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Albert Tours Blog-  A Licensed Tour Guide - Israel

The numbers as Jewish symbols

In Judaism, everything is correspondences and symbols. Nothing is a coincidence. This article takes you through the correspondences between letters, numbers and symbols.

How were numbers written before the use of Indo-Arabic symbols, 1, 2, 3 etc.? Europe used the Roman system: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X,... L..., C..., M... The Hebrews introduced a different system based on their alphabet: each letter also has a numerical value. The first 10 letters are the units, from 1 (with the letter aleph א) to 9, then we continue the alphabet with the tens from 10 (with the letter yod י) to 90, then the hundreds 100 (quf ק), 200 (resh ר), 300 (shin ש), 400 (tav ת). Higher numbers are formed from combinations and abbreviations of these letters.

But Hebrew numbers also have an intrinsic symbolism whose source is biblical, therefore divine for those who believe in the Bible. The symbolism of numbers is found in many details that a tourist guide can tell you about during a visit to a given site, or to a particular place of worship. Let's see what the first 10 numbers and key other ones are about.

Number 1, letter aleph א

The number 1 obviously symbolizes the unity of God: God is One.

The God in His action as creator (Genesis 1) is called Elohim (אלהים) which begins with the letter aleph.

The 10 commandments (in Hebrew) begin with the letter א which proclaims that God is One.

The shape of this letter is a letter which stands as if having two legs and two arms, and which is formed of three other letters: a vav across and two yods inverted one another. Now the numerical value for one vav + two yod is 6+10+10 = 26 which is the numerical value of the name of God written with 4 letters, namely the tetragram. We see that the shape of the letter aleph intrinsically hides the name of God. But I am not going to go into the symbolism of the shape of the letters here, beyond this example, because it would require a much longer text. There are published works dedicated to this subject which would take us too far away from our numbers.

Number 2, letter beth ב

The number 2 represents the two tables of the Law, revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai.

The Torah itself begins with the letter beth ב in the word bereshit בראשית usually translated as "In the beginning".

The meaning of the number 2 is obviously the duality which is the way the world exists: night and day, good and evil, hot and cold, pure and impure, etc. Everything is everything and its opposite. We find this duality in man and woman also in some way (Genesis 2:18 : I will make him a helper, against him, textually in Hebrew). So, the message is that the world is made of opposites (scientists have even discovered that it is made of matter and antimatter, that's saying something!). How can it hold together without these opposites nullifying one another? By the divine will. Yes, duality exists but it is the Unity of God which makes the necessary adhesive for opposites to coexist and for the world to exist. This is why the letter beth is also used for the word beracha ברכה which means (divine) blessing. The adhesive is His blessing that He gave to the world for it to exist. And this is why the Torah also begins with this letter ב. “In the beginning…” inherently contains the necessary divine blessing for the world to materialize out of nothing. Nothing can then become Everything, that is to say its opposite.

Number 3, letter gimel ג

The number 3 symbolizes the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is through them that the first divine revelation of postdiluvian generations takes place. The symbolism of this number is that it takes three to achieve completeness. God reveals himself to Abraham who fathered Isaac but also Ishmael, then to Isaac who fathered Jacob but also the violent Esau/Edom; and only with Jacob, the creation reaches the point where God can finally reveal Himself completely: it is the descendants of Jacob, from the 12 Tribes, who will carry the divine torch. So, it takes 3 to achieve completeness. And this 3 is found in many concepts in the Bible. For example, the Hebrew Bible is divided in 3 parts (Torah, Prophets and Scriptures) and it was given to 3 categories of people (Kohanim, Levites and the rest of the people). Also, it takes 3 daily prayers without which the day is incomplete. There are 3 religious festivals per year (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot), without which the year is not complete. And 3 meals on Shabbat. And 3 judges in a court of law, without which there is no fairness in human justice. And 3 sons of Noah, to fill the entire world after the Flood. In summary, if you want to get something done right, check your work 3 times. And if you want to say something important, think about it 3 times before saying it.

