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2000_40_1---Number-forty_web

Since I am not much of a mathematician, I don’t generally write about numbers. I am afraid that if I do so, there will be a loud band and a flash and one of my disgruntled arithmetic teachers from secondary school will appear with a red pen to berate me (also numbers sort of squirm around like little spiders on the page in a deeply unsettling way). Nevertheless, today, for entirely obscure reasons, I thought I might dedicate a post to the natural number forty (40), a number which seemingly has great spiritual significance within the three Abrahamic faiths.

"No, we are not stopping for directions!"

“No, we are not stopping for directions!”

In the Old Testament forty crops up again and again. The flood which rained out the sinful people off the world (which Noah escaped via zoological ark) lasted forty days and forty nights. Not only did Moses and the Hebrew people live in the Sinai desert for forty years, but most famous Israelite kings also had forty year reigns (examples include Eli (1 Samuel 4:18), Saul (Acts 13:21), David (2 Samuel 5:4), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:42)). The giant Goliath challenged the Israelites two times a day for forty days before they finally found a champion to defeat him.

The principal figures o Christianity with 40 holy virgins

The principal figures o Christianity with 40 holy virgins

Christ was a Jew and Christianity kept up the fascination with forty. Jesus fasted for forty days and night in the desert before he was tempted by the devil. When he returned from death, he lingered for forty days in the world before ascending bodily to heaven and the great beyond. Lent lasts for forty days before Easter.

40daily

Islam has even more references to forty (although unfortunately I am not nearly as familiar with Muslim traditions or theology). Mohammed was forty years old when he received his divine revelations. The evil false prophet Al-Masih ad-Dajjal roams (or will roam) the world for 40 day (40 year?) increments. The mourning period for devout Moslems is forty days. Perhaps most famously, righteous men will be rewarded in the afterlie with forty houri—beautiful black-eyed virgins who cater to every whim: although this tradition is riddled with textual difficulties—the number may be seventy-two instead of forty and houri may actually be a mistranslation or raisins. These are important distinctions and it would be good to sort them out, but, sadly, faith does not easily trade in ironclad certainties…

Seriously? Forty raisins?

Seriously? Forty raisins?

So what is behind this obsession with forty? Is there some divine numerological secret which underlies the three great Monotheistic religions? Do the Pentateuch, the Bible, and the Koran all hint at profound number magic which would put endless power in our hands? Well, actually, scholars suggest that forty was such a large number that it just meant “a whole bunch” to the original authors Genesis. Additionally a forty year period was reckoned to be the Subsequent religious writers seemingly used the number to lend ancient gravitas to their own texts. Of course numbers sometimes confuse me (as does monotheism), so maybe I am missing something here. I anyone has a better idea, I am all ears.

flgdecl1000004758_-00_isreal-flag-decalHey! It’s the flag of Irsael: a blue Star of David on a white background between two blue stripes.  What’s the story with all of that blue anyway?  Well, like most stories involving Judaism, the story goes back a long, long way to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, where the high priests wore a robe dyed a deep midnight blue.  In fact, this color, known as tekhelet, was a sacred color which appeared in temple hangings and in the twined fringes known as tzitzit which hang from the corners of Jewish prayer shawls.

A High Priest with Tekhelet Robe

A High Priest with Tekhelet Robe

The Tanahk (the sacred books of Judaism) are pretty specific about tekhelet.  It is mentioned nearly 50 times and it is specifically and explicitly stated that the special blue dye must be made from a shellfish called chilazon (rather than from the less expensive indigo).   And so it was for many lives of men.  Unfortunately everything went wrong in the first and second centuries AD when the Roman Empire destroyed the temple, defeated a Jewish revolt and exiled Jews from Jerusalem.  During this period of chaos and diaspora, the fine nuances of dyes were not of tantamount importance, and the way to make tekhelet were lost as was knowledge of exactly what sort of mollusk a chilazon actually is.

Oh, also, during travel, the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be covered in a cloth of tekhelet

Oh, also, during travel, the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be covered in a cloth of tekhelet

The Talmud demands that tekhelet be used for crafting the fringes of prayer shawls and it stipulates that counterfeit dyes must not be (knowingly) used.  This has left devout Jews with a conundrum as to how to proceed.  Since the Roman exile, Orthodox Jews have most commonly setteld plain white tzitzit, however there have also been several attempts to rediscover the mysterious chilazon and recreate tekhelet.   In the late nineteenth century the Grand Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner researched the subject and proclaimed that the common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, was the missing mollusk.  The dye he created, however, did not seem to fit Talmudic descriptions and chemists later determined it was simply Prussian blue (although the holy man proudly wore his blue fringes, as did many of his followers).

Common cuttlefish - Sepia officinalis (photo by David Nicholson)

Common cuttlefish – Sepia officinalis (photo by David Nicholson)

Hexaplex trunculus

Hexaplex trunculus

Another Talmudic scholar cross referenced his ancient religious text with modern malacology texts and concluded that the chilazon was actually Hexaplex trunculus, a murex snail which is a close relative of  Murex brandaris (the source of Tyrian purple).   The dye which he created from the secretions of Hexaplex trunculus was also purple and thus did not seem to fit the bill.  Only with the help of a chemist in the 1980s was it determined that the proper blue color could be obtained by exposing a solution of the snail slime dye to sunlight.  So if you are an orthodox Jew (or a high priest of the Temple) you might want to look into getting some tekhelet clothing.

Actual Tekhelet dyed wool (probably...)

Actual Tekhelet dyed wool (probably…)

 

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