In May 1997, a sensational new book titled The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin, was published by Simon & Schuster. It was announced with a full-page ad in the New York Times and quickly appeared on the covers and editorial pages of major magazines and newspapers worldwide. Drosnin, a free-lance investigative reporter, who once worked for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, offered a readable, engrossing, and intriguing account of a hidden code found in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament), discovered several years ago, with the use of advanced computer programs, by a number of Israeli mathematicians, including Moshe Katz, Eliyahu Rips, and Doron Witztum. This code is based on what are called ELS or Equidistant Letter Sequences found in the traditional Masoretic Hebrew text of the Torah or Five Books of Moses. The idea is a simple one. According to its supporters there is encoded within the plain text of the Hebrew Torah hidden messages and information. Imagine the entire 304,805 Hebrew letters of the traditional Torah fed into a computer in perfect sequence, much like the sequenced chemical strand of a DNA double helix. The computer then looks for meaningful words and phrases occurring at various intervals or equal distant letter skips—say every 50 letters, or 75, or 100 letters—or really any number one chooses to use, forward or backward in the text.
For example, if you start with Genesis 1:1, go to the first occurrence of the letter Tav (which is at the end of the first word bereshit, “In [the] beginning”), count 49 letters, and you come to the letter Vav (50th letter); count another 49 letters and you arrive at Resh; and 49 letters again and you come to the letter Heh—put these together: Tav, Vav, Resh, Heh and you spell a Hebrew word: TORaH. It is most interesting that the same thing happens with the first lines of Exodus, the second book of Torah. If you begin with the first Tav (the end of the second word shemot), count 49 letters, you come to a Vav, another 49 letters to a Resh, and a fourth 49 letters you end up with a Heh—again TORaH in Hebrew. The third book of the Torah, Leviticus, has a similar pattern, but this time the sacred Name of God (YHVH/Yod, Hey, Vav, Hey) is spelled out every seven letters, beginning with the first Yod. Numbers and Deuteronomy continue the pattern, but with the word TORaH spelled backwards, every 49 letters. The sacred Name YHVH also is found at the end each of these five books, also at intervals of 49 letters. The question is, are we dealing with a phenomenon that can be explained purely by chance and random sequence, or is there some “pattern” that has somehow been inserted by the Author or authors of these texts? Given the number of letters in Genesis (about 78 thousand), one would expect the letters Tav, Vav, Hey, and Resh, to appear in sequence, at various letter intervals, at least two or three times based on chance distribution alone. What is interesting here is the way in which these key terms: Torah and YHVH, appear precisely where they do—at the opening and closing of the Five Books of the Torah, and in a balanced sequence of forward and backward spelling—with YHVH opening Leviticus, at a sequence of seven letters. Such number patterns, of seven and forty-nine, have mystical and historical significance in Hebrew tradition.
The phenomenon is also found in much more complicated ways. Prof. Rips, for example, found that in the single section of Genesis 1:29-3:3, one can find encoded, at various letter sequences, not only the names of the seven edible species of seed-bearing fruits in the land of Israel (barley, wheat, vine, date, olive, fig, and pomegranate), but also the names of the twenty-five trees of the Garden of Eden, delineated by tradition (chestnut, acacia, willow, etc.)—again, all hidden at various equal distant letter skips (5, 18, 9, 14, and so forth). There is no other segment of Genesis of similar length where these words occur at such short intervals (less than 20 letters).
Dosnin’s book goes much beyond such relatively simply patterns. His book is filled with charts of various grids or sections of the Hebrew text, in which one finds patterns of words at various sequences—moving forward, backward, horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. For example, he finds the names Yitzhak Rabin and Amir (Rabin’s convicted killer), the phrase “name of assassin who will assassinate,” Tel Aviv, and the date on the Hebrew calendar 5756 (1995-96)—all laid out in one portion of the Hebrew Torah at various letter sequences (see pp. 16-17) of his book. He tells us of his dramatic efforts to warn Rabin of the possibilities of his death, as he discovered these particular “codes” before the assassination in 1995. He also finds the assassinations of J. F. and Robert Kennedy, clustered with terms such as Dallas, Oswald, Ruby, S. Sirhan, marksman, respectively. In the case of Egyptian President Sadat, he finds the phrase “Chaled will shoot Sadat” and even the Hebrew date “8 Tishri” in a relatively small section of the text. Another section shows many words clustered together related to the 1991 Gulf War, including the words: Saddam Hussein, missile, 3rd of Shevat (Jan 18th), and so forth. Hardly anything is left out of the book, from Watergate, to Hiroshima, to the Jupiter comet collision. Drosnin’s book is filled with such examples, including things yet to come—which is part of the controversy, since most of the Israeli scientists who have developed the basic research on the computer code maintain it can not be used reliably to predict the future. As Prof. Rips put it, when asked about Drosnin’s book: “All attempts to extract messages from Torah codes or to make predictions based on them are futile and of no value.”
