Concerning the Alphabet and Number in Kabbalah
The following is based upon Chapter Three of my book 'The Secret Garden of the Soul - An Introduction to the Kabbalah'.
To the Kabbalist the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are more than simple components of words; the correspondences of each letter are very extensive. Not only does every letter have a sound but it also has a name, a numerical value, and a form, all of which play a significant part in Kabbalah. Furthermore each letter has an associated image and an astrological symbol. For example, the letter Aleph has the value of 1, or, when written larger, the value of 1,000. It may also be viewed as an ox or interpreted as the element of air. The shape of the letter itself is said to describe a bull, and in some circles it is said to represent a man standing with his arms outstretched. On another level, Aleph symbolises the One, the eternal and omnipotent God. It is the principal channel between heaven and earth, and when considered as such it describes a flow of life between one and the other, thus some Kabbalists have likened it to Jacob’s ladder.
The Kabbalist accepts as a matter of fact that the scriptures were given to us by divine inspiration, that they are the Word of God, the divine will made manifest in our world. Thus, the analysis of the sacred texts is taken very seriously; indeed, every sentence, every word, and every letter is counted, compared, and reflected upon. Because numbers also represents the letters, it is possible to establish the numerical value of any word or phrase. On this basis several systems of working with the letters have been established. These systems are ancient, and have proved to be invaluable tools for exploring the hidden depths of scripture.
This may seem strange, even obsessive, to the majority of people who think of numbers as simply being tools for establishing quantity and value. Today, significant meaning in number rarely goes beyond dates of birthdays, anniversaries, and lucky numbers, but in the ancient world number had a profound, if not sacred, import that would have been lost to humanity if it had not been preserved in various societies of devoted scholars and quiet sanctuaries of esoteric schools. In our rational, secularised world, the mystical and symbolic interpretation of number is either associated with historical figures such as Pythagoras and his successors or with periods of social decadence such as that of the Greco-Roman world of late antiquity. In our time, such interests are considered to be delusory and generally associated with the eccentrics who populate the fringes of our society.
However, it is a fact that throughout the ancient world the mystical significance of number was at least as important as its scientific application. But times have changed, and the mind of humanity is now focussed upon an exploration of the material world and the development of a material philosophy and science that excludes all that lies outside its perceived area of interest; including religion and all things connected with the life of the soul. This was probably inevitable; nevertheless the appreciation of the role that number plays in the spiritual dimension of human life has continued unabated from classical times, albeit in reduced circumstances, and nowhere has it been more appreciated than in the esoteric schools of Diaspora Judaism that were eventually to give rise to the Kabbalists of the medieval era and beyond.
The spirit of scriptural interpretation, aided by a metaphysical understanding of the meaning of number, has ever been an important feature of the Kabbalah, and without an appreciation of this fact those who seek to engage in the work of Kabbalah will find themselves struggling to understand the different systems employed therein.
There follows some of the more important methods used by Kabbalists in their meditations and philosophical speculations. These methods involve the permutations of letters and number according to definite rules of engagement. They enable Kabbalists to engage in a profound exploration of the Scriptures; to penetrate beyond the literal meaning of the sacred texts, bringing them, it is taught, to the inner sanctuary of the soul, where the spirit of God descends and assists them in the work of spiritual regeneration and prepares them for the work of assisting their fellows. These methods are ancient, indeed, their use was well understood by the ancient priests and scribes of Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, and were later to become widespread in the Hellenistic world.
This is a method of scriptural exegesis through which the numerical value of words or phrases is calculated and used to establish a more esoteric understanding of the text. The comparison with other words and phrases of a similar value is an added dimension to this method, and has been used extensively by Kabbalists from the earliest times. The first recorded use of Gematria occurs in an inscription of the Babylonian king, Sargon II, which states that he built the wall of Khorsabad 16,283 cubits long to correspond with the numerical value of his name. Its use was widespread in the Hellenistic world, and it is known to have been used by the teachers of the Mishna in Palestine during the second century and by the medieval Kabbalists from the twelfth century onward. One example, from Genesis 18:2, is as follows:
‘Lo! Three men stood by him’. It is deduced that these three men were in fact the angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, because the numerical values of ‘and lo! Three men’ and ‘These are Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael’ are the same.
