Israel Drazin

A Rational Understanding of Numbers and when Shabbat and Years Start

The second weekly biblical portion in the third Book of Moses is called Tzav. The Torah addresses the five types of sacrifices mentioned in the prior portion in the first two Leviticus chapters. In the former weekly portion, the focus was on the people bringing the offering. Here it contains instructions for the priests. The third chapter describes the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests. The portion gives us an opportunity to examine the use of numbers and when Shabbat and years start.

  • The Hebrew word tzav means “command.” It is the root of the word mitzvah, commandment, as is the statement “there are 613 mitzvot (plural).”
  • Mitzvah is also used in a similar sense of “proper” and “good deed,” as one who helps those in need of help is said to be doing a This is an example common to all languages where a word has different meanings depending on its contents.
  • Hebrew letters are also used to indicate numbers. Many rabbis derived lessons from this usage, called gematriot. The word gematria (the singular form) is not Hebrew. It has the same root as the word geometry. It is a favorite method of exegesis used by medieval Kabbalists to derive mystical insights from sacred writings or new interpretations of the texts byadding up the numerical values of the Hebrew letters. A favorite mystical example of the Gematria is the number 26 for God, Y-h-v-h (10+5+6+5). The Kabbalists consider 26 significant and use it in various ways.
  • Another example is that many Jews superstitiously think the number 18 is a good sign because it is the value of the Hebrew letters of the word chai, “life.”
  • Still another non-mystical example is the four letters used in Hebrew for Torah add up to 611 (400+6+200+5). This prompted some rabbis to interpret “Moses commanded us Torah” in Deuteronomy 33:4 to imply that the Israelites heard God’s first two commands of the Decalogue while the remaining 611 commands they heard only from Moses.
  • This lesson assumes that the word “Torah” in the Hebrew Bible refers to the five books of Moses. This is a wrong assumption. Most scholars recognize that all 220 times that Torah is mentioned in the Bible refer to a law or laws, not books. It was only in post-biblical times that Torah came to describe the five books of Moses and also the entire Bible.
  • Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) mocked the He wrote, “God does not speak in gematriot.
  • The Masorites of the first millennium CE fixed the Torah text. Among many things that they did, they counted the number of verses in each biblical portion read weekly. They said that 96 verses in the portion Tzav are equal to the numerical value of its two letters (90+6).
  • However, a modern counting reveals 97 verses. We are unable to explain the discrepancy. Is this another indication discussed in the previous chapter that changes were made in the Torah text?
  • We mentioned the appearance of unusual-sized letters in a prior chapter. Verse 6:2 also has a small letter, the letter We do not know why.
  • Verses 6:5 and 6 state, “A daily fire must be kept alight on the altar; it must not go out. The priests were instructed to place kindle wood on the altar every
  • The perpetual altar fire paralleled the tabernacle lamp in 24:2, 4, which had to be perpetually lit. Why must the fires burn perpetually? What is the connection between the altar and the lamp?
  • In contrast to the Israelite practice of a perpetual fire, the Hitttes prohibited burning fires in their temples at night for safety reasons. Why didn’t the Torah have this safety fear?
  • The rabbis recognized that the 6:5, 6 mandate required the Israelites to ignore the Shabbat law of Exodus 35:3, “you must kindle no fire throughout your habitations on the Sabbath day.” Why did the Torah say the fundamental Shabbat law does not apply to the tabernacle and later temples?
  • People who pay close attention to the wording in 6:6 and many other sentences about sacrifices in the Torah will note, as did Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, that the day according to the Bible, began in the tabernacle and later temples in the morning, not sundown as is the practice today.
  • Unlike his grandfather, who spiced his commentaries with lessons from midrashim, the Frenchman Samuel ben Meir (c.1085 – c.1158), known by an acronym of his name, Rashbam, was a rational thinker who paid close attention to the wording of the Torah and sought its meaning without seeking a sermon that he could attach to the language as his grandfather did even though the sermon is not suggested in the biblical words.
  • Rashbam saw that Genesis 1 concluded the divine creations each day by saying, “And there was evening and there was morning, a [second, third, etc.] day.” This indicates that each day ended in the morning when the next day began. Thus, according to the Torah, Shabbat starts on Saturday morning and ends on Sunday morning.
  • Jews changed the onset of the day from the morning to the night, probably during the exile to Babylon that began when the first temple was destroyed in 586 BCE. The Babylonian idea most likely influenced them.
  • However, the time when days began did not change in the temple. Sacrifices began to be brought in the morning, and as 6:6 states, wood was placed on the altar in the morning.
  • See my essay “Why Must Women Light Sabbath Candles Long before the Sabbath Begins” for more details.
  • It was most likely that at the same time, for the same reason, Jews changed the year’s onset from spring, as indicated by Exodus 12:2, to the fall and changed Yom Teruah, the first day of the seventh month, to Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.
  • Jews were not unique in changing the onsets of days and years.
  • For example, in ancient times, around 2000 BCE, New Year was celebrated by pagans as dictated in Exodus 12:2 in the spring at the time of the vernal equinox, around March 25. England and its British dominions, including those in America, adopted March 25thas New Year’s day in the twelfth century and celebrated it as the first day of the calendar year until 1752.
  • Although April Fools’ Day’s origin is unknown, many theories surround it. Some historians suggest that April Fools originated because, until 1752, New Year’s Day was celebrated on 25 March in many places, with a holiday that ended on 1 April in some areas. After 1752, January 1 became New Year’s Day. But not everyone got the message and continued to celebrate New Year on March 25. Those who accepted New Year as 1 January mocked those who celebrated in March and April with the invention of April Fools’ Day.
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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