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History of Gematria in Torah and Kabbalah

To: alt.magick,alt,magick.tyagi,alt.divination
From: catherine yronwode 
Subject: History of Gematria in Torah and Kabbalah
Date: Tue, 15 Aug 2000 18:28:34 GMT

The following message from Dan Washburn is forwarded from the sacred
landscape list at egroups ( because the
subject of Hebrew versus Greek origins for Kabbalistic gematria has
often been discussed in usenet magical newsgroups. In particular, i wish
to bring it to the attention of Jake Stratton Kent, not to provoke
debate, but because it is a subject he too has written about. 

(By the way, the sacred landscape list is open to the public. You can
sign up to join it at the following web page:
The discussions are eclectic and interdisciplinary, dealing with sacred
geometry, numerological theology, archaeoastronomy, vernacular sacred
sites, sun-dialling, freemasonic number symbolism, and so forth. There
is no relgious or magical tradition associated with the list -- it is
comprised for the most part of intellectuals with an interest in the
multi-cultural history of sacred architecture, geometry, and number

------------------FORWARDED MESSAGE------------------------------

~Date: Mon, 14 Aug 2000 07:43:37 -0400
~From: Dan Washburn 
~Subject: Re: Torah/Kabbalah wrote:

> I tried to watch a tv programmme (UK) a couple of days ago on the six 
> most important numbers.  I missed the beginning, and had to deal with 
> a family crisis in the middle, but I did catch a part where an 
> Orthodox Jewish scholar was talking about the gematria of the Torah.  
> Apparently gematria is a fundamental part of this tradition, and is 
> therefore the presumably the source of the later kabbala.  Can anyone 
> elaborate on this at all?
> Mike

You can find a page on the history of gematria at

There is a new book just out called The Greek Qabalah by Kieren Barry
(Weiser, 1999) which covers the historical territory in some depth.

As to how (and if) Kabbalah emerged out of gematria, I am not sure.  I
think you would have to review the place of the Sepher Yetzriah, the
first Jewish book about the esotericism of numbers and letters (300-600
ad) in the development of Jewish mysticism.

Here is my brief history of gematria, taken from my "hidden wisdom in 
early christianity" paper:

Numbers were used to write words and syllables in cuneiform as early as
c. 2300 B.C.E. There is evidence dating from the eighth century B.C.E.
that a device similar to gematria was known in cuneiform hermeneutics.
There is also an inscription dating from the same period stating that
the Assyrian king Sargon II built the wall of Khorsabad 16,283 cubits
long to match the numerical value of his name.
Greek letters came into official use as numbers in the third to second
centuries B.C.E., although the system of correspondences was invented
earlier. By the time of the first two centuries of the Common Era
gematria using the Greek alphabet was being practiced in a variety of
ways. "I love her whose number is 545," is one of several examples found
scribbled as graffiti on the walls of Pompeii. Leonidas of Alexandria
wrote poems in which the sum of the numerical values of the letters is
identical in each couplet. Artemidorus Daldianus recommended its use in
dream interpretation. For instance, if a sick man dreams of an old
woman, it is a symbol for death, since the letter values for 'old woman'
and 'corpse removal' both equal 704. 

S. Lieberman has reviewed the evidence for when the Hebrew letters were
first used as numbers in a recent paper and has concluded that a date
for this event cannot as yet be determined. Archaeologically, the
clearest early use was on coins dating from the reign of Alexander
Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.E.), though there is a great deal of earlier
evidence awaiting further clarification. The conventional view is that
Hebrew alphabetic numeration was taken over from Greek usage during the
Hellenization of Palestine sometime prior to the first century B.C.E.  
Lieberman, however, thinks it reasonable to believe that Hebrew gematria
was derived from its Mesopotamian parallel and that it is possible that
the technique was employed in biblical texts.

C. Levias, writing in The Jewish Encyclopedia, argues that the existence
of atbash, the permutative cyphering of letters, in Jeremiah makes it
likely that gematria also exists in OT scripture, and cites Gen 14:14,
Deut 31:1-6, and Ezek 5:2 as probable examples. A. G. Wright has
suggested that examples of gematria can be found in the Book of Qoheleth
(c. 250 B.C.E.) and P. W. Skehan has identified possible instances in
Proverbs (c. 600 B.C.E.). 

Skehan's reply to those who argue for a later assignment of numerical
values to the Hebrew letters is illuminating: "...which is more likely:
that the Greeks established this system for their borrowed alphabet by
the 6th century B.C. (when digamma, or waw, and qoppa, or qoph, ceased
to be functional for them except as the numbers 6 and 90), and then
handed back their little invention to their Semitic neighbors at least
three centuries later; or that they found the Semitic alphabet,
including waw and qoph, already being used in this way when they
borrowed it about 800 B.C.?"
Interpretations based on gematria were in use among the Tannaim of the
second century. As a method of interpreting the Torah it was listed as
number 29 in the Baraita of 32 Rules of Rabbi Eliezer b. Jose, the
Galilean (c. 200 C.E.). Gematria was a significant element in
Kabbalistic thought from the 12th through the 19th centuries, where it
underwent a complex elaboration. Moses Cordovero (1522-70 C.E.), the
great systematic theologian of the Safed Kabbalah, lists nine different
types of gematria. For example, Gershom Scholem writes that one of these
variations mentioned by Cordovero was, "The addition of the number of
letters in the word to the numerical value of the word itself, or the
addition of the number "one" to the numerical value of the word."

Dan W.

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