I have taken an initial pass at the Sefir Yetzirah and some other Kabbalah texts, and have had several personal experiences myself where I was able to make "associations" between patterns pretty fluidly, such as thinking about the digital clock time and the numbers and letters and cycling through them, tying them to various things with "standard" number and letter values such as the 7 visible stellar bodies, the 12 musical notes, the 26 letters of the English alphabet, the 6 directions, the 7 visible colors of the rainbow, etc.. You can really "derive" a lot of associations just by thinking about the numbers and standard encounters, and sometimes it's interesting.

However to a lot of people this feels like "random" and "meaningless" pattern matching. That is, arbitrary associations being created by your brain based on your experience, upbringing, and memory. Basically, many people feel "I can easily come up with associations between letters and numbers, but what makes my associations better or worse than the ones you came up with?"

I say this after reading through the Sefir Yetzirah where it says there are 3 elements, for example, air, water, and fire (or ether, I'm not sure). But to another person there are 4 elements (earth, air, water, fire), or to modern science there are no longer elements but states of matter (plasma, liquid, solid, gas). To a fish or a dog there are not 7 visible colors but some other number of colors, some bees can see ultraviolet light, etc.. Other animals have other senses like how birds have basically a magnetic sensor to help them navigate vast distances across the Earth. Or another example, there are thousands of spoken languages, potentially dozens/hundreds of writing systems, some with alphabets, others like Chinese with logographs, others are syllable-based like Ahmaric. Hebrew technically is an abjad and only represents consonants, so it is different from an alphabet. Each of these systems has a different number of symbols, so you could do "gematria" in any of these systems perhaps. Another example is the sephirot, at first it was somewhat nebulous, now it is 10, or possibly 11, nodes in the diagram. Sometimes things have 4, sometimes 5, sometimes 7, etc.. Sometimes they can be seen as green and blue, other times as red and yellow. Sometimes you break it up like this, sometimes you break it up like that. Like there were 7 heavenly bodies when all we had were our eyes, then there were 9 "planets" (including pluto), now there are only 8 (minus pluto). The 10 fingers of the hand are associated with the 10 sephirot, but some people might have a mutation with an extra digit, etc..

Basically, it is like there are repetitions of "patterns" in an experience, and they form an impression on us. Like how there were 7 heavenly bodies for at least 100's of years. These "patterns" are then used to create associations with other things, but the pattern may evolve or change at some point in the future, or based on a different way of looking at it (a different perspective/culture/etc.). It is sort of like machine learning, how it is all statistics based. Our brains find meaning in repeatable patterns, even if they are only temporary or not exact or can change based on perspective/knowledge. Then we use these patterns to create associations with other patterns, etc..

But like how the Sefir Yetzirah says there are 3 elements, when the idea of "elements" really breaks down in modern science, I wonder when we should adhere to a pattern, and when it is arbitrary or meaningless. In Judaism, what do they have to say about these "pattern associations"? When are they relevant, when are they meaningless? What do they say about the fact that the numerical values of things may change based on knew knowledge or a different perspective (like the 3 elements)? Basically wondering what is the science or systematic framework behind making associations, given they are so dynamic.

  • It's not the pattern that makes the association; it's the association that makes the pattern.
    – shmosel
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 2:13
  • I saw this lecture recently from Ohr Somayach, where Rabbi Elie Feder explains, quoting the Ramban, that gematria cannot just be derived like many people try, it has to be based in a mesorah from sinai youtube.com/watch?v=3VWNxm7zM0s (jump to 8:02)
    – BID
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 5:23
  • 1
    The kabbalah core texts are a mashal and are not designed to be directly applied.
    – The GRAPKE
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 12:15

1 Answer 1


Hi and welcome to Mi Yodeya, this is a big question that is hard to answer (and might be in danger of being closed for being unfocussed, but let's see if we can cut to the chase).

You are raising a very philosophical issue here with lots of parts. The first question we can answer is, did Hashem invest meaning purposely into the patterns and numbers that crop up in the world?

The answer to that is yes, He did. There is much importance on this concept of number and pattern in Torah thought, in fact the name "Mi Yodeya" is from a song that goes through the first 13 numbers and how they are associated with Hashem's important things!

The second question is a bit more involved. How are we supposed to come to an understanding of what Hashem meant by all these numbers and patterns? How do we decode them?

The answer to that is, we need to be told. Don't get me wrong, Torah morally obligates and strongly encourages us to think for ourselves and use our own logic. However, it creates a realistic framework for this. Remember: Torah is a revelation of everything Hashem wants us to know that we wouldn't be able to know without the Torah! It works in a very different way to science. Science is about coming up with theories and testing them to get to the truth, whereas Torah is a blueprint of the truth.

