Unfortunately, there are those who question the legitimacy of Gematria – the numerical values ascribed to the letters of the alphabet, such that words are associated with certain numbers which have profound significance. Some people do not take this system seriously, viewing it as a device used creatively by Darshanim (lecturers) to emphasize their point, but which does not have real, authentic meaning.
But the truth is that the concept of Gematria is well grounded in our earlier sources, and is mentioned already by the Mishna, in Pirkeh Abot (chapter), which states, "Gematriyot Parperaot Le’hochma" – the calculations of Gematria are like the "dessert" of wisdom. They are not the "main course," the core essence of Torah teaching, but they are valuable as enhancements added to the primary substance of Torah.
The Gemara in Masechet Sukka describes the vastness of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s knowledge, listing all the various disciplines which he mastered, including the most esoteric areas of scholarship ("Ma’aseh Merkaba") and Gematriyot. The field of Gematria is considered so significant that it is listed together with the most complex, intricate areas of study as subjects which Rabbi Yohanan mastered.
In several places, the Gemara reaches Halachic rulings on the basis of Gematria. For example, the Torah says about a Nazir, "Kadosh Yiheyeh" ("He shall be sacred"), and the Gemara infers from the Gematria of the word "Yiheyeh" (30) that unless the Nazir stipulates otherwise, his vow is binding for a period of 30 days. Tosafot, in the beginning of Masechet Gittin, establish that a Get must be written in 12 lines, corresponding to the Gematria of the word "Get." In Masechet Horayot, the Gemara teaches that the anointing oil (Shemen Ha’mish’ha) consists of 12 Lugim of oil – the Gematria of the word "Zeh" which appears in the verses that speak about this special oil.
Elsewhere, in Masechet Shabbat, the Gemara notes that the word "Herayon" ("pregnancy") in Gematria equals 271 – the number of days that comprise a standard pregnancy. In Masechet Hagiga, the Gemara notes that the word "Sedaka" in Gematria equals 199 – alluding to the Halacha that a poor person who has 200 Zuz may not receive charity, such that 199 Zuz is the highest sum of money a person can have and still qualify for charitable gifts.
Yet another example is the verse in Iyob, "Al Tashken Be’ohalecha Avla," which forbids having in one’s home a text or document with misleading information. One who has such a text is required to bring it out of his house by the end of 30 days – as alluded to by the word "Al," which in Gematria equals 31.
The Ramban (Rav Moshe Nahmanides, Spain, 1194-1270), in the introduction to his Torah commentary, writes that the Torah can be studied and understood on many different levels, one of which is the level of Gematria, through the system of calculating the values of different words.
And of course, the Zohar, the most important text of Kabbalah, presents many insights based on Gematria.
King Shelomo says in Shir Ha’shirim, "Enayich Berechot Be’heshbon" (literally, "Your eyes are pools in Heshbon"). Some explain this verse to mean that we receive Berachot – blessings – when we engage in "Heshbon," the mathematical study of Gematria. The Kabbalists teach that this is the meaning of G-d’s announcement to Moshe in preparation for Matan Torah that He would be revealing Himself "Be’ab He’anan" ("in the thickness of a cloud"). The word "Be’ab" consists of the letters "Bet," "Ayin," "Bet," representing the phrase "Enayich Berechot Be’heshbon" – thus alluding to the aforementioned verse in Shir Ha’shirim. G-d informed Moshe that He would be revealed through all levels of the study of Torah, including the level of Gematria.
Some people accept the basic principle of Gematria, but question the validity of calculations that are imprecise – that is, the concept that the system of Gematira allows for adjusting a sum by one. But this concept, too, is well-grounded in our sources. For example, the Hida (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806) brings those who noted in reference to Yaakob Abinu’s proclamation, "Efrayim and Menashe shall be for me like Reuben and Shimon" that the phrase "Efrayim U’Menashe" has the same Gematria as "Reuben Ve’Shimon." In truth, the Gematria of "Efrayim U’Menashe" exceeds that of "Reuben Ve’Shimon" by one. Nevertheless, this is a legitimate equation.
Another example is the Gemara’s comment regarding the prophecy in the Book of Debarim that after "Ve’noshantem Be’aretz" – Beneh Yisrael live for a long time in the land of Israel – they will sin and then be punished with annihilation. The word "Ve’noshantem" in Gematria equals 852, and this verse thus foresees that Beneh Yisrael would live in their land for 852 years until the destruction. The Gemara teaches that G-d had the nation exiled two years earlier, after only 850 years, because if they would have been there for 852, then the prophecy in the Book of Debarim, which speaks of their annihilation, would have been fulfilled. Some Rabbis raised the question of why G-d exiled Beneh Yisrael two years earlier, after 850 years, instead of just one year earlier, which would have achieved the same result of avoiding the fulfillment of this prophecy. One answer given is that since Gematria works even with a deviation of one, 851 years in the land would have been the same as 852 years, and so G-d needed to have the people exiled two years earlier.
Rav Shimshon Pincus (1944-2001) explained that the concept of adjusting a Gematria by one (known as the rule of "Ha’kolel") is that the word formed by the combination of letters is something fundamentally greater than, and distinct from, the sum of the letters. A word is something more than the mere joining of letters; it is an entirely new entity, and this final entity can be added onto the sum of the values of the letters.
In conclusion, we must emphasize that, as the Mishna teaches, Gematria is only the "dessert." Just as a dessert does not comprise a full meal, Gematria alone does not comprise the essence of Torah. It is an important and valuable enhancement through which we learn meaningful and significant religious concepts, but only in conjunction with the other disciplines that make up our sacred Torah.