Numbers matter at these institutions. I signed in my time of arrival and visitor pass number. Learned the precise cost of inmates’ meals. Observed rules for 10 minute transit time between programs. Learned about numbered bureaucratic forms for religious accommodation.
Our 105-minute holiday program, offered morning and afternoon at two locations, was simple. My colleague told a history of Hanukkah. We lit candles and sang songs; ate latkes and jelly donuts; relaxed in conversation.
During both conversations, inmates talked about diversity and their right to religious freedom. About the iconography or lack thereof in the chapels. About kosher food and the politics of obtaining it in the dining room. And about the frustrating restrictions on study materials the chaplains could bring.
The men in our morning group knew each other, but not well. So we chatted lightly as we spun the dreidels. All three were self-proclaimed gambling experts, eager to explain how to win at blackjack and baccarat. To win, they said, you have to be good at counting. For blackjack, assume every hidden card is a 10, and fill all 7 seats at the table. Casino rules always favour the house; but if you learn the rules and keep track of your numbers, you can succeed.
Members of our afternoon group knew each other well. Sharing intellectual passions, they had no need for awkward chatter. They discussed the Islamic State, Game of Thrones, Canadian politicians, and access to media. So, I asked what each was working on in his own religious development.
One, enrolled in a distance learning course on screenwriting, explained the challenge of telling a story through minimal dialogue. A second, already fluent in two languages, was learning Hebrew from CDs and short stories the chaplain supplied. A third wrote passionate letters to politicians about agency budgets and prisoners’ rights. A fourth had translated most of the Hebrew words in the Book of Genesis into their numerical values, and found surprising correspondences.
This practice of translation is called “gematria.” Its origins are practical, not mystical. Hebrew was spoken before the invention of Arabic numerals. Early writers of Hebrew used its letters to represent both sounds and numbers. When we look at the Bible today, its storytelling context directs us to read words. But each word can also be read as a number.
Many traditional interpreters of Hebrew Bible focus on linguistic connections. When words with similar roots appear in different stories, interpreters connect the stories. Reasoning metaphorically, they allow the stories to embellish and deepen each other. Other traditional interpreters allow numerical connections — such as equivalences, equal sums, or common factors found — to spark the metaphorical process.
Without knowledge of traditional interpretations, this incarcerated amateur numerologist had connected the numbers for “snake” and “blessing”; “creation” and “clothing”; “Jacob” and the “Holy Temple.” Could it be, he wondered, that the fall in Eden wasn’t negative? Could the created heaven and earth be a garment of God? Could Jacob’s dream of God hint at Jerusalem’s holy Temple? Were there answers to these questions, and did I know them?
I did know, as would anyone schooled in traditions of Jewish thought. Maimonides argued that Adam and Eve awakened their intellect. Hasidic Kabbalah teaches that every created thing is a garment of God. Midrash teaches that the Temple was built where earth and heaven meet, right where Jacob dreamed the ladder. Of course I knew these answers, along with their linguistic derivations. But I did not know that they could be discovered in the numbers.
Now I do know: Torah’s numbers really do speak. Not just to the learned, or the righteous, or the pure of heart. But to everyone who counts.
Featured Image: Pentonville Prison, 1844. Wikimedia Commons.