So what Hashem's intentions were for the various patterns in life definitely falls under the category of "something we have to ask Him, rather than try to guess". There is a definite intention (or several, with associations and connections and a rich tapestry of meaning), but there are also lots of other possible interpretations that are simply not what He had in mind, so leaving it for us to try and contemplate and work out isn't really wise or logical. So as BID commented, it's something we need a mesora (a tradition) for.

What does that say about our inquisitive, pattern spotting minds and the fun therein? Are we supposed to deny it completely? Some will say yes. It is an indulgence, it can make people loopy, it's all theoretical postulating and therefore a waste of precious time that could be spent pursuing definite truths about Torah and life. For this reason it is universally uncontroversial that nobody should just pick up a Kabbalah book and read it by themselves and try to figure out what it's saying. Kabbalah is taught deliberately as a code that needs a cipher to understand, and deals with very lofty philosophical concepts that are hard to understand properly and need subtlety, humility and a really good teacher. Solid background in Tanach and Talmud and a good head and logical training are an absolute must.

Still, nobody will outrightly forbid someone from thinking about patterns, in between doing good deeds and study! There's a lot to be said of someone who absorbs the above message and takes it seriously, but still tries to see the wonderful patterns in life and wonder... We will have to wait for Moshiach to know if the 10 dimensions of string theory correspond to the 10 sefirot, and the 26 total dimensions required to include bosons (see The Universe A Biography, John Gribbin, p.38) corresponds to Hashem's Name's gematria, but until then, one is permitted to say "I don't know if that's true or not, but it is certainly inspiring!".

A couple more points on your points:

May I recommend studying the Knowledge Argument, and reading up on Qualia. Most of the examples you gave of the way things were counted in different ways by different people pertain to qualia. Qualia are phenomena that do not rest on logical principles or have any underlying structure. Structure does arise from it (colour mixing is a logical science, for example), but due to the nature of qualia being subjective, we have to create a convention for the structure ourselves, and that can turn out different in different systems, which is why some cultures have a blue and a green, and some just have bluegreen etc.

In Torah, this will happen too. I've seen two different ways of this happening. Either the thing being taught in different ways by different people is because it is a thing where the structure is just a convention, the underlying ideas are more abstract and each takes their own approach to turning it into a mashal (analogy). More often than not though, there is the principle of eilu v'eilu; each is true, and once a missing piece of the puzzle is found, one can see the unity.

Take the sefirot for example. You are right, there are 11 named sefirot, but as it says in Sefer Yetzira, there are only ever 10 counted. This is not an example of different approach, but actually there is a logical truth here. There are two ways of looking at each system! There is a superficial and external way, and a deep and internal way. When you look at a human soul deeply (such as when you are experiencing your own consciousness), you don't see Keter, because Keter (will) is makif (it's an outside-the-system force, we don't have direct access to whence our desire arises), but you do see Da'at (personal knowledge). Da'at can only be deep though, so when you look at the human soul more superficially (such as when you are looking at someone else), you can't see it, but you can see that Keter is an important component of the human soul.

Finally, one more point, on the elements. This is connected to much of what I've said already. In Kabbalah, we do indeed talk about 3 or 4 elements. I'll give this example and hopefully you'll have had enough examples to see how things work in this whole matter. In this case, realise that these elements are elements in the spiritual world. As such, they are very very different in kind and concept to elements in the physical world. We are talking about the very substance of how anything is made. It's a hugely esoteric concept, these "elements" are very abstract and the only way to really start thinking about them is with PhD level philosophy. The Rebbe Rayatz gives it a good go trying to explain it to the general population in a ma'amar in Sefer Ma'marim תרצ״א, and it's very hard (I am not aware of any translation yet). It brings up the idea of "hiyuli", the most undifferentiated "substance", and how the four elements are connected to that.

Tanya, in chapter one, shows a good analogy for the elements, as he associates them with human character traits and demonstrates that really the words used to name those elements are picked because they more accurately describe the concept that these elements represent, and his analogy is using that of movement. Fire rises, earth doesn't move, air moves everywhere and water moves downwards. So it all comes together here and ends with the most important phrase I'll say in this whole question: this needs to be studied properly from the people who have revealed it to us, we cannot reach our own conclusions and indeed, the truths behind this are amazing and wonderful if we invest the time and effort.

As someone who is studying this without delving into it in the broader context of a lifetime of Torah, there's only so far you are going to be able to get. The best thing you can probably do is get Sefer Yetzira by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. It's a great english translation and commentary, that gleans what can be gleaned by someone in your position so you can get the most out of it.

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