so far. This interesting book shows the power gematrias have to be the foundation of deep, meaningful Torah ideas. And it is somewhat sad that there are so few of them. ■
Gematria Refigured: A New Look At How The Torah Conveys Ideas Through NumbersRabbi Eli FederMosaica Press, 2022Hardcover 205 pages; $22.99