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Home Columns View from Denver What’s with the number seven?

What’s with the number seven?

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EVERYONE knows that the Sabbath falls once every seven days. Did you also know:

David, King of Israel, was the seventh son of Yishai.

Seven weeks divide Passover from Shavuot.

Moses was the seventh generation after Abraham.

Genesis describes the creation of the world in seven days.

The seventh generation after Adam was Henoch, the only person described in all of scripture to be “taken by G-d” due to his righteousness.

The Land of Israel is to lie fallow once every seven years (shmita).

Seven times seven years is the Jubilee year.

The seventh month of the year ushers in the new year, Rosh Hashanah.

Turning to this week’s Torah portion, we find another instance of seven:

When Balak was trying to align the stars, so to speak, to enable Balaam to curse the Jewish people, “Balak said to Balaam, ‘I shall take you to a different place, perhaps it will be proper in G-d’s eyes that you will curse them for me from there” (23:27).

Balaam responded: “Build for me here seven altars and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams” 23:29).

Not for nothing do the Talmudic sages deem the number seven “beloved.”

ALL these instances of seven are just the beginning.

As pointed out by Avigdor Bonchek in Studying the Torah: A Guide to In-Depth Interpretation, the close perusal of the Torah yields many more — and more complex — instances of seven.

What I find particularly amazing is that many of these patterns of seven escaped the attention of the very greatest Jewish scholars of the generations, from Rabbi Akiva to Maimonides to the Vilna Gaon. Bonchek reports that it was only in 1788 that a blind scholar from Italy published a booklet mentioning the “Seven Code.”

This scholar pointed out many instances in the Torah where words and phrases are repeated in units of seven.

Bonchek writes:

“The idea was picked up again in the beginning of this century when a German scholar by the name of Oskar Goldberg published articles on number patterns in the Torah, one of the more prominent ones being the seven pattern. . . . More recently, the late Professor Umanual Cassutto of Hebrew University, in his monumental work on Genesis and Exodus, also discusses the existence of the Seven Scheme in the Torah.”

Let us begin, however, with where we are in the Torah now — the book of Numbers, picking up from Balaam’s request for seven altars, seven bulls and seven rams. Bonchek observes that in the Torah portion two weeks from now (Mattot), Moses was confronted by the request of Reuben and Gad to settle on the East Bank of the Jordan River — outside the Land of Canaan promised to the Children of Israel.

These two tribes make their pitch to Moses by detailing their need for room for their great multitude of cattle. The opening verse in their pitch may be the only verse in all of scripture that begins and ends with the same word.

That word is cattle.

Reuben and Gad are obsessed with their possessions.

They mention it before they mention their desire to build homes for their families.

In his answer to Reuban and Gad, Moses slips in a telltale phrase that lets them know that their priorities are wrong. In Numbers 32:20-32, Moses tells them: If they will arm themselves “to go before the  L-rd to war,” and if the land be “subdued before the L-rd . . . ”

Moses’ entire answer is punctuated with this phrase: before the ?L-rd.

Moses wants to deliver G-d’s message: Prioritize your family over your possessions.

How many times does before the L-rd appear in the passage?

Seven.

The repetition is the Torah’s way of emphasizing a point. But the repetition could have come any number of times. It came seven times.

THIS week marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the Torah speaks about the laws of the Hebrew servant (Exodus 21:2-11), it begins, “If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself.”

The phrase “go out” subtly conveys the message that if one has to sell oneself into servitude, the point is to get out of it. Servitude, even if self-caused, is not the ideal. The phrase “go out” is repeated in the passage for emphasis — seven times.

Later, in Leviticus 25:39-46, the Torah speaks about how one is to treat a servant who sold himself to you. The passage begins: “As a hired worker and as a sojourner he shall be with you and shall serve with you until the year of the Jubilee. . . . ”

The emphasis is clear: Your servant is not under you; he is with you.

Equal to you.

In the passage, with you is repeated — seven times.

Bonchek writes that instances of the “Seven Code” appear in every one of the five Books of Moses, and that scores of examples have been discerned.

“These patterns at times seem to reflect the central theme of a section while at other times their purposes seems more aesthetic.”

An example of the the Seven Code as an aesthetic adornment:

The Tablets of the Covenant are given to Moses twice, the first time in Exodus 31:18-32-19, the second time in Deuteronomy 9:9-17 and 10:1-5. In both passages the word “Tablets” (luchot) is repeated. The Seven Code reaches across separate books of the Torah, observes Bonchek.

The sale of Joseph into slavery by his brothers is the longest single narrative in Genesis. Writes Bonchek:

“The story begins in Genesis, chapter 37, when we read about the sale of Joseph into slavery. There, the word ‘brother’ appears 21 times (three times seven). The story comes to its dramatic climax some eight chapters later when Judah entreats Joseph to allow the younger Benjamin to return to his father, Jacob. In this section, the word ‘father’ appears 28 times (four times seven). The seven pattern acts as bookends, embracing the entire story from both ends, the embedded message being that one’s concern and respect for one’s father outweighs one’s sibling obligations. This, of course, is the overt message as well.”

And so it goes. The Seven Code is embedded in the stories of Cain and Abel, Isaac’s wells, Esau’s sale of his birthright, the early life of Moses and other passages.

“It is no coincidence that the first scholar to write about the Seven Code was blind,” writes Bonchek. “He wrote that his inability to follow the Torah reading by sight made him more sensitive to its sounds.”

EVEN so, where are we left with the number seven? Clearly it conveys a message. I don’t know what it is any more than you. But let me hazard this guess.

The one instance of seven that we really know, that is ingrained in our lives, our pith, our intellect, our spirituality, our daily rhythm, is Shabbos. So let us ask ourselves: What if Shabbos fell once every six days, or eight days, or any number besides seven? Would Shabbos be the same?

We would say no, I think. The six-day wait for Shabbos is just long enough to keep us yearning for it; and just short enough to enable us to survive until it arrives. Seven, somehow, is tied to the deepest levels of human spiritual capacity.

We would have to extrapolate from this to time periods whose length is some form of seven, as well as to families, spiritual exercises, symbols and physical distances also measured in some way by the number seven.

“Seven times a day I praise you,” for example. Why not five times, ten times?

Or, “the righteous man falls seven times before he rises.” If we fall only once or twice, would this be too little to get us thinking? If we fall eight times or more, would this simply defeat us?

To find meaning in all the instances of seven would require not an intellectual exercise, akin to filling in a crossword puzzle or understanding a mathematical equation, but a deep self-confrontation in many areas of life.

Good luck on the search!

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

 

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