What’s in a number? 32
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What’s in a number? 32

Rabbi Garry Wayland helps figure out why 32 is so significant to the Jewish tradition

“Thirty-two paths of wondrous wisdom” begins the ancient Kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah – the highly esoteric work ascribed by rabbinic tradition to Rabbi Akiva or even to Abraham. 

Terse, cryptic, mysterious, Sefer Yetzirah builds up a metaphysical framework for the universe. 

The world is created with “writing, numbers, a book”, and split into “three fathers: world; year; soul; seven stars,
12 edges [of a cube].” 

It enumerates details of the Ten Sefirot – the “lights” or primary divine conduits to this world, and they will “cease your lips from speaking, your mind from pondering”. They are very specifically, “10 and not nine, 10 and not eleven.” 

It groups the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet into “three mothers, seven doubles, 12 simple ones”, “arranged on
a sphere with 231 gates”.

Despite appearing obscure almost to the point of being anodyne, this short text has illuminated the hearts and souls of Jewish mystics for millennia, including with the narrative poetry of the Zohar and the linking of these concepts with our prayers and mitzvot. 

As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan notes, 32 in Hebrew is written with the letters “Lamed Beit” – the very word for heart. To an outsider, numbers can seem obscure – we want to know narratives, feelings and motivation. We want to see pictures and hear stories rather than count numbers. 

But insiders dwell on the detail: people who consider themselves to be not mathematical will suddenly come alive as they describe the stats of their football team, the dimensions of their pallets, the movements of their shares. 

While our spirits soar in poetry, our bodies are grounded in number: how many, how long, how much. 

Within the numbers, lies the heart. There are many different paths to the Tree of Life; some feel the warm light of the Garden, others hear the poetry of the Angels, and some count their footsteps.

Rabbi Garry Wayland is a teacher and educator for US Living and Learning

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