What's in a number?
Well, if the number is "777" -- as in July 7, 2007 -- then perhaps a whole lot of luck. To those who believe in the power of the lucky seven, it may also be the right date to marry (after all, it falls on a Saturday night), schedule an important activity, pursue a compelling interest or do something memorable.
So stated David Frankfurter, professor of religious studies and history at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H.
"When dealing with weddings, major exams (such as SATs), major plans and all other portentous, life-changing events, people, throughout history, have wanted to find some way of ensuring their good luck," he said. "After all, a wedding is fairly portentous, so in our culture, which considers the number '7' to be lucky, planning a wedding to coincide with a date such as July 7, 2007 -- 07/07/07 -- means trying to bring luck to the marriage."
In Western cultures, he continued, "7" is thought to be lucky because its considered the perfect number.
As the professor explained: "In the Bible, numerology provided a very simple and clear way to indicate perfection. The 'seven'-ness of the angels, trumpets and bowls in Revelation expresses the heavenly perfection behind all the fire and brimstone occurring on earth, as much as the seven days of creation indicate the perfection of the world around us.
"People feel safe using these numbers in magical ways because they're rooted in the Bible. In the time of the finalization of the Jewish Bible, the seven vowels of the Greek alphabet became linked also to these Jewish concepts of perfection. So the 'superstitions' around seven are all good ones."
While often Americans tend to look for "magical ways to control the world or fate," said Frankfurter, who added that the same is true, too, in most Asian cultures that use numbers in efforts to control economic, political and social events. "However, Asians would say people in the West are primitive since we think only the number '7' is lucky. The Chinese and Japanese, for instance, are very serious about numbers. They use many numbers in attempts to garner luck."
Another number-based conduit for luck is the reliance on horoscopes, which, while popular in Western nations, are used less in Asia, he said.
"There are other 'perfect' numbers in the Bible; namely, '12' and '4.' Twelve reflects the 'perfection' of the 12 tribes of Israel and then the zodiac. It often seems to indicate a social arrangement of 'all Israel,' as in the book of Revelation and, as it has been cogently suggested, Jesus' choice of 12 disciples.
"The 'perfection' of four, symbolized in the image of God's throne-chariot in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, contributed historically to the choice of four gospels for the New Testament canon; that is, out of all the gospels that were written back then, we have four, instead of two, three or five," said Frankfurter.
Not every Jew or Christian, of course, believes in the magical power of numbers, he stressed, but anthropologists and historians tell us that people will do everything they can to have food fortune.
"There are people, certainly, who are more inclined to hedge ambiguous situations around ritual assurances, amulets and the like, especially in a culture that doesn't sanction these activities," said Frankfurter.
And even when the hoped-for luck doesn't materialize, he added, these same people will return to their numbers and amulets to try their luck again, in the process attributing their misfortune to either God's will.
Or, in the case of a relationship gone sour, a woman might claim it failed because the guy was a jerk.
People have also used gematria, the study of the mathematical value of words, as a way of reading the Bible, especially Torah and psalms, he said, "in such a way as to get special, hidden codes ... Remember that trashy book The Bible Code that made the Torah reveal all kinds of prophecies? Well, gematriya allows that, too. So out of biblical phrases, you can derive numbers that then link to the phrases or numbers."
All in all, stated the professor, people should not dwell on the properties of God for luck, should not try to use God through numbers to get what they want, but rather, consider the whole concept of God in their thinking.
Most people simply enjoy the idea of using numbers for luck, he remarked.
Rabbi Bradley N. Bleefeld of Congregation Beth Hillel, in Carmel/Vineland, N.J., also talked about Jewish thought regarding numbers.
"There has always been superstition, mysticism and magic in Jewish thought, and rabbis at times played with it and at times were very serious about it," said Bleefeld, who has a background in mathematics.
Three, he explained, is the beloved number, and seven is the second most beloved. "Three because of the recurring nature of the number '3' in incantations, with name usage in all sorts of mystical things; but seven is the most popular and well-known with repetitions of seven -- seven days of creation, the seventh day is the Sabbath, the seventh year is the sabbatical year, when the land was left in peace.
"Later, that idea was transposed to employment, with the thinking that there ought to be a cessation from work" on the seventh day.
"And seven times seven is important, as a reminder that the year after 49 is 50, the jubilee year, and Passover and Sukkot are both seven-day festivals, while shivah is seven-days of mourning -- so all sevens are beloved," said Bleefeld.
The number '7', he continued, is mystical as well, since there are seven heavens -- thus the expression "seventh heaven" and, originally, seven planets, each controlled by a particular angel.
"The seven planets were the sun, with its angel Raphael; the moon and Gabriel; Venus and Aniel; Mercury and Micael; Saturn and Kafziel; Jupiter and Zadkiel; and Mars and Samael," he explained. "And the total number of angel names used for protection is 70."
Other mystical, magical uses of seven include seven circles in the dirt; the bride circling the groom seven time; gold refined seven times; and the name of God repeated seven times, offered Bleefeld.
"Jews have always believed that though there are things written in the stars, and there are forces beyond our control -- the truth for us is that our words and behavior determine our fate.
"Numerology and mysticism have always existed, but stronger than that is our sense of dedication to the Divine, expressed through our day-to-day deeds, how we live our lives, because the poorest man [and] the poorest woman could be content, could have good fortune in terms of spiritual well-being."
Rabbi Rayzel Raphael, rabbinic consultant of Faithways, a program of the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia, referred to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, which is "a map of God's emanations of creation into the world -- the seven lower sephirot are significant because they are part of God's personality and nature that were revealed in our world."
A telling observation: On July 7, NASA has plans to launch the Dawn satellite probe, which will explore two massive asteroids in the asteroid belt that exits between the planets Mars and Jupiter. Samael and Zadkiel will be watching -- and perhaps guiding.