Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jewish Mysticism, Genealogy, and Tombstones

Expanded upon from a 2008 post

One aspect of Kabbalah, a Jewish form of mysticism, is the interplay between numbers and letters.
"Kabbalah teaches every Hebrew letter, word, number, even the accent on words of the Hebrew Bible contains a hidden sense; and it teaches the methods of interpretation for ascertaining these meanings." - source
Three of these methods are Notarikon, Gematria, and Temurah. While primarily used as a means to interpret the scriptures, they can be used elsewhere, so an overview of the methods can be helpful to the genealogist with Jewish ancestry. (An overview is pretty much all I know and can provide; I don't have deep knowledge.)
Notarikon – A method of using the initial and/or final letters in a group of words to form words/phrases.
My great-great grandfather, Moshe Leyb Cruvant, was referred to as Moshe Leyb "the king" by at least one of his daughters, probably as a Hebrew joke, based on the initials of his name. (The Hebrew letters of   Mem-מ, Lamed-ל, Kopf-ך spell the word,  Melek-מלך, meaning King.) This is a usage of Notarikon.

Similarly, Moshe Leyb was honored with several grandchildren, one named Melvin Lester, another Monroe Leslie, and a third Morris Louis. Without knowing the importance of initials in mystical thought, this might appear to be a coincidence of names instead of grandchildren being named after their deceased grandfather.

Note: Leyb is the Yiddish word for Lion. Leyb was one of several new animal names which became popular in the European Jewish community in the 18th century. Prior to that animal names were common, but were limited to those that had appeared in the bible. Philip Trauring at Blood and Frogs writes more about Jewish animal names.

Both Yiddish and Hebrew variants are used, and sometimes interchangeably. One of my ancestors on some documents was Zev Perlik and others Vulf Perlik. (Wolf. Since many English words are Germanic in root, and since Yiddish has Germanic roots, sometimes Yiddish and English words are similar.)

Many immigrant Jews Americanized their names, and often they did this by finding a common American name that began with the same initial letter(s). Until recent research, I thought Vulf Perlik's name was "William" as that is how it was recorded in our family documents. 'William,' of course, shares the first two consonants with 'Vulf.' (Like Latin, and some other languages, there is no 'W' sound in the Hebrew alphabet.) Vulf didn't immigrate, but some of his children 'changed' his name to 'William' in the oral history.

Similarly, another ancestor's Hebrew name was 'Zvi,' or 'deer.' The Yiddish variant is 'Hirsch', and a common Americanization is, "Harry.” Without knowing the animal names, and the process of Notarikon, one might be very confused how the name 'Harry' was derived from 'Zvi'.

This tradition of using the initial letter or letters to change names can be useful for parents in naming their children if an ancestor had a name that is uncommon today.
Gematria – A method of assigning numerical values to letters, calculating the numerical value of words/phrases, and associating them with other words/phrases of matching value.
Perhaps the best known example of Gematria is with the Hebrew word, 'chai,' meaning 'life.' Formed with the Hebrew letters Chet-(8)-ח and Yod-(10)-י, the numerical value is 18. Many Jews will give charitable donations in multiples of $18 to symbolize 'life'.

Leah is a very common Hebrew name for girls. The reason goes beyond her appearance in the Torah as one of Jacob’s wives. Her Hebrew name לאה (Lamed-30-ל + Aleph-1-א + Hay-5-ה) is equivalent to 36, or double 18.

Hebrew letters are commonly used as equivalents to the numbers, and of particular importance to the genealogist, they are used when writing years, such as on tombstones.  However, usually the first digit of the year is left off.  For example, the current Hebrew year of 5771 would be written as 771 (or actually, as: 400-300-70-1) - תשעא (more detailed explanation)

(Hebrew tombstones have a "Year 6000" problem, but it's 229 years away.)

Two websites I have found helpful in computing Gematria are Numberman’s Gematria Calculator
and The Bible Wheel’s Hebrew and Greek Gematria Database

The Bible Wheel has a Biblical concordance, including the New Testament, and allows you to search for words using the English translation, though it uses the King James Version of both testaments. Numberman’s Gematria Calculator is useful if you already know the Hebrew characters for the word you are looking up.

When you use The Bible Wheel’s concordance you have to be somewhat careful as Hebrew frequently attaches endings to words adding prepositions, and the like. For example, if you search for the number 42, twelfth in the results you will see “Leah.” If you look at the Hebrew you will notice it has an extra letter than what I have above, and if you follow the link to the Biblical passage in Genesis, you will see the word that appears in that passage really means “and Leah.”

Let's take a look at how this might appear on a tombstone. Below is the tombstone of my great grandfather's brother, Max Newmark

  • Above the English surname, in the middle of the Star of David, are the letters Pay-Nun This is an abbreviation for Po Nikbar, meaning "here lies."
  • The first line of Hebrew reads: "Meyer Vulf."  The second line reads: "Bar (son of) Samuel Yosef Newmark."
  • It is the third line where numbers are first used.  The first word is "Niftar" meaning "Died."  The second word is: Yod (10) - Daled (4).  The third word is Sh'vat , the name of a Jewish month. The final word is: Tav (400) - Resh (200)  - Tzade (90) - Aleph (1) .  
  • So the date of his death was the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Sh'vat, in the year 5691.  (Remember, the first digit of the year is usually dropped.) This converts to Feb 1, 1931.  I happen to know Max died on January 31.  Why is it a day off?  Because he died after sunset, and the Hebrew day begins at sunset on the previous Gregorian date.
  • The final line of Hebrew is clearly an acronym on this tombstone, but the periods are often removed, and it appears as if it were a single word. It is usually at the bottom of a stone, as it is here.  It's based on a biblical passage from the Book of Samuel (25:29) and translates to: "May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life."
Temurah – Exchanging letters in words to create new ones. There are three primary types of Temurah. (I'll use the Roman alphabet to illustrate)
1) (Atbash) A exchanged with Z, B exchanged with Y, C exchanged with X...
2) (Avgad) A becomes B, B becomes C, C becomes D...Z becomes A.
3) (Albam) A exchanged with N, B exchanged with O, C exchanged with P…M exchanged with Z.

I don't know of any examples in my family tree, where names were created using one of these methods, and I haven't heard of it happening in other families. However, there is one example from literature.

Some creative readers suggested that Arthur C Clarke came up with the name for his misbehaving computer in the novel, 2001, through a reverse-Avgad technique -- HAL being derived from IBM. Clarke has denied this, insisting it was a coincidence, and that the name is actually a Shakespearean reference to Henry V, referred to as Prince Hal in the drama, Henry IV. Clarke probably expects readers to believe that since he is British, he is more likely to make a Shakespearean reference than a reference to an American computer company. Yeah, right.


I've not been trained in any of these methods specifically. I knew about gematria growing up solely through the importance of Chai and the number 18. Some examples appear in the book/film The Chosen by Chaim Potok, which I remember reading in high school. I read the book, The Bible Code a few years ago which goes into some more detail.

I've been fascinated with numerology for a long time.. When a nephew was born at 6:37 pm, I 'rounded down' in 'military time' to 18:36:54. I'll now never forget the time he was born. Interestingly, I discovered in my maternal grandfather's address book that next to my birthday was written the time I was born. (12:05 pm) I have no idea why it interested him, but the time is not written next to any other birthday. Jokes have been made over the years that I was 'born just in time for lunch."


1 comment:

Philip Trauring said...

Great post. Thanks for the link to my article.