Number 4, letter daleth ד

4 is the number of Matriarchs: Sarah, wife of Abraham, Rebecca, wife of Isaac, Leah and Rachel, the two sisters, wives of Jacob. As 4 represents mothers, 4 is also the number of types of sons that a father can have (they are described in the Jewish Passover Aggada), namely: an intelligent son, an evil son, a simpleton son, and a son who doesn't even know how to ask questions. And, as mothers represent life because they generate humanity, the number 4 is also associated with the annual cycles of life, which are the 4 types of new year in the cycle of the Jewish calendar, namely: the 1st Nissan (annual festivals), 1st Elul (tithe for livestock), 1st Tishri (cycle of years count), 15 Shevat (tithe for fruits, beginning of spring). The number 4 is also the number of letters in the name of God, the tetragram, because He alone directs these 4 cycles in the Jewish year. We also find the number 4 in Nature, with the 4 cardinal points, the 4 seasons, the 4 fundamental elements (fire, water, earth and air), etc. So, we see the importance that the number 4 is associated with the matriarchs without whom the “natural” world, as God wanted it, could not have been produced.

Number 5, letter heh ה

This is the number of books of the Torah known in English as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This letter ה appears twice in the name of God (the tetragram). There are twice 5 commandments in each of the two tables of the Law. Likewise, there are 5 fingers on each hand (and each foot). Each of the 4 fringes of the tzitzit (the prayer shawl) contains 5 knots. The number 5 therefore represents the spiritual in the world which would otherwise only be material. The number 5 represents the presence of the divine (or the divine 'hand') in our material world. And if we look closer, the word five in Hebrew is called chamesh and is written with three letters: חמש. These three letters correspond to divine choices: the letter ח is the initial of the word chai (חי) which means Life, which God established on earth; the letter ש is the initial of the word Shabbat (שבת) which is God's gift to humanity as a day of rest; and the letter מ is the initial of the word milah (מילה) which is the circumcision and therefore God's pact with humanity through His representative on earth, the people of Israel according to the Bible.

Is this why many Middle Eastern cultures have considered the 'hamsa (which means five in Arabic and is shaped like a hand with 5 fingers) as a good luck charm? No doubt, so that the divine hand watches over us. Muslims have in fact copied this symbol and call it the “hand of Fatima”.

Number 6, letter vav ו

As much as 5 symbolizes the spiritual, 6 symbolizes the material. It took 6 days to create the material world. The man generally works 6 days a week before resting. In Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) there are also 6 periods of 1000 years before the final redemption (which is the post-messianic period), that is to say that it will be the end of the material world, before the spiritual world takes over.

The number 6 is also the number of treatises of the Mishnah which is the basic text of the Talmud. The Mishnah was written to provide a human level, i.e. materialistic, understanding of the world created by God. And it indicates how man must act in His creation by fulfilling the mitzvot, meaning God's commandments stated in the Torah. In a way, the Mishnah is man's user manual for the world that God created for him. We therefore understand the correspondence between the material world, the Mishnah and the number 6.

Number 7, letter zayin ז

This number is special. The 6 represents the materialistic, and the 7 represents what is above the materialistic and, in fact, its 'mechanics'. Everything in the world is united in a single supervision: this is what is symbolized by the 7. What is it? The materialistic creation was made in 6 days, and the 7th day is Shabbat which oversees the weekly cycles. In fact, many aspects in the world are governed by a combination of the number 7. There are 7 days of the week, 7 colours in the rainbow, 7 lights in the menorah (the candlestick of the Temple), 7 planets apart from Earth (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter , Saturn, Uranus, Neptune; Pluto has for several years been excluded as a planet), 7 continents (North and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australasia, Antarctica), 7 oceans (North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific South, Indian, Arctic and Southern), 7 seas of the ancient world when the vast oceans were not known yet (the Adriatic, Arabian Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Mediterranean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf Sea), etc.

Man has also borrowed the divine number 7 to fix the 7 wonders of the world, the 7 virtues and the 7 deadly sins. It is not a coincidence. The number 7 for the wonders of the world was set by the Greeks who believed that this number had a certain spirituality (they surely borrowed this knowledge from the Hebrews or the Bible). And for the 7 virtues, it was Saint Paul who fixed them. Now Paul's name was Saul, he was a Jew from Tarsus, who was knowledgeable about the scriptures, and he had addressed the Corinthians (therefore Greeks) to whom the biblical number 7 already spoke as spiritual.

Note also that the cycles of time are governed by the rules of Nature: the day is governed by the rhythm of the arrival of night and day (this cycle is arbitrarily divided into 24 hours), the month by the cycle lunar (28 days), the year by the cycle of the seasons (of which there are 4). But only the week (of 7 days) has no natural or astronomical origin: God established it to benefit the world.

