I remember around 20 years ago, maybe more, reading a book called The Bible Codes by Michael Drosnin, I won’t get into the details of it, but it was a fascinating read that is probably nonsense. The basic idea is that there are coded messages hidden within the Hebrew text of the Bible. This is an idea which has captivated the imagination of many serious thinkers for centuries. The way to code works is that one selects a certain number, let’s say 7, and then puts together every 7th letter in whichever passage they are looking. Supposedly one can find reports of historic events and accurate predictions of future events. If your BS detector is sounding, you’re not alone. Australian scholars used the same mathematical principal in decoding Moby Dick and were able to likewise find reports of historic events and accurate predictions of future events. So, either Melville was a prophet or what we see is that when a string of data is long enough, one can find any number of patterns – but only if you look for it!
Years after reading Drosnin’s book, I found out that the Jewish tradition also believes, in certain ways, in a coded aspect of Torah. Not quite the same as the one mentioned above, but there are hosts of allusions to complex ideas and connections through numberical values, number of letters or words in passages, number of occurrences of certain words, and so on and so forth. Let me give you a simple and mundane example: In the mystical tradition, there is a 42-letter name of God derived from the first 42 letters of the Torah, put through various language ciphers. 42 is viewed as a number symbolizing the power of creation. The Hebrew term for Act of Creation is ma’aseh breishit, turned into an acronym, the numerical value of the first two Hebrew letters equals 42. There are six letters in the first word of the Torah, and seven words in the first verse. 6×7=42. This is just one of many, many examples.
And our Sages of Blessed Memory read into two simple words at the beginning of Parashat Vayak’hel a similar mathematical allusion. The original teaching is a bit cryptic. We learn in Talmud Bavli Shabbat:
It is taught: Rabbi says – things, the things, these are the things; these are the 39 types of work forbidden on shabbat which were spoken to Moshe at Sinai.
That makes sense, right? No? Let me explain. This is in reference to the first few verses of Parashat Vayak’hel which state:
Moshe gathered the entire community of the Children of Yisrael and he said to them: These are the things which Hashem has commanded you to do them. Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day will be for you a distinct rest of rests, for Hashem; anyone who does work on it will be put to death. Do not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the day of Shabbat.
It would seem that this is really only one thing which God is commanding, and the very next verse begins “this is the thing which Hashem commanded,” so why does it say “these are the things”? It must, according to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, be teaching us something. So, devarim, as opposed to davar, implies two because it’s plural. it being a direct object, ha’devarim, then implies three. Add to that implied three the numerical value of the word eleh, these (1+30+5=36), and one arrives at 39. Why does the Torah use the strange language of “these are the things” when it could have said, “this is the thing”? To teach us about Shabbat.
In his commentary on Parashat Vayak’hel, Rabbeinu Yaakov ben Asher brings this Talmudic midrash, and follows it up by saying:
Even though there are many other places in the Torah in which are written, “these are the things,” we do not expound similarly, however this instance is different because it is in reference to the work of the mishkan, therefore it comes to teach us this expounded meaning.
Why does this section dealing with Shabbat precede the discussion of the items gifted in service of making the mishkan? Because the laws of forbidden work on Shabbat are derived from making the mishkan, and this is a foundational element of rabbinic interpretation of how we derive the 39 categories of work forbidden on Shabbat.
Perhaps because he is dissatisfied with Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s teaching in the Talmud, or perhaps because he knows you will be dissatisfied with the teaching, Rabbeinu Yaakov continues:
The word la’asot לעשת, “to do,” in the verse mentioned above can be rearranged to spell ל (lamed) תשע (teisha), and it lacks a vav, so it is saying that one does the 39 types of work during the six days of the week but not on Shabbat.
What does he mean? The word la’asot will often have a vav as the second to last letter. The letter vav has the numerical value of six. Rearranging the letters in the word la’asot gives you the phrase 30, because lamed has the numerical value of 30, and nine, because teisha means nine. Now, you might be dissatisfied with this teaching, well Rabbeinu Yaakov thought you might be dissatisfied, and so he continues:
You also find the word la’asot (with a vav) in the phrase “which God created to do,” (Gen. 2:3), and written between the first verse of the Torah and the section beginning “And God completed,” (Gen. 2:1) you find words spoken by God or describing God’s actions relating to making, creating, working, existing, bringing-out, and separating occurring a total of 39 times!
What does this mean? That the idea of Shabbat as a remembrance of creation and as an observance of rest are joined from the beginning of Creation. Now, you might likewise be dissatisfied with this teaching, and it would seem that Rabbeinu Yaakov thought you might be dissatisfied, and so he continues:
From the first word of Parashat Vayak’hel through the end of verse 35:3 you find that there are 39 words minus the word “the shabbat.”
That’s not 39 words, it’s 40 words and he’s just subtracting one! Is that what you’re thinking? Well, he thought you might be thinking that, so he continues:
the word sheishet (six) [as in, “six days work may be done”] has the same numerical value as the phrase “forty minus one.”
Just so you know he’s not making things up:
the word ששת (sheishit) equals 300+300+400=1000
the phrase ארבעים חסר אחת (forty minus one) equals (1+200+2+70+10+40)+(8+60+200)+(1+8+400)=323+268+409=1000
And from where does he derive the phrase “forty minus one”? Why from the Mishnah on Shabbat, of course!
The primary categories of work are forty minus one, and they are:
(1)Sowing, (2)plowing, (3)reaping, (4)binding sheaves, (5)threshing, (6)winnowing, (7)sorting, (8)grinding, (9)sifting, (10)kneading, (11)baking,
(12)shearing wool, (13)whitening it, (14)combing it, (15)dyeing it, (16)spinning, (17)weaving, (18)making two loops, (19)weaving two threads, (20)separating two threads, (21)tying [a knot], (22)untying [a knot], (23)sewing two stitches, (24)tearing for the purpose of sewing two stitches,
(25)hunting a deer, (26)slaughtering it, (27)skinning it, (28)salting it, (29)curing its hide, (30)scraping it, (31)cutting it,
(32)writing two letters, (33)erasing for the purpose of writing two letters,
(36)extinguishing a flame, (37)lighting a flame, (38)striking with a hammer, (39)carrying from one domain to another.
These are the primary categories of work – forty minus one.
Maybe you’re convinced, or maybe you think Rabbeinu Yaakov only found these things because he looked for them…