dwj-digest (Diana Wynne Jones) V1 #186

Gili Bar-Hillel abhillel at hotmail.com
Thu Jul 13 04:18:01 EDT 2000

For the sake of those who actually tried to understand what I was going on 
about, (Elise - I thought the expression was "holy cannoli"!) I'll try to 
clarify, and apologize for being unclear yesterday but I was being rushed:

For most purposes, Israel uses Arab numerals same as most of the rest of the 
world (except Arab countries, that have their own Arab numerals just to be 
confusing). The exceptions in Israel are certain traditional or religious 
contexts such as numbers of chapters and verses in religious texts, and 
Hebrew dates, which are still counted in letters.

Every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has an assigned number value. The 
difference between counting with Arab numerals and counting with Hebrew 
letters, is that with Arab numerals order is significant: the rightmost 
digit sigifies units of one, and each shift left signifies to increase the 
value of the digit by a power of ten. (the decimal point allows us to 
continue decreasing by powers of ten, and count numbers smaller than one). 
When counting in Hebrew letters, the order is not significant (though the 
convention to start with larger values on the right, in the direction you 
would read them in Hebrew). You add up the value of all the letters, without 
multiplying any of them by a power of ten. As the largest number that can be 
represented by a single letter in Hebrew is 400 (taf), this makes it an 
inconvenient system for larger numbers.

Hence, the current Hebrew year, nicknamed "tashas" or "hatashas": 
The 5,000 is represented as a heh, which should actually be just five, but I 
guess it's an easy shortcut for the digit that changes least often. (expect 
a Hebrew millenium bug in 201 years).

Yet another counting variation you all know is what we do with Roman 
numerals: each letter has an assigned value, but the significance of order 
is to determine whether you are to subtract or add the smaller value from 
the larger. Hence VI=6, but IV=4.

The only advantage I can think of for the Hebrew counting system is for 
mystical numerology type uses. Since order is not significant, any 
permutation of the same letters has the same numerical value, and more than 
one set of letters can yield the same sum. Mystics use this to calculate the 
numerical value of words and try to equate them with other words to prove 
some mystic connection between them - this is called Gemmatria. I can't 
think of great examples right now.

But here's a tidbit: the number 15, which could be represented by 10+5, is 
conventionally represented by 9+6, because the letters for 10 and 5 in 
succession form an abbreviation of the name of God, and one does not take 
the name of God in vain.

That's probably more than you ever needed to know about counting in Hebrew. 
But then again, we are fascinated by this kind of detail when it is invented 
by an author to embellish an invented culture. And we are often not aware of 
the cultural alternatives that already exist in our own world.
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