The number 7, supernatural, is also the number of other cycles outside of Nature: it is the cycle of shmita (in Israel, we cultivate the land for 6 years and we let it rest and produce by itself the 7th year) and the Jubilee cycle (which is the year after 7 shmita cycles, therefore the 50th year since it is 7x7 +1). These two divine cycles are only applicable in the Land of Israel.

The human world is also managed by laws to distinguish it from the animal kingdom. The “natural” human laws are called the Noahide Laws (those given by God to Noah and his sons after the Flood) and there are 7 of them.

The human life cycle is also made up of three stages: birth, marriage, and death. But we find the number 7 in these steps. Birth is only effective after 7 days have passed: for a boy it is then the time for his circumcision on the 8th day. Marriage is a contract (called ketuba) between the groom and... God (who is the guarantor of the rights of the wife): it is symbolized by the 7 blessings of marriage. Death is only effective after 7 days of mourning (a period called shiva, which literally means 7).

The number 7 is found in many biblical narratives, when divine act or divine will is in action. For example, the Levites circled 7 times (for 7 days) around the walls of Jericho so that they would collapse. Two major holidays (Pesach, the Jewish Passover, and Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles) both last 7 days. As for the 3rd major holiday of the Jewish calendar, it is Shavuot, a word that means Weeks, because it involves counting 7 weeks since the exit from Egypt (therefore 49 days because 7x7). These holidays have their equivalents in the Christian calendar, for example Pentecost for Shavuot.

Number 8, letter heth ח

The three previous numbers symbolize the spiritual (5), the material (6) and the divine (7), and the number 8 finally symbolizes the covenant with God, and the hidden reason for this alliance which is guarantor of everything in Creation. Because the number 8 is the number of days to wait before circumcision (which is the sign of the covenant with God), in the number of days of Hanukkah festival (where God's presence is hidden), in the total number of religious days established by God in the festivals' annual cycle (2 days for Passover, 1 for Shavuot, 2 for Rosh Hashana, 1 for Yom Kippur, and 2 for Sukkot), in the number of threads necessary for the 4 corners of the tzitzit. It is therefore obvious that the number 8 symbolizes the alliance with the divine because it is through the execution of His commandments listed above that man can transcend himself and approach God.

Let us also note that David was the 8th son of Jesse and that from David's descendants will come the Messiah.

It should be noted that the number 8 is also found in the celebration of Shemini Atzeret, which is the 8th day after the 7 days of Sukkot. Why is it important? Because Sukkot is the last religious holiday of the annual festivals cycle and therefore Shemini Atzeret “closes” this completed cycle. Once this cycle is complete, the world can hope that God will sustain His creation for the next cycle in the same way that we celebrate the end of the harvest and pray that the next season will be fruitful again. So, the number 8 is the end and the beginning of cycles. This is why this day is also chosen for the feast of Simcha Torah, also meaning the end and the beginning of the cycle of weekly readings of the Torah. We can then say that the number 8 is like the 8th day of Creation: after the 6 material days, and the 7th spiritual day of Shabbat, the 8th day announces the end and the beginning of the weekly cycle of the week. It is thanks to this 8th day that humanity can reassure itself and understand that God has not stopped Creation after 7 days but continuously repeats it, or rather recreates it, by His will from week to week. This is His role and His promise in our covenant with Him.

Number 9, letter thet ט

With the number 9 we return to the importance of women in Creation. Because 9 represents the 9 months of pregnancy, and therefore the repeated mother/child cycle which creates life (there is a parallel with the divine Creation of the world). In her prayer to God (I Samuel 2:1-10), the barren Hannah appeals 9 times to the name of the Lord (the tetragramm), and her pregnancy then begins.

The number 9 obviously also recalls the 9 candles of Hanukkah, which are the 8 corresponding to the 8 days of celebration + 1 candle lit each day to "watch over" the other candles: this 9th candle has a special role as it symbolizes the divine "guarantor" for the 8 others by which, in fact, we light the 8 other candles successively.

Number 10, letter yod י

The number 10 symbolizes the essence of God. It is with this letter that His name (the tetragram) begins. The number 10 also echoes the number 1, in the sense that 1 is God and 10 are His actions.