The idea that the Torah, as the purest revelation of the God of Israel, was divinely inspired at Sinai and delivered to Moses in a letter-perfect form that we have without error today, is fundamental to traditional Judaism. Indeed, in Jewish mystical tradition, the Torah contains all knowledge. As the Vilna Gaon put it in the 18th century: “all that was, is, and will be unto the end of time is included in the Torah.” The Torah is understood to be the “blueprint” of the universe, a reflection of the perfect mind of God. Many of these Codes, especially the more simple ones, based on the ELS phenomenon, had been discovered by various rabbis down through the ages. It was the brilliant Rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl, survivor of the Holocaust, who first made a systematic examination of the entire Torah, looking for such patterns. As a youth he had written out the entire 300 thousand letter text of the traditional Torah on white cards, in 10-by- 10 arrays of letters. Following the war he lived outside of NY City, sat for hours, Bible in hand, making complicated mathematical calculations on the letters of the Bible, taking copius notes in the margins. Eventually he established a Yeshiva and gathered a group of faithful students around him. Unfortunately little of his work was committed to writing, and most is now lost. For example, the Vilna Gaon had found the name Rambam (Maimonides) encoded in Exodus 11:9 in an acrostic acronym from the first letters of the words: Rabot Moftai B’eretz Mitzraim (“marvels will be multiplied in the land of Egypt”). Rabbi Weissmandle discovered that if you began with the letter M (Mem), of this acrostic, the words Mishnah and Torah were spelled out at a 50 letter sequence—but with the two words separated by 613 letters. Those familiar with Jewish tradition will recall that Maimonides’ greatest work was titled Mishnah Torah and it is the most authoritative commentary on the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments) in Judaism.
I first heard of the Torah Bible Code on various visits to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in the early 1990s. It was talked about openly among the rabbis and Torah students who lived there. In fact, in July, 1990 I discussed the phenomenon with the Chief Rabbi of Israel, and he appeared to be quite excited and favorable toward the results that were just beginning to appear from the Israeli scientists. I can still recall the example shown to me from Deuteronomy 31:14-18, where Moses is told how Israel will go astray and that God will hide his face from them. If you begin with the letter Heh, last letter in the name of Moses in verse 14, count 50 letters, you come to Shin, another 50 letters, you come to Vav, and so forth until one finds spelled out: Hey Shin Vav, Alef, Heh—which is in Hebrew is HaShoah—the Holocaust! (see illustration). I was told at the time that this word, HaShoah, never occurs anywhere else in the Torah in such a pattern. I still have my Hebrew Bible marked with those letters I circled on that day. Shortly thereafter I was able to obtain a privately published “manual” on the Torah Codes published by the Orthodox group Arachim. In 1993 I received a letter from Prof. Paul Eidelberg from Bar-Ilan University, on behalf of his colleague Dr. Moshe Katz asking me for help in getting some of this work published in English. Prof. Katz was one of the pioneers in the computer examination of the Torah Code possibilities. Prof. Eidelberg was kind enough to mail me a copy of Prof. Katz’ s book on the Torah Codes in Hebrew, B’Otiyoteiha Nitna Torah (published 1991; subsequently in English as: Computorah: On Hidden Codes in the Torah ). Over the next few years I continued to hear about the Bible Code and the astonishing claims these Israeli mathematicians were making. Prof. Eidelberg himself published a fine summary in the Orthodox scientific journal B’Or HaTorah (“Codes in the Torah: A Discussion” No. 9, 1995), and from time to time one would see articles about the codes in the Jewish press.
