In The Little Shtetl Of Vaysechvoos: Mendel the Merchant
When it came to a knowledge of gematria, no one in Vaysechvoos was as skilled as Mendel the Merchant. His father, Yossel, had taught him from early childhood how important it was to have an understanding of the numerical value of the alef bais.
Reb Yossel explained to the boy, Mendel, my son, do you know why, when a man takes a Nazarite vow for an unspecified duration, it should be counted as 30 days?”
“No father,” the boy replied.
“Well, we know that from the word yihyeh (“he shall be”) which is taken from Numbers 6:5, the numerical value comes to 30.”
Mendel gained much from his learned father. But he soon surpassed him, for he had a highly developed sense for numbers and complex equations. And this made Reb Yossel very proud. Sadly, Mendel’s father did not live much longer. The truth of the matter is that Mendel was so skilled in gematria that he was able to compute the date of his own father’s departure from this world from a passage in the Book of Proverbs. He didn’t tell his parents. He thought it best to keep that knowledge to himself.
That was many years ago. Today, Mendel’s reputation for working on gematria is known even as far away as Ludz. . . .
How does he do it, you may ask? He looks for a precise meaning in how the letters in a particular Scripture passage add up, and some of the things he has discovered are astounding. For example, when Mendel’s daughter was getting married, he took the traditional text out of Genesis, chapter two and added up the words regarding marriage. Mendel discovered that the marriage about to take place between his daughter and the boy from a neighboring village would produce tohoo v’bohoo (total emptiness), and he was ready to call off the celebration. But, wanting to be certain, he kept adding up the letters from the Genesis verses until he got tov and yafe (good and beautiful), and thus he knew it was going to be a good marriage because he reckoned it with the gematria. Then there was the time when a rash of petty thefts occurred in Vaysechvoos. Malka had her Shabbos candlesticks taken; Yonkel found the lock on his workshop broken and his best cutting tools missing. And this thievery was occurring weekly. So Mendel went to the key text, “Thou shalt not steal,” and he added up the letters in the commandment to find out who had been doing the stealing. Mendel secured the initials of the person, but he didn’t want to tell anyone lest there might be a mistake. So he wrote them down and gave the information to the Sage of Vaysechvoos to hold. He told the Sage, “If in another week’s time, the thief is not caught, then the initials can be divulged.” And Mendel prayed that week with much fervor. Sure enough the thief was caught and his initials were the same as the ones Mendel had secured through gematria. The Sage told a few what Mendel had done, and his reputation as a mystical maven spread.
By now Mendel had gained considerable confidence in his abilities, so he ventured into an even more complex study. Mendel took some of the messianic texts to find out when the Messiah will come. He knew that it was forbidden to compute such a time according to the ancient rabbis,1 but he went ahead anyway. His first computations from passages in the Pentateuch produced the message, “He already came.” Perplexed, Mendel went to another one of the messianic texts—this time from the writings of the prophet Micah. He made sure the rabbis agreed that the passage was a messianic text. This time he checked and doublechecked his calculations. Yet the same message was produced, “He already came.” Mendel was shocked.
What was he to do now? The only thing a good Jew in Vaysechvoos could do. He kept studying and searching the Scriptures for the date of Messiah’s arrival. Mendel made it his lifelong pursuit. Did the student of this mystical discipline ever find his answer?
Who knows? Gematria is not an exact science. And we don’t always like the answers we get.
- alef bais: alphabet
- gematria: a numerical system of interpretation
- maven: expert
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.