I’ve always been interested in word games and math puzzles, which is why I love the concept of Jewish numerology—Gematria. Gematria is a simple cipher where each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has one numerical value. The values of the letters in a word or phrase can be added up and converted to a number. Words and phrases with the same value can then be compared, revealing a hidden relationship between them that can teach some deeper meaning or message. Commentators on the Torah have used this technique for centuries, and today, people continue to discover new insights using Gematria. The word “gematrial,” meaning “of or related to Gematria,” according to Merriam Webster Dictionary, was even used in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and many books have been written on this fascinating subject.
One of these books, “Divine Wisdom and Warning: Decoded Messages From God” by Nicholas Gura, is filled with lessons that can be learned from Hebrew words and phrases from Tanach which have the same numerical value. Gura explores potential “mathematically generated” answers to many of life’s big questions, including: Why does the world exist? Do we really have free will? And are science and the Torah in conflict or harmony?
Several times throughout the book, the author acknowledges that while the math is accurate, his commentary is just one possible interpretation, and others may be equally or more valid, an important mindset to maintain when working with Gematria.
Gura’s interest in Gematria was sparked by the realization, after the 9/11 terrorist attack, that the numbers nine and 11 have a tragic significance in Jewish history as well. For example, the two Batei Mikdash were destroyed on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the 11th month of the Jewish calendar. Additionally, Kristallnacht, when Jewish stores were looted, synagogues were burned and many Jews were sent to concentration camps, happened on Nov. 9, the ninth day of the 11th month of our modern calendar. Gura started to consider what these events had in common. He discovered that every Hebrew word or phrase with the value of 911 seems to refer to the events of 9/11. This includes a phrase from Bereishit that can be translated: ‘By the men of terror’ (May-ate bnai Chet). Gura’s degrees in bioengineering and dentistry, his love of puzzles and games and his job as a stock-options trader all served as inspirations for study of Gematria.
After much intensive research, Gura developed new gematrial techniques that inspired the book. One technique is to find the numerical value of a phrase, then convert it to the specific Hebrew letters that correspond exactly to that number and rearrange them to form words which, naturally, have the same numerical value. Gura calls these “directly embedded messages” and they appear at the beginning of each chapter. Another technique he mentioned is to find the common theme that corresponds to a number. For example, “Torah” has a value of 611, so all of the messages in the chapter on Torah have values of 611 and describe some aspect of Torah. The messages Gura creates contain both wisdom, meaning the advice and benefits of following it, and warning, meaning the potential mistakes and consequences.
The epilogue of the book takes the numerical value of the word Gematria itself. By finding phrases with the same numerical value as both accepted spellings of the word Gematria, Gura attempts to decipher God’s opinion of Gematria. He concludes that if we focus too greatly on numerical values, take them too seriously and ignore the actual texts, God disapproves, but if used correctly, Gematria can bring joy to the world, teach us important lessons and help create a rewarding connection to God.
“When I see the mathematical beauty, it really feels like I’m in the presence of God,” Gura said in an interview. He mentioned a quote in Tehillim that says, “מספרים כבוד אל.” This quote is translated in context as “tell the honor/glory of God,” but the words themselves can be read differently, and this is how Gura translates it: “‘Numbers are the glory of God.’ I think this is how we can see the shadow of God, a little bit of the back of God, by seeing the beauty in the numbers.”