The first major academic breakthrough involving such research on the Bible Codes was the 1994 publication of an article in the prestigious scholarly journal Statistical Science (Vol 9, No. 3, pp. 429-38) titled “Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis,” by Israeli mathematicians Doron Witztum, Elijahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg. In this very technical article these researchers reported on an experiment in which they claimed to have found, encoded in the book of Genesis, the names, as well as the birth and death dates, of 34 “Great Men of Israel” taken at random from a Jewish Encyclopedia. Their list included such figures as Rabbi Avraham Ibn-Ezra, Rashi, the Rambam, and so forth. In October, 1995, the popular magazine Bible Review, published a summary of these findings by researcher Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, titled “Divine Authorship? Computer Reveals Startling Word Patterns.” The response was overwhelming and gradually the subject of the Bible Codes was working its way into a wider discussion among Biblical scholars (who almost universally scoffed at the idea) and informed lay persons. Satinover addressed many of the objections and responses in a subsequent issue of Bible Review (February, 1996), but the idea was dismissed by Biblical scholars as preposterous and it never really caught on in the public mind. A rather technical mathematical discussion has continued on the Web in various Usenet groups since the publication of the Statistical Science article in 1994. I have attempted all along to follow the discussion as it has developed.
And then Michael Drosnin’s book burst on the scene and the result was like a torrential storm among specialists and non-specialists alike. There are dozens of Web sites on the Internet devoted to a discussion, pro and con, of the validity of the Bible Codes. Bible Review, perhaps as an act of repentance, published a scathingly critical article on Dosnin’s book in August, 1997 titled “The Bible Code: Cracked and Crumbling,” in which the prestigious Hebrew Bible scholar Ron Hendel and mathematician Shlomo Sternberg pointed out what they consider to be the utter foolishness, problematic nature, and outright fraud embodied in the whole idea. Australian mathematician Brendan McKay, along with Hebrew University professor Dror Bar-Nathan, are engaged in writing a detailed refutation of what they consider to be the mathematical flaws of the whole idea. Preliminary versions of their work are already available on the Internet, with replies and responses by Ripps and Witztum, and counter-responses from McKay & Bar-Nathan. These discussions become extremely abstract and technical and would surely be difficult to follow without a high level of training in the science of mathematical statistics (see http://cs.anu.edu.au/~bdm/dilugim/report1.html).
In the meantime, everyone is jumping into the act. You can purchase a copy of the Torah Bible Codes program and run it on your own personal computer. With a little knowledge of Hebrew one can search for his or her own name and any other significant data. I know of several who have done this. One friend wrote me recently to report that he had found his name, year of birth, place of birth, and the words “prophet Elijah” are all encoded together! He is trying to determine if this might be significant for his own role in the future plan of God. Others are using the codes to reveal all sorts of details about the impending apocalyptic end of the age on or around the turn of the Millennium. The Christians have also moved quickly into the arena. Popular evangelical writer Grant Jeffrey has published a best-seller titled The Signature of God, in which he shows how all sorts of information asserting Jesus as the Messiah, his atoning death on the cross, and his role as Savior and Lord, are all encoded in Hebrew Bible using this same ELS code! For example, he points out that if you begin in Genesis 1:1, take the first Yod in the first word, count forward every 521st letter, you will spell out Yeshua Yakhol, which he translates “Jesus is able.” (I have not bothered to count this one out, but assume it will work). He also finds the name of Yeshua, as one might expect, in the prophecy of Isaiah 53 regarding the Suffering Servant. Jeffrey has no mathematical training of which I am aware, but he assures his readers that the chances this name would appear randomly in this chapter are one in 50 quadrillion!! What Jeffrey fails to point out or recognize is that any name of three or four common letters can be found millions of times in various letter sequences, in any language, in a book the size of the Hebrew Torah. The word Yeshua, with its very common Hebrew letters, occurs 600,000 times at various sequences in the Torah—but so does Koresh, Mohammed, Krishna, Buddha, and so forth, including most of the simple first names of anyone reading this article. One can find Jeffrey’s book at Barnes and Noble and all the popular mass market book chains, including airports, shopping centers, and grocery stores. It is obvious that the whole Bible Code phenomenon has degenerated to the level of tea leaves and Tarot cards! The whole subject of mathematical patterns is nothing new. Over the years I have read of “astounding” claims of improbability with reference to the measurements of pyramids of Egypt, the letters in the Arabic Koran, or even the Greek New Testament (numeric patterns of all types).
In my view one of the most worthwhile discussions of the whole Torah Code phenomenon, on a more popular level, is being carried out by the leaders of Aish HaTorah, a rabbinical school in Jerusalem founded by Noah Weinberg—particularly the work of Rabbi Daniel Mechanic, senior “Codes” lecturer for the organization. Although these Orthodox Jewish scholars are convinced the Torah Code phenomenon points to the Divine Authorship of the Hebrew Torah, they have responsibly engaged one another and outside colleagues in a discussion that takes into consideration the various objections and excesses of the subject. Jeffrey Satinover, the author of the initial article in Bible Review, has published a responsible and balanced book called Cracking the Bible Code (William Morrow, 1997), that appears to be the best single source for surveying the question in a comprehensive way—neither with hyper-skepticism nor dubious predisposed belief.
