Monday, September 19, 2011

When Hebrew Letters Are Actually Numbers

Something that confused me for a long time was that Hebrew letters are also numbers. Worse, the words for numbers have both feminine and masculine forms. But today, we're going to focus on Hebrew numerals. Think of Roman numerals (I, V, and X) and Arabic numbers (1, 2, and 3). I find the Hebrew system to be closer to Roman numerals.

General principles:
  • Each letter has a numerical value
  • There is no representation for 0
  • In order to make larger numbers, you combine letters and their numerical values
Uses:
  • Modern Israeli Hebrew generally uses the Arabic numbers (and even more notably, the Arabic numerals appear to be written left to right like English even though the rest of the Hebrew language is written right to left!)
  • Hebrew numbers are used much like Americans (and other English speakers?) use Roman numerals, such as numbering paragraphs and lists
  • In religious texts, Hebrew numbers can be used to number paragraphs and chapters. For instance, you may hear someone say, "In perek (chapter) aleph, we read..." This may be a chapter in the Torah text or a chapter in the Talmud. Perek essentially means division or unit. Note: chapter and verse divisions in the Torah (except for Tehillim) are a Christian invention, but that is a different topic!
  • Jewish mystics use these numerical values to ascribe "values" to Hebrew words and phrases, which is known as Gematria. 
A simple Hebrew numbers chart can be found here. It's perfect for your fridge or bathroom mirror!

7 comments:

  1. It's not only Americans and other English speakers that use Roman numerals :) Our Russian textbooks have always been full of them :o)

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    1. Originally posted: September 19, 2011 at 2:06 PM

      Sophia, I wasn't sure, so I didn't want to make any assumptions :)

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  2. My kids get confused on this, as well. "How can aleph mean 1 and echod also mean 1?" I think the Roman numeral explanation helps quite a bit.

    I often have a hard time following Gematria. I have to try hard not to zone out whenever someone starts talking about how this word added to that word equals the numerical value of another word. It sends me straight back to math classes in school! I guess I'm just not there yet.

    The chart is a good find, though. :)

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    1. aleph is the 1st letter in the hebrew alpha-bet, hence the numerical value is one

      echad is the hebrew word for one.

      to sorta make it easier to understand lets use the english abc.

      a=1, b=2, c=3 etc.

      your question is the same as asking how can c=3 and three=3 at the same time?

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  3. Hebrew letters as numbers are used when writing the Hebrew date, and many other purposes.

    In modern contexts the use is more formal or poetic, but also inconsistent in some ways. For instance, 29 November marks the UN vote to partition what was left of Mandatory Palestine in 1947. This was a critical step towards the founding of the State of Israel, and so is historically significant. It is officially referred to not as '29 November', but as 'caf tet banovember'. Similarly the road named after soldiers who fell in the attempt to relieve beseiged Gush Etzion isn't called 'Path of the 35'; it is called 'Path of the lamed heh'.

    Of course, in religious contexts like Torah study, the Hebrew letter-numbers are used all the time. We typically don't refer to the '39 melachot', we refer to the 'lamed tet melachot'. Also page numbers, etc.

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  4. this blog saves me all the time.

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  5. I was really surprised the first time I heard the arba minim referred to as the dalet minim. It's a thing.

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