There are no numerals in ancient Hebrew. Hebrew predates the invention of the decimal system that we know of as Arabic numerals. Therefore, numerical values were represented by Hebrew letters. (This is similar to Roman numerals, which use letters instead of numerical symbols to express numbers.) Every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value:
Thus every word in Hebrew has a numerical as well as a linguistic value. And so in Jewish tradition, in addition to looking for linguistic connections between Hebrew words we look for numerical connections as well. This form of interpretation is known as gematria. Since the Hebrew letters have intrinsic numeric value, gematria looks for words and terms that share numerical values, and then playfully derives additional meanings and connections between the numerically equivalent words and phrases. And even though modern Hebrew has adopted the now universally accepted use of Arabic numerals, the ancient tradition of gematria continues to flourish.
The gematria most familiar to us is the word chai חי, “life”. חי equals 18 (see the chart above!), which has led to the Jewish custom of giving gifts and tzedakah (charity) in multiples of 18, wishing abundant life, as it were, on the recipient. A more complex example: one of the Hebrew names for God, Elohim אלהים, has a numerical value of 86. The Hebrew term for “the natural world”, Ha’teva הטבע, is also 86. Hence our tradition teaches that “the natural world” is also a name of God, or that God and the Natural World (i.e. Creation) are one!
Following this Jewish practice, while in English we write the incoming Jewish year as 5776, in Hebrew we write it as תשע”ו: ת=400 + ש=300 + ע=70 + ו=6, totaling 776. (The 5,000 column is usually not notated, assuming we can remember which millenium we are in! Also, numbers are distinguished from words in Hebrew with the use of a hashmark: תשע”ו)
The letters that represent the Jewish year combine and permute to make many different words and phrases. Perhaps, inherent in any given Jewish year are directives and reminders to us about the important values upon which to focus in that year. This has been my seriously playful assumption for the past 30 years, and every year I seek Gematria connections that will help guide me as I prepare for the New Year.
This incoming year provides me with a very direct message, for תשע”ו spells an actual word, תִשׁעוּ – Tish’u, which means “turn towards, gaze at, regard, pay heed, consider, observe, notice, look about.” Tish’u is conjugated as a command, in the plural. We are all being addressed. On the individual level, the coming year tells us: pay attention to your life,
observe it, notice it. Do not avert your eyes from the difficulties. Courageously face it all. On the collective level the message is the same: our world is hurtling headlong into an unknown future. This can be terribly disconcerting and even frightening. Nonetheless, do not keep your head in the sand. 5776 calls to all of us to turn towards the world, not away from it.
The next level of gematria provides us with further instructions. If we rearrange the letters of the year תשע”ו we can form the word תַעֲשׁוּ ta’asu: “make, do”. It is also in the form of a collective command. Thus, as 5776 first calls us to turn towards, pay heed, consider and observe the world around us, we then are called upon to act. Not heedless action, but considered action. This is an application of our highest human ability, the ability to carefully consider before acting, and then to observe the results of our actions as we plan our next move.
On yet another level of gematria we look for other Hebrew words with the same numerical value. שְׁלֵמוּת shlemut equals 776, the same as תשע”ו. Shlemut means “wholeness”. It derives from the same root as שָׁלוֹם shalom. The root of “peace” in Hebrew is a term connoting fullness, completeness and wholeness. And so, the message of the year deepens:
תִשׁעוּ Tish’u – turn towards, regard, notice the world around you; תַעֲשׁוּ Ta’asu – take thoughtful action; שְׁלֵמוּת Shlemut – consider how to bring greater wholeness and peace to the world through your actions.
Finally, for further guidance we look for phrases from the Torah that equal our desired number of 776, and I found a good one: !שְׁתוּ יָיִן Sh’tu yayin: “Drink some wine!” (Jeremiah 35:5) Take time for pleasure, take time to unwind. We have work ahead of us – that will always be true. But God gave us Shabbat so that we might recuperate from our labors. In addition to the challenges that call to us as human beings of conscience, the world is also a place of joy and fulfillment. Do not deny yourself the pleasures of being alive. Drinking in life’s goodness (it doesn’t have to be alcohol) is precisely what will renew us so that we can continue to contribute to the betterment of all.
Here, then, is the whole message I offer you according to the gematria of this New Year:
תִשׁעוּ Tish’u – turn towards, regard, notice the world around you,
תַעֲשׁוּ Ta’asu – take thoughtful action,
שְׁלֵמוּת Shlemut – consider how to bring greater wholeness and peace to the world through your actions, and don’t forget to
!שְׁתוּ יָיִן Sh’tu yayin – take time to relax and enjoy!
Wishing you and your loved ones a year filled with both purpose and pleasure, and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.
PS This teaching is dedicated to my beloved parents Deborah and Herb Krasnow, may they have a year of good health, and especially to my mom, because she appreciates the benefits of a good glass of wine!