The Torah vs. the Computer, Part I
Chapter 3, Mishna 23(a)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Elazar ben (son of) Chisma said, The laws of the bird-pair
offerings and the beginning of menstrual periods: these are essential
laws. Astronomy and the numeric values [of the Hebrew letters] are the
spices to wisdom."
This mishna enumerates a number of subjects and evaluates their worth in
relation to the Torah. The bird-pair offerings refer to the Temple
sacrifices a woman must bring shortly after childbirth (as well as in
other situations). Detailed discussions exist regarding the offering of
these sacrifices, cases in which the offerings of different women became
mixed up, and what types of stillbirths obligate the offering of these
Menstrual periods refer to the calculations necessary to determine the
expected start date of a woman's period, as well as the relevant
restrictions when her period begins or is expected to begin. And, of
course, it includes what types of blood indicate a menstrual flow,
deviations from the normal cycle, off-cycle spotting, etc. These subjects
may be a little less appealing to the budding scholar, but they are
essential areas of Judaism crucial for the proper maintenance of the
(In our mishna's words one almost hears echoes of the pagan notion that
such "women's laws" are somehow less holy and deserving of rabbinic
attention. Such phenomena as menstruation reflect women's innate impurity
or their affliction by evil spirits. Our mishna unequivocally rejects such
Astronomy and numeric values, on the other hand, are not Torah per se, but
are subjects which complement the Torah -- as does almost every area of
wisdom. The area of astronomy referred to here (and most often dealt with
in the Talmud) is the calculation of the cycles of the moon and the
seasons. Although basically mathematics, this field is essential for
formulating the Jewish calendar, whose purpose in a word is to reconcile
the discrepancy between the lunar months and the solar year. Each holiday
must fall out in its proper season -- Passover in the spring, Sukkos
(Tabernacles) at the ingathering of the crops, etc., and so the lunar year
(12 months of approximately 29.5 days = 354 days) must continually be
reconciled with the solar year of approximately 365.25 by adding days or
months to the lunar year.
'Numeric values" ("gematriya" in Hebrew) refer to the assigning of number
values to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. (I.e., alef = 1, bais
(or 'bet') = 2, gimmel = 3, etc. After the tenth letter, yud, the counts
increments by tens, and after the nineteenth, by one-hundreds.) Through
this, all Hebrew words and phrases can be associated with numeric values.
Certain forms of rabbinical homiletic interpretation are based on
inferences made from these values, and occasionally, a decision in Jewish
law will be based on (or at least corroborated by) such an inference.
Two simple examples follow. The Talmud (Makkos 23b) infers that the Torah
contains 613 mitzvos (commandments) based on the verse "Moses commanded us
in the Torah..." (Deut. 33:4). The word "Torah", as it appears in the
verse, has the "gematriya" of: tes (400) + vuv (6) + raish (200) + hai (5)
= 611. Thus, implies the verse, Moses taught us 611 mitzvos. That combined
with the tradition that the first two of the Ten Commandments were heard
directly from G-d at Sinai gives us a total of 613.
Elsewhere, the Talmud (Nedarim 32a) infers that Abraham first began to
comprehend the existence of a single G-d at the age of 3. It derives this
from Genesis 26:5: "Since Abraham hearkened to My voice..." "Since" is in
Hebrew "aikev" = ayin (70) + kuf (100) + vais (2) = 172 -- implying that
Abraham hearkened to G-d for 172 years. Thus, since Abraham lived till the
ripe old age of 175, he must have begun at the tender age of 3!
As our mishna states, both astronomy and gematriya have their place in the
Torah. "Essential laws" they are not, but in a way they help demonstrate
one aspect of the Torah's beauty -- as may be seen from other disciplines -
- as well as (in the case of gematriya) illustrating the hidden wisdom of
the Hebrew alphabet.
Today we have a modernized approach to the study of numbers in the Torah.
It is know as the Torah Codes, or ELS -- the study of Equidistant Letter
Sequences in the Torah. The concept is that if one takes the words of the
Torah as a long string of letters (without spaces between words) and
searches at regular intervals (taking e.g. every 50th letter), he will
find significant words and messages hidden within the text.
As a simple illustration, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon (of 18th
Century Lithuania, universally considered the greatest Torah scholar of
his age) was once asked that being that all future events are alluded to
in the Torah, where can one find a hint to Maimonides? He pointed to
Exodus 11:9: "...in order to magnify My wonders in the Land of Egypt."
Now, Maimonides is universally known as "Rambam" in Hebrew (the letters
raish - mem - bais - mem), the acronym of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. Further,
the words quoted above are as follows in Hebrew: "re'vos mofsai b'eretz
Mitzrayim." If we take the first letter of each word in this phrase we
spell -- raish - mem - bais - mem = Rambam! That together with the fact
that Maimonides was a wonder who lived much of his adult life in Egypt (as
few great Torah scholars did), we have a hidden but discernible hint to
the sage in question.
(This is admittedly a slightly different tactic -- taking the first
letters of adjacent words as opposed to equidistant letters. However, I
wanted to use this example because we will return to it next week, G-d
More recently, using computer technology, scholars have discovered that
there is no other place in the Torah in which this four-letter sequence
appears at the start of adjacent words. Needless to say, the Vilna Gaon
was pretty smart!
I would now like to leave the remainder of this discussion for next week.
We have a long way to go. However, I'd like to offer an important
disclaimer before we close. Many of you probably know that much
controversy surrounds the issue of the Torah Codes -- both their validity
and their statistical significance. I personally am a firm believer in
them (as are many great rabbinic figures today (although the Codes
certainly do have their rabbinic detractors -- even among the Torah.org
rabbinate)). My readers are welcome to research the topic for themselves
on the Web; there are many sites devoted to the ongoing controversy.
However, before we continue next week, let me state that I am not writing
this piece in an effort to convince anyone of the validity of the Codes or
to weigh in with my own uninformed two cents. I am neither great rabbi nor
great statistician. The controversy in its time has had its share of
acrimony and mud-slinging (rather curious for what should be a scientific
debate), and people far greater than myself have angrily and vociferously
stated their opinions.
However, I would like to approach this issue with a different thought in
mind. I feel the Codes touch on an even more fundamental issue to mankind
today: Has modern man progressed "beyond" the ancient wisdom of the Torah,
however advanced and innovative it was in its time? Has societal and
technological advancement made the Torah archaic and irrelevant to modern
man? Does the Torah have anything to say to a race which has created
computers which effortlessly perform billions of floating point operations
every second? Next week, G-d willing, I hope we will shed some light on
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.