Chanukah by the numbers


The ancient Greeks borrowed from the Hebrew by turning aleph and bet (the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, respectively) into alpha and beta, which is where the English word originates. Centuries later, Jews would repay the compliment by appropriating the Greek word geometry and creating the word gematria, which is Hebrew for "numerology."

The concept of gematria is quite simple: each Hebrew letter is assigned a number so that alef = 1, bet = 2, gimel (the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet) = 3, and so on. Through these associations, Rabbis and scholars have been able to find DaVinci-like symbolism and meaning in the words of the Torah, which often create fascinating connections between two stories, two people, or even two events sometimes separated by thousands of years or more.

The gematria 25 serves as a perfect example. Tomorrow is the first night of Chanukah. Traditionally, we're taught that Chanukah begins on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev because that's the day the Maccabees reclaimed and rededicated the Temple after defeating King Antiochus' Syrian army. The word Chanukah means "dedication." But looking at the word through gematrian-glasses, we can split it into two words, Chanu, which means "they rested" and kah, which is comprised of the Hebrew letters, kaf and hay. The numerical equivalent of kaf = 20, while hay = 5, giving us a sum of 25. So another translation of Chanukah might be "On the 25th of Kislev they rested from their enemies."

And there are more.

The 25th word in the Torah is ohr, which means "light," as in, "Let there be light." What is Chanukah if not a festival of lights? And in the appropriately gematrian-titled book, Numbers, you'll find a list of places the Jews camped in the desert on their way out of Egypt. The 25th place listed is Hashmonah. This should ring a bell as the Macabees were also called the Hasmonaim, part of the Hasmonean dynasty.

While it may be that these numerical connections are nothing more than coincidence and projection, certainly gematria adds interesting commentary to an already rich historical tapestry dotted with inspirational symbolism"¦ and not only for Jews, if we consider another Biblical figure thought to have been born on the 25th of December, which, of course, sometimes falls on the 25th of Kislev.