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I recently listened to a programme on BBC Radio 4 "Religion and numbers" in the "Beyond Belief" series.

It was such an ill-informed attempt by three [all Jewish?] presenters to explain the significance of "special" numbers in Bible and Judaism, that it made me think that even I could do a better job
- so here are my quickly produced notes on that topic - please feel free to comment and correct

Significance of numbers in the Torah and in Judaism

First of all it is worth saying that in Biblical and Talmudic times Jewish numbers operated on the basis of a mix of a decimal system Units of 10s 100s etc and the Babylonian system based on base 60.

The Babylonians and before then the Sumerians were amazing mathematicians and astronomers and they knew Pythagorus' theorem a thousand years before Pythagoras, calculated Pi and the square root of 2 with some accuracy, invented or pioneered alphabetic writing and knew about musical chords and harmonies. Our Semitic ancestors inherited much from their culture.

1 Unity, God
2 witnesses, tablets of stone [sides of a covenant]
3 comes up a lot – a rhetorical number eg “x said 3 things”.
4 corners of garment, of the earth, 4 amot = 3 paces – a person’s space, 4 expressions of redemption
4 x 4 tephachim a minimum measure of an area
5 one more than four [fifth expression of redemption, future redemption]
5 fingers on a hand
6 one less than seven
7 days in a week, days the world was created, seven years to the sabbatical year – a quarter moon
[Babylonian Astronomy – The five visible planets planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn + moon + sun = 7, each corresponding to a deity and a day of the week]
8 one more than seven – circumcised on 8th day
10 men making a congregation – 10 bad spies, 10 righteous men to save Sodom
10 sayings to create the world, 10 commandments [speakings]
10 plagues
10 generations from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham
10 digits on two hands
10 tephachim – a minimum height dimension for a succah [size of main part of a human body]
12 tribes, spies
12 hours in the day [from Babylonian system]
12 bones in the fingers of one hand [& a way of counting on the fingers of one hand using the thumb]
15 half way through month, full moon, commencement of many Jewish festivals [Akkadian mid-month SABBATTU]
18 Chai [life], 18 benedictions, 18 minutes added to start of Shabbat, time it takes a man to walk a talmudic mile?
20 amot, maximum height for a succah
28 days in a month [approx]
30 days in a month[approx]
39 one less than 40 [In the Mishnah the primary types of “melacha” creative work that may not be done on Shabbat, less the one that only God can do ie [yesh me-ayin] “the creation of something from nothing”]
40 days and nights of rain in flood, Moses on Sinai,
“Forty is associated with almost each new development in the history of God’s mighty acts, especially of salvation, e.g. the Flood, redemption from Egypt, Elijah and the prophetic era,.. The following periods of 40 days may be listed: the downpour of rain during the Flood (Gn. 7:17); the despatch of the raven (Gn. 8:6); Moses’ fasts on the mount (Ex. 24:18; 34:28; Dt. 9:9); the spies’ exploration of the land of Canaan (Nu. 13:25); Moses’ prayer for Israel (Dt. 9:25); Goliath’s defiance (1 Sa. 17:16); Elijah’s journey to Horeb (1 Ki. 19:8); Ezekiel’s lying on his right side (Ezk. 4:6); Jonah’s warning to Nineveh (Jon. 3:4);”
40 years for a generation to die out in the wilderness, land was at peace for 40 years
“For 40 years, the general designation of a generation, the following may be quoted: the main divisions of Moses’ life (Acts 7:23, 30, 36; Dt. 31:2); Israel’s wandering in the wilderness (Ex. 16:35; Nu. 14:33; Jos. 5:6; Ps. 95:10); the recurring pattern of servitude and deliverance in the era of the judges (e.g. Jdg. 3:11; 13:1); “
40 se’ot = volume of human body, 40 volume of a mikvah
50 one more than 49 = 7 x 7 Shavuot celebrated, Jubilee year
60 a Babylonian hundred
1 in 60 [in the Talmud] is the equivalent of 1% nowadays
70 descendants of Noah to repopulate the earth, 70 nations of the world, 70 understandings of Torah, 70 elders appointed under Moses, 70 men in the Sanhedrim, 70 years the span of a man’s life
“Seventy is often connected with God’s administration of the world. After the Flood the world was repopulated through 70 descendants of Noah (Gn. 10); 70 persons went down to Egypt (Gn. 46:27); 70 elders were appointed to help Moses administer Israel in the wilderness (Nu. 11:16); the people of Judah spent 70 years of exile in Babylon (Je. 5:11; 29:10); 70 weeks, ‘sevens’, were decreed by God as the period in which Messianic redemption was to be accomplished (Dn. 9:24);”
100 me’ah “mah hashem elohecha sho’el meimcha?” What does God ask of you? 100 berachot a day, 100 blasts on the shofar on Rosh HaShanah
“Deuteronomy 10:12, Moses tells the Jewish people: "What (mah) does God ask of you?” The Talmud explains that the word mah can be read as me’ah, meaning 100. In other words, God asks us to recite (at least) 100 brachot every day.”
365 the days in a year, the years in Enoch’s life – suggesting perfection? Number of positive mitzvot, bones + organs in the body [though that is not a fixed number]
600 is a Babylonian thousand
1000 a thousand years – a day in God’s sight. Adam lived 1,000 less 70 years [which he gave to his descendant King David].
600,000 is a Babylonian million [population of Israel in wilderness = the men, approximate number of letters in the Torah]

This is the first of two posts, as the exercise has led me to question

"What is special about the number 40 in the Bible?"

That will be the subject of PART 2.


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