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Pirkei Avot 3:18 And Now, for Dessert

Rabbi Eliezer (the son of) Chisma would say: the laws of kinin (pairs of bird offerings) and the keys to the calculation of menstrual periods—they themselves are the body of Torah law. The calculations of equinoxes and gematria are the desserts of wisdom.

The “calculations of equinoxes” refers of course to astronomy (used for example in the laws of sanctifying the new moon). Gematria refers to the “calculation of letters and notarikon [acronyms],”[1] which are among the methodologies used to interpret the Torah.[2] They are the “desserts of wisdom,” which means that, “like a dessert eaten at the end of a meal, they are meant to give pleasure.”[3]

Continuing the above explanation, we may say that “the solar seasons and gematria” are the calculations of gematria that come at the end of studying a particular passage of Torah learning, once we have already encompassed and summarized the content being studied. The sages employed a similar technique when they taught us that the two letters samech and ayin are the initials of the words, “make signs” (סִימָנִים עַשֵּׂה) “to possess the Torah” (וְתוֹרָה קְנֵה), meaning that whenever we conclude learning a topic, we should make “signs,” or acronyms that capture the crux of what we have studied; reviewing these signs will help us quickly recollect what we have learned, allowing us to possess the teachings.[4] To acquire the Torah it is recommended to make signs that make it easier to remember the points. The signs are usually associated with numbers and the values of the text being used as a sign. This is beautifully demonstrated by Maimonides, who when writing his legal codex, the Yad, took care to enumerate the number of commandments in each section, the number of general rules, and other details, all with numbers.[5]

However, when we are engaged in Torah study—and the Torah is described as “longer than the earth and wider than the ocean,”[6] it is certainly possible to be immersed in the content, to dive deep and to broaden one’s knowledge more and more, without ever getting to the stage of finding gematriot—numerical allusions and acronyms. In keeping with our mishnah, we can say that one can sit down to a meal and remain content with the main course. However, when the meal is finally completed, the dessert is expected and it is the dessert’s task to leave us with a sweet memory of the entire meal. Thus, when learning Torah and finishing a certain topic, that is when we should turn to seek and find gematriot—that will help us with summarizing and memorizing the material. In Kabbalah, the values of the letters, i.e., gematria, is associated with the sefirah of kingdom,[7] the final sefirah. When we merit finding a beautiful gematria, we feel that we have wrapped up on our learning and finalized the topic, locking it deep into our memory.

The Kabbalists, most notably the holy Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria), used gematria frequently. In contradistinction, the essays and discourses of Chabad Chasidic teachings, do not usually employ gematria. The reason for this is that when it comes to Chasidic thought, we find ourselves still in the middle of our efforts to fully understand the contents. We are still broadening and deepening Chasidic thought over time and thus, have not yet reached the end of the “meal” and the need for “dessert.” However, we note that the Lubavitcher Rebbe's teachings, particularly from the final years, clearly aim at providing a summarization and finalization of Chasidic thought. It is not surprising then that the Rebbe employed gematria with increasing frequency in the final years.

 

[1]. Rashi, and similarly in the commentary of Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura on the mishnah. However, the Tosfot Yom Tov explains (following Maimonides and the Maharal) that gematriot refers to the wisdom of mathematics, including “measurement and fractions” which precedes the knowledge needed to calculate the equinoxes. Compare Hon Ashir and Lechem Shamayim on our mishnah who disagreed with the Tosfot Yom Tov.

[2]. The Berayta of 32 Attributes lists these two among the methodologies used. Namely gematria is the 29th attribute and Notarikon (acronyms) are the 30th attribute.

[3]. Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura.

[4]. Shabbat 104a. This is the homiletic explanation offered by children, which was not related even in the days of Yehoshua ben Nun.

[5]. For example, at the end of the Book of Knowledge (Hamada), Maimonides writes, “The first book is completed…and the sum of the chapters in this book is sixty-four.”

[6]. Job 11:9.

[7]. Zohar 3:222b; Eitz Chaim 14:5, and elsewhere.

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