Signs and Symbols

Are number and letter symbolism important in Jewish tradition?

Rabbinical interpreters of the sacred text have always loved to play with words. That is not so surprising in a tradition that teaches that words are so powerful that to speak a word is to bring its meaning into being as an event. Writers of aggadah—learned narrative intended to entertain as well as teach—analyzed words or clusters of words in the text at hand, looking for hidden meanings. Every letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value, and the interpreters would, for example, count up the total numerical value of certain words in order to decide where to place their emphasis in interpreting a passage. This type of interpretation is based on a system called Gematria (from the Greek word for “geometry”) and was especially associated with a kind of often arcane Jewish mysticism called Kabbalah. Other kinds of letter symbolism relates to the words with which the letter begins. A charming bit of lore called the Alphabet of Creation tells how the letters of the Hebrew alphabet debated among themselves which one should go first. They each made their case, responding to the others in turn, not hesitating to poke fun at some of the funnier-looking letters. In the end it was the humble letter aleph that God judged worthy of going first, because with aleph the name of God, Elohim, begins.

Ritual objects for personal devotion and domestic worship displayed in a Jewish religious goods store, the Jewish ghetto of Venice. In addition to the Menorah and Star of David, there are miscellaneous small items such as the protective hand-shaped amulet.


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