INSIGHT: Ba’al HaTurim

A Gematriya about Gematriya

A Gematriya about Gematriya

After finishing his song, Moshe shares a few thoughts about the Torah. “The Torah is not empty or meaningless! It is your life! Learn Torah and wonderful things will happen!”

In Shazak Parsha, we occasionally mention Hebrew-Letter-Number secrets called Gematriya. Fascinating insights into the Torah can be discovered using Gematriyas.

Here is a simple example, courtesy of the master Gematriya maker, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1269-1343), known as the Ba’al HaTurim:

Parshas Bo, ( (באback in the Book of Shmos, is written with two letters – Beis = 2; Aleph = 1. Add them up and you get 3 – the amount of plagues mentioned in Parshas Bo – Locusts, Darkness, and Death of the Firstborn.

That’s an easy Gematriya. But most of the time, Gematryias are a lot more complicated… a calculator usually comes in handy. Certainly, there are those who may think, “Hey! Just because some Rabbi, no matter how holy he is, tells us a Gematriya, it’s nothing more than a number game. It’s not really Torah!”

Along came a very respectable Rabbi, Rabbi Yehudah the Chosid (1150-1217), who used the words of our Pasuk to show how important Gematriya is.

This is what the holy Rabbi said:

“It is written in Parshas Ha’azinu, כי לא דבר רק הוא מכם – “For it is not an empty thing for you.” Now, add up the letters and it’s a grand total of 679, which is the exact same Gematriya as the word Gematriyos – גימטריאות (plural of Gematriya) – 679!”

There you have it: a meaningful Gematriya to tell you that Gematriya is meaningful.

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Shazak insight

Ba’al HaTurim

The all-time Gematriya master was without a doubt, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1269-1343), from Germany and then Spain. We know how good he was at Gematriyos by reading his brief commentary on the Chumash. This commentary is a treasure chest of hidden Gematriya secrets. It was called Ba’al HaTurim, meaning the “Master of the Four Rows.”

What’s that name all about?

Besides his Chumash commentary, Rabbi Yaakov’s most lasting gift to Torah learning was a large collection of four books, called the Arba’ah Turim, “Four Rows,” named for the four rows of jewels in the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol. This important work, also called in short, the Tur, is an invaluable link in the chain of Jewish law.

Through carefully learning the teachings of the Sages who came before him, especially those of the Rambam, Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (a.k.a. the Rif), and the Rosh (his father), he wrote a thorough guide to Jewish life.

Arba’ah Turim is divided into four sections:

Orach Chayim deals with the “ordinary” laws that come up in everyday life, including laws of prayer, Shabbos, the holidays and more.

Yoreh Deiah includes the laws of Kosher.

Even HaEzer is the place where all laws related to Jewish marriage can be found.

Choshen Mishpat contains the laws dealing with business, damages, and monetary issues.

This book was so important to Jewish life that it was the second Torah book to be printed (in the year 1475, just 35 years after the printing press was invented) and has since been reprinted countless times. In fact, when the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) was written, it was organized following the same format of the Arba’ah Turim.

So, when Rabbi Yaakov wrote his Gematryia commentary on the Chumash, there were those who looked at it, and after a quick glance would close the book, thinking, “I would rather spend my time learning “real Torah,” and not waste my time on this Gematriya handbook.”

That explains why it was called Ba’al HaTurim. It’s as if to say, “Watch out! Do you know who wrote that book?! It’s none other than the same author as the Arba’ah Turim, the classic book of Jewish law! So, it must be something special and very holy!”

Indeed, Ba’al HaTurim on the Chumash became so popular that after all these years, it is still printed in most editions of the Chumash, right alongside the classic words of Rashi!

 

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