In the end, the notion of the Bible Codes rests on two fundamental pillars: 1) the claim that these word patterns are statistically significant and could not be accounted for by chance; 2) the idea that there is a letter-perfect, inviolate, version of the Torah in Hebrew, without textual variants or alterations. First, we must be clear on what is meant by “codes.” Word patterns per se, distributed at various distances, will naturally occur in any text in any alphabetic language, whether the English or Hebrew Bible, the works of Tolstoy or Shakespeare, the morning newspaper, or even this article I am writing. Such “words” are accounted for purely by chance, and are not properly referred to as “codes.” Thus to find my name Tabor, or Jesus, or that of anyone reading this article, in any text, is no surprise—especially if the letters of a text are arranged on a grid, and one searches for sequences of one letter skips up to several thousand, in all directions—forwards, backwards, horizontally, and vertically. The possibilities are endless! A “code,” on the other hand, implies that an author or the Author has deliberately arranged the text with certain patterns, complex enough and unusual enough that they would not be accounted for by a random chance occurrence.
For example, Prof. McKay took the English text of Moby Dick and has shown how all sorts of “astounding” things can be found at various letter sequences—such as the assassinations of various public figures, with dates and details. In a more playful mood, Dr. McKay took an English translation of the New Testament book of Revelation and found terms such as Bill Gates, MS-DOS, virtual reality, software, and even the name Michael Drosin—all on a single page grid! Other researchers have taken a portion of the Hebrew translation of War and Peace, roughly the size of the Torah in Hebrew, fed it into a computer, and sought to determine what hidden codes might be there as well. In one short section of the book they found at least 50 words, and even phrases, related to Chanukah—including Hashmonean, temple, lights, Maccabees, sanctuary, month of Kislev, miracles, chanukah, etc. Not having any advanced mathematical training, and no experience at all in the complex world of statistical analysis, I really can offer little here from my own expertise. I will continue to read the debate between the mathematicians and follow it to the degree I can.
As for the inviolate text of the Hebrew Bible, the whole Bible Codes theory faces what I take to be a rather insurmountable problem—especially in dealing with portions of the Hebrew text larger than a section or page. Drosnin states that the Israeli research is based on the traditional Torah, as printed in the Jerusalem Bible Koren edition, which he tells us is the same in all official copies of the text worldwide. The problem is that there is no single ancient copy of the Torah that agrees letter perfectly with modern copies found in synagogues today. The traditional text reprinted in modern editions goes back only to the 16th century and represents a composite text based on various manuscripts of the Masoretic text, put together by the Rabbis. Even our two oldest copies of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex (10th century C.E.), do not agree in every word and letter. Any critical edition of the Hebrew Bible will show these many variations at the bottom of the page (see the latest edition of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, which is based on the Leningrad Codex but footnotes all the major variants from other manuscripts). There are also the many hundreds of changes that the Masoretes made in the text and have noted in the margins and their notes. Over 100 times they change the name of God from YHVH to Adonai, thousands of times they recognize that the text as written needs correction (which they do in the margins). Now with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and portions of the Torah they contain, we know the Masoretic text is just one textual tradition, and not necessarily the oldest. As often as not the Dead Sea texts agree with the Greek Septuagint (which was translated from a Hebrew version around 200 B.C.E.!), and the Hebrew text that Josephus used, against the traditional Masoretic text. This means that any wide search of the Hebrew Bible, involving thousands of letters in dozens of pages, becomes invalid if one assumes that the precise letter sequence in modern copies of the Torah has not changed over the centuries. Our manuscript evidence simply proves otherwise. On the other hand, some of the word patterns, such as the two illustrated in this article, involving letter skips of only 49 or 50 letters, in a relatively limited section of Torah, would remain valid subjects of discussion. What becomes impressive to the non-specialist is when such patterns appear to be superimposed directly within a passage in which the plain meaning of the text corresponds to the “code”—such as the “trees of Eden” mentioned earlier, or the word “holocaust” in Deuteronomy 31:16-19, a passage dealing directly with the subject of the “hiding of the face.” The mathematical debate will go on and perhaps reach definitive resolution by the scientists. My own conclusion is that the verdict is still out on the final question: has some author/s or Author/s inserted patterned messages into the text of the Hebrew Bible, or can all the patterns, so far discovered, be accounted for by statistical factors of chance.