Sunday, June 28, 2015

Torah Codes vs. Acronyms

In a recent comment, a commenter compared modern Torah Codes to acronyms noted by some traditional Torah scholars of generations past, such as the Arizal and Rav Nachman of Breslav.
I don't believe in the veracity of finding current political events hidden in verses of Tanakh but there is something to equidistant letter skips, especially when they answer the simple meaning of a verse:

“A major principle, according to the Gaon [of Vilna], appears in Sifra de-Tsni’uta, [and that is] everything that was, is, and will be in all the upper and lower worlds, as well as all the general and particular things that will happen in every generation—all these are hinted at in the Torah [cf. M Avot 5:26: Ben Bag-Bag said: Turn it [Torah] over and over for everything is in it; BT Ta’anit 9a: Is there anything written in the Writings to which allusion cannot be found in the Torah?]… every person can find his name and mission in verses” (Qol ha-Tor 1:1; 3:11).

Some compelling examples:

אִם-לַלֵּצִים הוּא-יָלִיץ וְלַעֲנָוִים יִתֶּן-חֵן But to the humble he grants favor (Proverbs 3:34)—אֱלִיָּהוּ חי, Elijah lives, is spelled out by the initial letters of the verse (Arizal).

אוֹר זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק וּלְיִשְׁרֵי-לֵב שִׂמְחָה Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright of heart (Psalms 97:11)—ר עֲקִיבַה, R. Akiva, is spelled out in the final letters of the verse (Arizal).

עִיר וְקַדִּישׁ מִן-שְׁמַיָּא נָחִת And behold, a watcher, a holy one came down from heaven (Daniel 4:10)—שׁמעוֹן, Shim’on, is spelled out by the initial letters of the verse (Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav, Lekhu Hazu).

כִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי זַרְעו For it shall not be forgotten in the mouth of his seed (Deuteronomy 31:21)—יוֹחַאי, Yoḥai, is spelled out in the final letters of the verse (Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav, Liqqutei Moharan, cf. BT Shabbat 138b: The Torah is destined to be forgotten from Israel).

לְמַעַן) רְבוֹת מוֹפְתַי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם) (So that) My portents may be multiplied in the land of Egypt (Exodus 11:9)—רמבּם, Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), is spelled out by the initial letters of the verse.

נַחַל נֹבֵעַ מְקוֹר חָכְמָה A flowing stream, the wellspring of wisdom (Proverbs 18:4)—נַחמָן, Naḥman, is spelled out by the initial letters of the verse (Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav, Liqqutei Moharan, Ḥayei Moharan, 189).

וְנֹקֵב שֵׁם-יְהוָה מוֹת יוּמָת And he who invokes YHWH’s name shall be doomed to die (Leviticus 24:16). יֵשׁוּ (Yeshu), Jesus, is spelled out in reverse, indicating judgment, by the first three letters of the first three words (Rabbi Meir Paprish [Poppers], Ohr Ner).

I don't believe in the significance of these first-letter-of-word encodings either, so perhaps I am not the one to best argue this. However, I see no one else prepared to do so, and so will take on the task.

There is a major qualitative and quantitative difference between these examples of yours and Torah Codes.

Yirmeyahu said (23:28):
כח  הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר-אִתּוֹ חֲלוֹם, יְסַפֵּר חֲלוֹם, וַאֲשֶׁר דְּבָרִי אִתּוֹ, יְדַבֵּר דְּבָרִי אֱמֶת:  מַה-לַתֶּבֶן אֶת-הַבָּר, נְאֻם-ה.28 The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath My word; let him speak My word faithfully. What hath the straw to do with the wheat? saith the LORD.

Just because prophecy and dreams bear similarities does not make them equals. One is chaff and the other is wheat.

In short:

The qualitative difference
In works of literature produced by humans, authors employ acronyms as a literary device. Thus, interpreters of that literary text might be expected to look for such messages and (since dibra Torah kilshon benei Adam) it is not surprising for a Divine author to likewise employ it. Utilizing the last letters of words, rather than the first letters, is a simple extension of this.

In contrast, the use of equal skip letters throughout a text, backwards and forwards, with overlapping words in a grid formed by those letters was not historically used as a literary device. It is more like a cipher or steganography than a literary device. The claim is that this message could be intended and deployed alongside the plaintext by someone with Divine Powers. Sure, but a "could" is not the same as a "would".

