April 13, 2024 |

Add It Up

Counting is a major part of the Jewish tradition. The very first section of the Torah enumerates the seven days of creation, counting out each day and culminating in Shabbat. The Torah repeatedly counts the children of Israel, the years of the slavery in Egypt, the life spans of Biblical figures, the 40 years in the desert and the ten devarim, or declarations. The Rabbis extended this, counting the 613 mitzvot, the 10 utterances with which the world was created, the four categories of damagers, the seven traits of a wise person, the four children of the seder and a hundred others.

The Hebrew word for scribe, "sofer", literally means one who counts, or measures. Some of the scribes who were so essential to transmitting the Torah text through the centuries wrote marginal notes (which can still be found in some versions of the Bible) called the Massora, in which they counted the words and letters of the text, including how many times and where each word in the Tanach occurred.[1]

Our tradition is constantly seeking to plumb the depths of meaning from the Torah, which is the meaning of "midrash", delving, or seeking into, the text. One of these techniques is called gematria. In Hebrew, letters can stand for either themselves (as parts of a word) or as numbers. Thus, any given word in Hebrew is not only a collection of letters, but also a collection of numbers. The word Torah, for instance, means not only "the way" or "teaching" but also has the numeric value of 611. According to our tradition, the first 2 of the 10 commandments were given directly by God to the Israelites. Thus, Torah (611) plus the first 2 commandments equal 613, the familiar number that is the grand total of all the Torah commandments.[2]

Even letters can be 'counted.' The letter "aleph", when written by a scribe, is made of three smaller letters joined together, two yuds and a diagonal vav. (t) The gematria of these letters is 26, which is also the gematria of God's four-letter name (the one usually mispronounced as Yahweh or Jehova.) Thus, the answer to the question "who knows one?" (the answer is God, the One and Only One and the gematria of the letter aleph is one) is also the gematria of the Holy one, the Eternal one, who was, is and always will be.

There are a number of times during the year when we count time in particular. There are the 10 Days of Repentance and the three weeks of mourning in the summer, when both Temples were destroyed. We also count the days of Chanuka by adding a candle each day to our chanukiot. However, our most sustained and intense counting is the counting of the days of the omer, the 49 days between the beginning of Passover and Shavuot. The Torah commands us to actually make a blessing on the counting of the omer each day and to enumerate both the days and weeks of the omer count. (This Shabbat, for instance, is 39 days, which is five weeks and four days, of the omer.) The total count of 49 days culminates in the Shavuot festival on the 50th day, which corresponds conceptually with the Jubilee year, as is explained in the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Behar. (Lev. 25)

It has frequently been noted that we count the days of the omer in ascending order, not descending. Rather than having a ball drop into Times Square while we count down from 49 to 1, we count up from 1 to 49. A number of explanations have been offered for counting up, having to do with our building excitement (the closer we get, the more excited we are) or our optimism (it's not how many days are left in the cup, but how full of days the cup is). I don't disagree with any of these.

But it led me to observe that this is exactly the opposite of the ways in which we usually count in America and very consistent with the way the Torah always counts. Most of the ways we count time in America are counting down. We count down to the new year, down the days until our next vacation and down the minutes until our work day is over. The only time we count up is for an event that has already happened, i.e. how old we are or what number anniversary we are at[3]. We might round up to the dollar, but this is usually done to avoid counting, rather than for counting itself.[4]

The opposite is true in Judaism. In fact, I can hardly think of an example where we count down.
On the holiday of Sukkot, the sacrifices diminish (each day we sacrifice one fewer lamb) which led Shamai to suggest that we light Chanuka candles by starting with eight candles and taking one away each night. Needless to say, we embrace Hillel's view instead, in which we count up and add a candle each night. A friend suggested one other example: that Avraham - in negotiating with Hashem to save the cities of Sodom and 'Amorah, counted down from 50 righteous people to ten. (see Gen. 18) But this was hardly a positive thing; counting down was a desperate negotiation for their lives.

This leads me to believe that it is not only the omer, but a Jewish value in general to count up rather than down. It could be that we prefer to evaluate what we have gained rather than we have lost (a variation on the optimism theme) or perhaps that we count up to redemption As we count up, we consider what we have gained and hope that it will lead to completion. Rather than counting down to when we can leave Egypt, we count the years of servitude as valuable (if painful) experiences that helped us appreciate our freedom. Rather than count down to when we can be done with the omer, we proudly display each day of our counting, like a merit badge. Perhaps this accords with one other way in which we tend to count up, when we are fundraising and put up one of those big thermometers to show how much we have raised already and how far we still have to go. Perhaps our Jewish approach to time and experience is similarly precious. "If you seek it like silver, and like treasure your pursue it, then you will understand awe of God and the knowledge of God you will find." (Proverbs 2:4)

I think the application to our own lives is clear. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1) advises us that the one who is "rich" is the one who rejoices in his portion, in what he has. Rather than viewing our time and or days as items to be leaped over and forgotten, pages of the calendar to be ripped off and discarded, we view out time as something that has enriched us, that we can call our own. May we follow the words of King David in Psalm 90, "limnot yameinu, kein hoda, v'ani l'vav chochma", "by the count of our days, so may You teach us, that we may acquire a wise heart." Shabbat shalom!


[1] It can still be found in some versions. This Massora is different than the word "mesora", which usually refers to our tradition as it is handed down from generation to generation.
[2] This is sometimes called "Taryag" mitzvot, because taryag is the acronym for 613, i.e. tav-resh-yud-gimel.
[3] But we may still count down the days until our next birthday or anniversary.
[4] One large bank has an Add It Up feature, where they will take the amount of change up to the next dollar on any debit card purchase and automatically add it to your savings account. This would be a nice way to set aside tzedaka. Also, in the Nike plus pedometer, they count up (you have run 1 mile) until you have reached your halfway point, but then switch and count down until the end (you have 1 mile to go.) I'm not sure where to go with that, though.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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