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 sacrifices.
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. This includes
what types of blood indicate a menstrual flow, deviations from the normal
cycle, off-cycle spotting, blood spots found on clothing, 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 Jewish
(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 absurdity.)
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
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 willing.)
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
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 myself, after having been enamored with the topic years
back, have resigned myself to the fact that far and away the majority of
statisticians (hopefully most of them sincerely) reject their mathematical
basis. They may well indicate something of the Torah's divinity, but I, in
my relatively uninformed opinion, cannot imagine ramming them down the
throat of the uninformed in order to "prove" that we're right. The Torah has
more than enough proofs of its authenticity to the intellectually honest.
There is no need to employ shaky methods to further corroborate G-d's
Regardless, my readers are welcome to research the topic for themselves on
the Web; there are a few sites out there still devoted to the debate.
In any event, 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 ought to 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, which at every moment of the day sends trillions upon
trillions of bits of information instantaneously around the globe? Next
week, G-d willing, I hope we will shed some light on these issues.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.