Notarikon is a system of shorthand in which the letters of a word are seen as an abbreviation of a whole sentence, or conversely, where the initial letters of each word in a sentence are combined to form a word that could be used to throw light on the original sentence. The term is derived from the system used by a shorthand writer in the law courts of ancient Rome. These Notarii, as they were called, were skilled at abbreviating sentences and frequently signified whole words by single letters. For example, the word AGLA is composed of the first letters of ‘Thou art mighty forever my Lord’. The word ‘amen’, is said to be composed from the initials of ‘The Lord and faithful King’. Another example is based upon the first word of the Bible, Bereshith, which would read, ‘In the beginning God saw that Israel would accept the Law’. There are other variations of this method, including joining the beginnings and endings of words together and or connecting two words in the same sentence to make one. These methods were central to the meditative techniques devised in the 13th century by Abraham Abulafia, and were used extensively in his school and by those who succeeded him. He used the techniques for developing the power of association, through which the attention of the aspirant progresses in an undistracted stream of connected thought wherein may be revealed profound spiritual truths. His methods were further developed by his successors.
Temurah is a method of substituting letters according to specific rules; sometimes the letters of a word or phrase are transposed where Aleph then becomes the letter Tau, and Beth, becomes the letter Shin, and so on. There are another twenty-one variations of this particular system, a system known in some circles as the ‘Combination of Tziruph’. Alternatively, each letter of a word is replaced by another according to a given scheme, thereby forming a new word. There are countless permutations of this nature, few of which are concerned with the esoteric understanding of Scripture. One of the most common is known as AiQ Bekar, or the ‘Kabbalah of Nine Chambers’. This is produced by intersecting two horizontal lines with two vertical lines, forming something like the board for noughts and crosses.
The letters are arranged in each square according to their values in units tens and hundreds, thus Aleph = 1, Yod = 10 and Qoph = 100; Beth = 2, Kaph = 20, Resh = 200. Many other systems based on Temurah, were developed during and after the late medieval period, and are more suited to the occult and political machinations of 17th and 18th-century Europe than in understanding the spiritual dimensions of Kabbalah. The following notes about some of the key features of the classical world’s perception of the meaning and philosophy of the basic numbers one to ten may thus be of value.
The number One emerges out of the monad, which is the term used to express the principle of Unity. The monad was understood by Pythagorean and Platonic philosophers to signify the first cause of creation, out of which emerge all things, including the number one, which in a paradoxical way is synonymous with the monad but distinct from it. In nature it is the potential for diversity demonstrated in geometry by a point and in mathematics by the number one. As such it is the cause, source, beginning, and basis of all number and numeration. They also understood that all even numbers were feminine and that all odd numbers were masculine, except for the monad, which is absolutely androgynous, because it is the father and mother of all number.
Two indicates division and polarization. It is the first step from unity into diversity. The emergence of duality and diversification out of unity points to a polarization of the number one and in doing so gives rise to contraries that can be expressed numerically. The number two signifies matter. In the Pythagorean tradition there are three stages of creation, the first is unity symbolised by the monad, the second is polarization into two opposite creative powers, symbolised by the duad, the third is the uniting of these opposites in the generation of life, symbolised by the triad.
If we accept the number one as a point, and the number two as a line, then the number three corresponds to the plane. The smallest plane imaginable is the triangle, which is the basis of the first three-dimensional figure—the three-sided pyramid. The number three causes the potential of the monad to advance into actuality and extension and is therefore considered the basis of Creation. It reconciles the polarities engendered through the actions of the number two; thus it has been called the number of friendship, harmony, peace, and unanimity. It indicates a beginning, a middle, and an end, and also implies a past, a present, and a future. Thus it speaks of form and time, of experience and knowledge. Out of these is born the world of duality, or in modern terms, ‘space-time’.
The number four is considered to be the begetter of the decad because the sum of all the numbers contained within it totals ten (1 + 2 + 3 + 4). It is known as the ‘foundation’, because in geometrical procession it is the first number to display the nature of three-dimensional existence: point, line, plane, solid. Its forms are considered to be the tetrahedron pyramid (the first solid), because it consists of four angles and four planes, and the cube, because it is a three-dimensional square—the symbol of earth. The tetrad gives rise to the four elements and universal existence, and as such signifies the quality and nature of change. It is understood that the monad applies to arithmetic, the dyad to music, the triad to geometry, and the tetrad to astronomy.
