Four Important Numbers in Judaism

What is the Significance of Numbers to Judaism?

You may have heard of gematria, the system where every Hebrew letter has a specific numerical value and the numerical equivalence of letters, words, or phrases is calculated accordingly. But, in many cases, there are more simple explanations to numbers in Judaism, including the numbers 4, 7, 18, and 40.

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Judaism and the Number 7

the number 7 among fog and clouds
(Chaviva Gordon-Bennett)

The number seven is incredibly prominent throughout the Torah, from the creation of the world in seven days to the holiday of Shavuot celebrated in the Spring, which literally means "weeks." Seven becomes a vital figure in Judaism, symbolizing completion.

There are hundreds of other connections to the number seven, but here are some of the most potent and prominent: 

  • The first verse of the Torah has seven words.
  • Shabbat falls on the 7th day of the week and every Shabbat there are seven people called to the Torah for the Torah reading (called aliyot).
  • There are seven laws, called the Noahide Laws, that apply to all of humanity.
  • Passover and Sukkot are celebrated for seven days in Israel (Leviticus 23:6, 34).
  • When an immediate relative dies, Jews sit shiva (which means seven) for seven days. 
  • Moses was born and died on the 7th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. 
  • Each of the plagues in Egypt lasted seven days. 
  • The menorah in the Temple had seven branches. 
  • There are seven major holidays in the Jewish year: Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim, Passover, and Shavuot. 
  • At a Jewish wedding, the bride traditionally circles the groom seven times underneath the wedding canopy (chupah) and there are seven blessings said and seven days of celebration (sheva brachot). 
  • Israel is celebrated for seven special species that it produces: wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, figs, olives, and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8). 
  • There are seven female prophets named in the Talmud: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Chuldah, and Esther.
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Judaism and the Number 18

the number 18 on a dark landscape
(Chaviva Gordon-Bennett)

One of the most well-known numbers in Judaism is 18. In Judaism, Hebrew letters all carry with them a numerical value, and 10 and 8 combine to spell the word chai, which means "life." As a result, you'll often see Jews donating money in increments of 18 because it is considered a good omen. 

The Amidah prayer is known also as the Shemonei Esrei, or the 18, despite the fact that the modern version of the prayer has 19 prayers (the original had 18). 

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Judaism and the Numbers 4 and 40

the numbers 4 and 40 among stars
(Chaviva Gordon-Bennett)

The Torah and the Talmud provide many different examples of the significance of the number 4, and, subsequently, 40. 

The number four appears in many places:

  • the four matriarchs
  • the four patriarchs 
  • the four wives of Jacob
  • the four types of sons in the Passover haggadah

As 40 is a multiple of four, it begins to take shape with more deeply significant meanings. 

In the Talmud, for example, a mikvah (ritual bath) must have 40 seahs of "living water," with seahs being an ancient form of measurement. Coincidentally, this requirement for "living water" coordinates with the 40 days of the flood during the times of Noah. Just as the world was considered pure after 40 days of pouring rain subsided, so, too, is the individual considered pure after stepping out of the waters of the mikvah

In a related understanding of the number 40, the great 16th century Talmudic scholar of Prague, the Maharal (Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel), the number 40 has the ability to enhance one's spiritual state. An example of this is the 40 years that the Israelites were led through the desert followed by the 40 days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai, a time during which the Israelites arrived at the mountain as a nation of Egyptian slaves but after these 40 days were raised up as God's nation.

This is where the classic Mishna on Pirkei Avot 5:26, also known as the Ethics of Our Fathers, derives that "a man of 40 attains understanding." 

On another topic, the Talmud says that it takes 40 days for an embryo to be formed in its mother's womb. 

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Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "Four Important Numbers in Judaism." ThoughtCo, May. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/four-important-numbers-in-judaism-3862364. Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. (2017, May 7). Four Important Numbers in Judaism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/four-important-numbers-in-judaism-3862364 Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "Four Important Numbers in Judaism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/four-important-numbers-in-judaism-3862364 (accessed December 18, 2017).