At the human level, an action often requires two hands and, allegorically, divine actions also require His "two hands" because the hand is worth 5 (see 'hamsa above) and two hands are worth 10.

In Judaism, we find many references of the number 10 as a symbol for divine actions: the 10 Commandments, the 10 plagues of Egypt, the 10 Sefirot (which are the divine emanations explained in the Kabbalah), the execution by hanging of the 10 sons of the evil Haman (at the time of Queen Esther and of the feast of Purim) which has its parallel with the 10 Nazi leaders hanged in Nuremberg in 1946. Also, on a human level, when a community wants to pray together, it requires 10 men at a minimum to allow them to add the divine name to their prayers: this count of 10 men is called the minyan.

After the first 10 numbers that are connected to God, His creation and mankind in it, we can analyse the symbolism of other key numbers that show some patterns in the Biblical narrative.

Number 12, written yod-beth י"ב

The number 12 symbolizes the 12 Tribes of Israel. And from the Biblical text, the number is also found in the 12 gates to the Temple Mount (First Temple), 12 springs of water after the incident at Marah (during the 40 years of the Hebrews in the desert). The number also represents some concepts of the world: the 12 zodiac signs, the 12 months of the year. In other words, with the number 12, there is a correlation between how the world operate and how the Israelites operate.

Number 13, written yod-gimel י"ג

The number 13 symbolizes the covenant between God and His people. The number 13 is found as the numerical value of the word אחד meaning One. which proclaims the unicity of God. So it is also found in the 13 attributes of His Mercy (Exodus 34:6-7) which are read during Yom Kippur prayers and is also the age for a boy to pass his Bar Mitzvah (which means his own entry into the Covenant with God). The Talmud also associates the number 13 with the "world to come", the Olam HaBaa (Avoda Zara III,1).

Number 15, written thet-zayin ט"ז

The number 15 is found in the Bible as the number of extra years that God grants a person after He turns the death decree because of change of attitude. We found that God granted 15 extra years to live to King Ezekias of Judea, King Sennacherib of Assyria and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The number 15 contains two letters of the divine name (the 4-letters Tetragram) so this may explain the above.

Number 26, written kaf-vav כ"ו

The number 26 is the numerical value of the divine name called the 4-letters Tetragram (10+5+6+5). So, in general, the occurrence of 26 in the Bible relates to an act or the will of God. The repetitions of 26 is also equally symbolic. Here are a few examples: there are 26 chronological generations from Adam to Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), which is a key event as it meant the return of the Shechinah (God's "presence") to humanity (it left the human world after the Original Sin). When we double 26, it gives 52 which was the age of the Patriarch Abraham at the turn of the new millennium (Abraham was born in Biblical year 1948, so adding 52 makes Biblical year 2000). Why is this significant? Because the first two millennia were years when mankind acted on its own, and went to the wrong ways, whereas the next two millennia are those when God made Himself present in the continuation of His created world: His communication with patriarchs and prophets, His acts upon historical characters, and so on. As an example, Nebuchadnezzar who was called "servant of God", in the sense that this king accomplished the divine will, reigned 26 years until he became "mad" (when God abandoned him due to his perverted ways).

Number 36, written lamed-vav ל"ו

The number 36 was the number of hours during which the original Spiritual Light created on the 1st Day of Creation was kept in the world for the first man, Adam, until God took it away from him and concealed it for the righteous people of every generation and for the world to come (post-messianic). And what Spiritual Light could be better represented by the study of the Torah. So, the Talmud is made of 36 tractates. There are a total of 36 candles lit during the festival of Hanukkah (the festival of the Lights) because 1+2+3+...+8 = 36. To pass a decision within the Small Sanhedrin (70 members), it was needed to reach 36 votes. The Talmud also mentions that there are 36 righteous people in each generation (Succah 45b).

Some may also note that 36 is twice 18 which is the value of the word חי (pronounced 'hai) which means life. So the Spiritual Light of the festival of Chanukkah brings life twice, one for the present world and one for the world to come.

Lastly, the miracle of Hanukkah, and the dedication of the Temple, happened in Hebrew year 3597 which corresponds to the end of the 36th century since Creation.