Five is thought to be androgynous, consisting as it does of the first masculine and feminine numbers (two and three) and because it was formed of male and female it was called ‘marriage’. It was also understood to consist of the four elements plus æther (spirit) and was therefore called ‘lack of strife’, because through the fifth element of spirit it reconciles any potential discordance. The pentad also signifies justice, because it governs equality in the soul and regulates providence, again through the element of æther.
Six is thought to be the first perfect number because it arises out of the multiplication of the first even and odd numbers; it was also thought to be androgynous and to signify marriage because of the relationship between these two numbers (two and three). Because it was understood to be the form of forms, possessing wholeness, it was accepted as a symbol of the soul, and that the universe was ensouled and harmonised by it, and through it attained wholeness, permanence, health, and beauty. It signifies the six directions of extensions of solid bodies: up, down, forward, backward, left, and right.
Seven is believed to be a virgin born neither of mother (even number) or father (odd number) but from the father of all (the monad). It was revered by the ancient philosophers, and called ‘that which brings to completion’. It was understood that all things, both in the heavens and upon the earth, were brought to completion by it, thus because it controlled mortal affairs it was called ‘chance’. The soul is understood to descend into existence through the seven planetary spheres, acquiring its qualities or virtues from them. It also applied to the seven liberal arts and sciences, which were devised for the edification of the soul.
Eight was known to the ancient Platonic and Pythagorean philosophers as ‘perfect harmony’. The eighth sphere of the heavens—which was understood to contain the zodiac—encompassed all of the planetary regions, and as such has a particular significance concerning the harmony of the spheres, thus the number eight was considered to be the source of all musical ratios. Philolaus, a Pythagorean philosopher of the fifth century B.C., is attributed with the saying:
". . . that after mathematical magnitude has become three-dimensional, thanks to the tetrad, there is quality and ‘colour’ of visible nature in the pentad, and ensoulment in the hexad, and intelligence and health and what he calls ‘light’ in the Hebdomad, and then next, with the Ogdoad, things come by love and friendship and wisdom and creative thought."
Nine is considered to be the greatest of all numbers within the decad. It was also called ‘the perfector’,
‘. . . because it gives completion to the fabrication of generation’ (Proclus).
As the end of a sequence of numbers, it signifies the end of the formation of specific identities; for number admits nothing beyond the Ennead, returning as it does to the monad in the decad.
The number ten, the decad, is understood to signify the universe because it is the most perfect boundary of number. It denotes the completion of building, bringing everything to fulfilment. It was called ‘eternity’ because it contains all things in itself. Thus it was recognised by the philosophers of the ancient world that there were ten heavenly spheres in which creation is contained. The decad was venerated by the Pythagoreans as the tetraktys, a triangular representation of the combination of the first four numbers (1 + 2 + 3 + 4). It was also called ‘fate’ because all numbers, things and events were sown into it.
This brief overview is far from exhaustive, but it will, perhaps, have demonstrated in some small way the reverence the philosophers of the ancient world had for the mystical significance of number, a reverence that was undoubtedly shared to some degree by many people of the day. Of course, it is probably true that much of society was then, as it is today, given over to common superstitions and vulgar practises, which at the collective level debase the profound spirituality and metaphysics underpinning the mystical appreciation of number. But, in the Kabbalistic schools this ancient knowledge was tied to the spiritual exploration and understanding of the Torah; there never was room for idle speculation. Consequently in Kabbalah number has evolved into a powerful tool that opens up surprising dimensions in the understanding of the language of the scriptures and of certain ideas communicated therein. The Torah is the ‘Law’, and it is expected that all true disciples should study the Law, to understand it as best they can.
However, the written Torah is but a garment concealing a deeper meaning; this deeper meaning is known as the ‘Soul of the Law’, and it is
the Soul of the Law that the Kabbalist seeks to understand. It is an interior journey wherein the soul reflects upon the significance of the scriptures. To do this effectively the soul must direct and control the unruly will. Left to its own devices the will, except in extremely rare cases, generally gravitates to the comfort zone of old behaviour patterns. In simple terms, the attention wanders, and it must be brought back to the main objective which is the study of the scriptures, wherein it may learn the ways of God and grow in understanding. Such work is known as meditation, and some of the most useful tools used by the Kabbalists in meditation involve the symbolism of numbers and their correspondences.
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