Because we are meaning-making creatures, it is no surprise that many cultures across the world and throughout history have extended this to finding symbolic meaning in numbers. Even in Western North American culture that doesn’t have a historical numerological system of its own, we have a strong predilection for multiples of ten, and call the number thirteen ‘unlucky.’
I’ve never had much interest in numerology. It’s always seemed pretty arbitrary to me — even as symbolic languages, which are always to some extent arbitrary, go, it’s seemed pretty random, usually relying on sound associations in one language or another. This arbitrariness is particularly noticeable living in a culture that does not have a strong numerological system of its own but has important bits and pieces of many from around the world. (For example, Chinese numerology has been shown to impact real estate prices in North American cities with large Chinese communities.)
Before this past year, the only numerological system with which I had any familiarity was the numerology of Jewish apocalypticism that is found in the New Testament, wherein 7 is the symbol of earthly perfection (e.g., Jesus’ urging the disciples to forgive 70×7 times), 6 is wicked (e.g., the ‘mark of the beast’ in the Apocalypse: 666), 8 is the hyper-perfection of the Kingdom of God (e.g., early Christians spoke of Jesus’ resurrection as occurring on the eighth day of the week), and 12 is symbolic of the wholeness of God’s people (e.g., the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles), and so on. When reading ancient texts from the century or two surrounding the time of Jesus, it’s helpful to keep these numbers in mind because they were used as a symbolic shorthand.
It’s interesting that once the apocalyptic genre faded from popularity, Judaism largely abandoned this numerological scheme, but came up with another a few centuries later. This system has come down to us today through the Jewish wisdom tradition known as Kabbalah, which has inspired both exoteric and esoteric traditions within and outside Judaism. One of the ways the general numerology of Kabbalah has filtered into contemporary spirituality is that it forms the basis of the numerological significations within the suits of Tarot decks. While most decks, following the tradition of the Smith-Rider-Waite deck have a moderate connection to Kabbalah, others — most notably Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck — are far more self-consciously faithful to it.
In this system, the numbers 1-10 are associated with one of the ten sefirot, the ten attributes through which Ein Sof (essentially the Godhead) emanates into the material world, from spark of insight (keter ‘crown’, associated with the number one) to full manifestation (malkuth ‘kingdom’, associated with the number ten). The numbers are traditionally displayed in a three-columned diagram showing the pathways between them; this diagram is called the Tree of Life.
I won’t go into too much detail about the system itself here. There are plenty of resources around if you are interested in learning about it, from people who have studied it for decades and to whose culture it belongs.
But I have to say that the Tree of Life has been a helpful companion to me this year, providing me with yet another lens through which to understand both my circumstances and the creative process. For example, I remember reflecting on one area of my life that seemed to be going well but was also somehow unsatisfying, and realizing that its energies fit well the fourth sefira, hessed: there was blessing and beauty, but it was also stagnant and needed to be shaken up and challenged if I wanted to push it forward. (I often imagine hessed to be a table standing on a perfectly flat surface: its stability is welcome and needed (and particularly noticed in its absence!), but at the end of the day that sort of stability doesn’t exactly make for an engaging life.) Another time, the number six seemed to follow me around one day, and it was enough to turn my thoughts to the sixth sefira, tif’erot and its beautiful themes of wholeness and the integration of opposites.
I’ve also genuinely appreciated this system’s Ecclesiastean appreciation for what is needed, for what the Greeks call kairos — the appointed time: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” This piece of poetry has long been raised up as a beautiful encapsulation of the seasonality of our lives. Meditating on the Sefirot has allowed me to bring this recognition actively into my life; it whispers in the ears of my heart the question, “What is needed right now?” Is it a time to manifest an idea? Is it a time to rest in stability? Is it time to shake things up? Is it time to hold things together in balance? Is it time to let go?
And so as much as numerology doesn’t really inspire me, I’ve been grateful for the gifts of this particular system as I’ve explored it the past year, as cursory and ‘through-the-back-door’ as those explorations have been.