Number 40, written mem מ

The number 40 is the value of the letter מ which is at the center of the Hebrew alphabet. In other words, it is located as a point of equilibrium (middle) of the alphabet. For this reason, the letter and number symbolize such situation. For example, the מ is situated between the first and the last letters of the alphabet: together they form the word Truth= אמת. Because of this, the Sages have decreed that 40 should be the age of reason, meaning the age from which one person can start to learn the Zohar (and thus the Kabbalah). It also took 40 years for Akiva (2nd century Sage) to become a Tzadik. Also, it takes 40 se’ah (an ancient measurement of volume) for a mikveh (ritual bath) to be effective.

We find the number 40 in several narratives from the Bible. For example: 40 days of the Flood to purify the earth, Isaac married at age 40; 40 years of Moses with Midian in the Sinai, 40 days and 40 nights for Moses to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai, 40 days that the spies went in Canaan, 40 years in wilderness for the Hebrews to become a distinct people, 40 days that Goliath harassed the Israelites before David killed him, 40 years for the Israelites to finally end the Philistine oppression, 40 years of the reign of King David, 40 days of Nineveh before its prophecy of destruction, 40 years for the eclipse of Amos, 40 years of Judah punishment, and so on.

In other words, we can see that 40 is the point of balance, so there is a before and an after. It symbolizes the needed duration to reach perfection/completion before a new time/era. According to Jewish tradition, it also takes 40 days for a foetus to form into a human being.

Number 50, written nun נ

The number 50 is the value of the letter נ which is the first letter of the word נס, pronounced ness, which means 'miracle'. So, as this word suggests it, there is some degree of mystery about this number. God requested from His people to count 50 days before the festival of Shavuot which marks the Giving of the Torah. He then requested to count 50 years to mark the cycle of the Jubilee. There is no clear understanding about the meaning of these divine counting onto 50.

Number 70, written ayin ע

The number 70 is the value of the letter ayin which represents an eye (from the Hebrew word עין which means 'eye'). An eye is often the symbol of a witness, so this value 70 is found in Biblical narratives related to the same concept. Here are examples. In the Bible, 70 is the number associated with the total numbers of Nations (goyim) of the Earth, whereas 70 is also the number of "souls" from Jacob's family clan who came down to Egypt. There is therefore a parallel between the nations of the world and the Jewish people, both symbolised by the number 70.

The number 70 is also the number of 70 Jubilee periods (50 years each) that marks Jacob’s return to the Land of Israel and the creation of the State of Israel: indeed Jacob established his family in the Land of Israel in Hebrew year 2208 (=common year 1558 BCE), after his last son Benjamin was born there, and the State of Israel, which marked the establishment of Jewish independence in the Biblical Land of Israel, was created in common year 1948 (Hebrew year 5708). The difference is 5708 - 2208 = 3500 years, which corresponds to 70 Jubilee periods (70 * 50 = 3500).

But 70 is also the number of years in David's lifetime. It is also the number of years for the exile of Babylon. It is the number of Sages who wrote the Septuagint (which means 70 and is the name of the Bible translation in Greek). Lastly, 70 is the numerical value of the words Gog and Magog (גוג ומגוג) which refers to the ultimate battle of all the nations at the time of the Messiah (who, himself, will be a descendant of King David).

Number 120, written quf-kaf ק"כ

The number 120 is the numbers of years for the limit of human lifetime as decreed by God after the Flood. It is also the numbers of years of Moses' lifetime.

The number is also the 120 members of the Sanhedrin (הכנסת הגדולה), guarantors of the divine law on earth, during the Temple era.

Number 400, written tav ת

The letter tav ת is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and has the value of 400. Because of this position, it often refers to a cycle or a new complete turn, especially for something negative that turns into something positive, or vice versa. Here are some examples from the Bible: Abraham paid 400 shekels of Silver to buy the cave where he buried Sarah and where he and the other patriarchs were buried: so here the number 400 symbolizes the end of physical life and entrance into the spiritual life. Later on, in the narrative of Jacob, his twin brother swore his death and came to meet him with 400 men of arms, but finally there was a turn of events and the meeting of the two brothers ended up with a reconciliation. The number of 400 is also the number of years that God told Abraham about his descendance who will suffer 400 years of oppression in a foreign land, before they will be able to redeem a land for themselves.

We could certainly continue with the Jewish symbolism of numbers, but this would exceed the size of this short blog. In any case I hope the subject has been of interest to you.

Albert Benhamou

Tour Guide in Israel

April-May 2024


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