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    Doubled figures

    numberA well-known rabbinic statement says there are 600,000 letters in the Sefer Torah, analogous to the 600,000 Israelite males (to be pedantic, 603,550) who left Egypt – i.e. there is one letter for every Israelite.

    The idea is really beautiful. It derives from the Zohar, but actually the arithmetic is faulty and there are not 600,000 but just over 300,000 letters in the Torah. One of the explanations is that there are not precisely 600,000 letters but there are that number of spaces for letters, provided we understand “letters” as small consonants like yod and vav, not big ones like shin and aleph which take up more room.

    This view, while it might still contain a mathematical problem, has two lessons for us to learn. One involves the Mishnaic teaching, “Every Jew has a place in the World to Come” (used at the beginning of every chapter of Pir’kei Avot), which implies that we all have a reserved place but in the end some possibly do not live wisely enough to occupy that seat. In that sense we could say that there are 600,000 places reserved for the Jewish people, but maybe some, perhaps as many as nearly half, will jeopardise their potential place.

    Another possibility is that every Jew has two souls (2 x 300,000 souls = 600,000) – the regular soul with which we were endowed at birth, and the neshamah yeterah – the “additional soul” conferred upon us by the observance of Shabbat.

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