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Reading from a Cipher Torah

An Exploration of Gematria

In Parshat Lech Lecha, a coalition of four kings emerges victorious over five enemy kings and captures Lot, Avraham’s orphaned nephew. A messenger brings news of the four kings holding Lot in captivity to Avraham. The Torah tells us that in response to this provocation by the four kings, Avraham musters the 318 retainers of his household and pursues his nephew’s captors. Avraham defeats the kings and saves his nephew. Rashi, interestingly, comments on the number 318. He quotes a Gemara in Nedarim that says that 318, the value of Eliezer’s name in Gematria, tells us that Avraham pursued the kings with only his trusty servant Eliezer beside him. This is a classic example of Gematria at work.

Gematria is a classic rabbinic tool for interpreting texts that involves manipulating the letters of a word according to established rules to find meaning in it. The most common form of Gematria, Mispar Hechrachi, involves assigning a numerical value to each letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The value of letters in a word can be combined to calculate the value of that word in Gematria. When calculating using Mispar Hechrachi, the letters Alef through Yud are assigned values of 1-10; the letters Yud through Kuf are assigned the values 10-100, rising by ten for each letter; and the letters Kuf through Taf go from 100 to 400, rising by 100 for each letter. It is according to this system that Eliezer’s name is assigned the numerical value of 318. 

While Mispar Hechrachi is by far the most common form of Gematria, there are a number of other ones which often live in the shadow of the more popular system. Although many of these alternative systems simply assign different numerical values to different letters, one, known as Atbash, abandons numerical values entirely.

The rules of the Atbash system are simple. Every letter is paired with another letter, and when one is written, the other is substituted. The letters are paired so that the first letter, Alef, corresponds to the last letter, Taf, and the second letter, Bet, corresponds to the second to last letter, Shin. This pattern continues, moving from the edges of the alphabet to the center, all the way through the final pair, Kaf and Lamed. This pairing system is how Atbash got its name, which is only a simple acronym of Aleph Taf, Bet Shin, the first two pairs. In practice, Atbash is often used as a literal code or cipher; whereas, Mispar Hechrachi is more often used to interpret or extract meaning from a text.

In practice, Atbash is often used as a literal code or cipher; whereas, Mispar Hechrachi is more often used to interpret or extract meaning from a text.

For example, in Perek 25 and 51 of Yirmiyahu, Yirmiyahu mentions a king of “Sheshach,” which Rashi points out is clear Atbash for Bavel. Bavel, or Babylon, is a common focus for Yirmiyahu’s prophecies, and Sheshach is a kingdom that does not exist. Rather than interpreting something new in the text, Rashi is simply translating a common codeword for Bavel to assist the reader. Similarly in Perek 51, Rashi also translates the made up kingdom of Lev Kammai into its Atbash, the oft-referenced kingdom of Kasdim. 

Another interesting example of Atbash appears in Sanhedrin 22a. There, the Gemara briefly discusses the story of the writing on Belshazzar’s wall. In the story, told in Sefer Daniel, Belshazzar, the king of Bavel, asks Daniel to interpret a strange writing on his wall. All the king’s advisors had failed to interpret the writing, but Daniel can and finds the meaning of the text. The Gemara wonders why the writing is so challenging to read. Rav says the message was written in the form of Atbash. This use of Atbash once again illustrates its more practical use; it is literally being used as a way to write code that those without the key cannot read.

The presence of Gematria is a reminder of how many details the Torah contains. Whether in the form of literal code or numerical interpretation, every letter and every word can hold significance. When we search for this meaning, we can find new depth in old texts.

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