The quantitative difference
First-letter-encodings: There are 79,847 words in the Torah, which means the corpus formed by first letters of words is of size 79,847. Similarly, the corpus formed by last letters of words is of size 79,847.

If one searches and finds a message, this is looking for and finding a needle in a haystack. 

Torah codes: There are 304,805 letters in the Torah. That means that the corpus for an ELS (skip length) of 1 is 304,805. 

What about for an ELS of 2? Well, the corpus size would be half of 304,805 letters, because we are only looking at only every other letter. But there are two such corpora -- one beginning with the Bet of Bereishit (and looking at every odd letter) and one beginning with the Resh of Bereishit (and looking at every even letter). So we have a total corpus, for ELS of 2, of 304,805.

What about for an ELS of 3? Each corpus is a third the size, but there are three such corpora. So, total length of of 304,805.

ELS of 4? Each corpus is a quarter the size, but there are four such corpora. So, total length of 304,805.

And so on and so forth. That means that the total length of the corpus, considering every positive number ELS, 304,805 squared. That is 92,906,088,025 letters. That is 92 billion letters. And if we consider negative ELS as well, it is twice that, 185,812,176,050. That is 185 billion letters.

Compare 185 billion letters to search through for Torah codes vs. 79 thousands letters to search through for first-letter acronyms. Of course you are going to find something. Given how many instances there will be, of course in a few of them you will be able to convince yourself that there is some significant tie-in to the enclosing verses.

This is searching for hay in a haystack and declaring it to be a needle!

There is only one ELS that I am persuaded carries an intended message. That is an ELS of +1.

Update: As Joe in Australia pointed out in the comment section, many of these "compelling" examples are not just acronyms but also anagrams. This makes a match much more likely. His rough calculation was that, for a 5 letter word, since there were 5! permutations, this multiplies the corpus size by at least 120.

My updated response is then this: First, it makes these compelling examples much less compelling. I had focused on the three that did not involve (any or much) permuting - Eliyahu, Rambam, and Rabbi Akiva. But indeed, ones which involve acronyms bring the literary form slightly closer to the steganography of Torah Codes. In terms of quantitative difference, though, if we do have this rough estimate of multiplying by a constant of 120, this is still a far cry from squaring the corpus size.


Joe in Australia said...

The first-letter encodings often seem to involve anagrams, which increases the search space considerably. It's like gematrias - if the number doesn't work, take the number plus one, plus one for each word, one for each letter or whatever.

Anonymous said...

The second example, the name Akiva spelled with a hay at the end, predates the Arizal. IIRC it is mentioned in the introduction to the Or Zarua (13th century), possibly quoted from a midrash.

madaral said...

There is no source awareness in the field, which therefore "lo mitkabel al hadaat".

joshwaxman said...

Joe in Australia:
Not sure I understand. Aren't all first-letter-encodings anagrams? Unless you mean that they are then taken as anagrams for something else...

Indeed, the more contortions one allows in defining a match (such as gematria, plus one, letters spelled out, alternative spellings), the easier it is to match, even in this smaller search space. I think it is still a smaller search space, just a much easier match, So one could indeed argue against any of those, as distinct from the core (original?).

However, all of the compelling examples given in the cited comment didn't involve such contortions (other than the alternate spelling of Rabbi Akiva, with a heh instead of an aleph).

Joe in Australia said...

An anagram is a rearrangement of letters; you're thinking of an acronym, which is a word made up of a phrase's initials. The acronyms you cite as examples aren't made from the letters as they appear in order; they're rearranged. There are 120 ways of arranging the letters of a five-letter word, but I suspect that the benefit of allowing anagrams is even more effective than it appears because some letters are relatively rare. It's definitely *at least* 120x for a five letter word, though.

joshwaxman said...

Egg on my face, then. :)

I misused the term and didn't read the examples carefully enough. I'll have to correct the post, at least for the correct usage. The ones I bothered to check at the time were in order. For instance, Eliyahu, Ramban, Rabbi akiva.

joshwaxman said...

now stealth corrected and an update was added. thanks again.

Gershon Wynschenk said...

Rabbi Elijah Kramer of Vilna is the source for the Ram-bam intital letters.


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