Legend has it that Hippasus, a scholar in the school of Pythagoras (of right-angled-triangle-theorem fame) was sentenced to death when he discovered the concept of irrational numbers: that not every number, such as the square root of two, can be neatly expressed as a fraction.
This seemingly outrageous possibility had no place in a society that worshipped numbers and specifically, each number played a unique role in the building blocks of the universe.
We live in a “real” world – there are infinitely many numbers between 3 and 4 (including fractions, recurring decimals, the square root of 10, and Pi), and so may struggle to relate to this numerology that was so predominant across the world.
Yet the number 10 seems to be different. Perhaps if we had been born with 8 or 12 fingers things would be different, but 10 feels naturally special.
To mention some of the myriad ways in which 10 is a significant number in Judaism – 10 Commandments, 10 Statements of Creation – seems to diminish its uniqueness.
The great 16th Century mystic and philosopher the Maharal describes that 10 is when individuals become collective – the same way 10 Jews become a minyan.
Rav Kook describes the 10th letter, Yud, as being, “the number in its perfection that unifies every distinct detail.”
This letter – the smallest in the Hebrew Aleph-Bet, floating, dot-like above at the top of the line – represents how “every detail and picture is subsumed and elevated” within this tiny point.
We may not appreciate the sanctity in every number – we are so caught up in the greater splicing of every number: time becomes about the millisecond, money becomes about the fraction of a penny and son on.
In doing so we lose the whole, and in losing the whole we can lose part of ourselves. When we count to 10 we are reminded that we are part of a multiplicity, but it is also our uniqueness within that makes us count.
Rabbi Garry Wayland is a teacher and educator for US Living and Learning