Gematria? G-d forbid!
Gematria (Hebrew numerology) is a popular form of dvar Torah, used by pulpit rabbis and laymen alike. Despite its prevalence, it would be a mistake to assume that gematria is unanimously recognized as a legitimate form of Torah interpretation. Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, one of the great Rishonim (medieval commentators), repudiates gematria-based exegesis in two places in his commentary.
The verse states: “And when Abram heard that his kinsman was taken captive, he armed his initiates who had been born in his house - three hundred and eighteen - and pursued them as far as Dan” (Bereishis 14:14). Rashi explains: “Our Rabbis said: it was Eliezer alone, for 318 is the numerical value of his name.” On that note, Ibn Ezra writes: “The calculation of the letters in Eliezer’s name was only stated in the manner of drash (homily), since the Torah does not speak in gematria, for anyone who desires can use gematria to interpret any name for good and for evil.”
The second expression of Ibn Ezra’s position can be found on Shemos (1:7): “God forbid that the prophet should speak in gematria or encoded messages!”
Let us analyze Ibn Ezra’s position. His first comment is clear: gematria lends itself to arbitrary interpretations. Chochmah (wisdom) is objective. Any method which enables people to project their own interpretations onto the text, without any objective standard of correctness, is not a method of chochmah. One can come up with dozens of gematria-based interpretations for a single word without any way of determining which are true and which are false.
But why does Ibn Ezra go so far as to say “God forbid” that the Torah should speak in gematria? I believe the answer can be found elsewhere in Ibn Ezra’s commentary.
One of the classic problems in the Chumash is the variant wording in the two accounts of the Ten Commandments: Hashem’s presentation in Parshas Yisro and Moshe’s reiteration in Vaeschanan. The commentators struggle to reconcile these differences.
Ibn Ezra has a simple answer: “Know that words are like bodies and ideas are like souls, and the body to the soul is like a vessel. Therefore, the guiding principle of all chachamim (wise individuals) in any language is to preserve the ideas without regard to a change of words, provided that their meanings are the same” (Ibn Ezra on Shemos 20:1). When Moshe reiterated the Ten Commandments, he wasn’t concerned with preserving Hashem’s exact wording. Rather, his sole concern was conveying the ideas - ideas which could be conveyed in different words.
A clear principle emerges from Ibn Ezra’s comments: chachamim preoccupy themselves with the ideas behind the words (the souls), not with the words per se (the bodies). Gematria, on the other hand, endows the very letters of the words with an inordinate degree of significance, and makes them the essence. As such, reasons Ibn Ezra, gematria cannot be a legitimate method of interpreting the Word of God. If Moshe Rabbeinu himself did not treat the letters as sacrosanct, then neither should we in our interpretive methods.
[It is a fundamental principle of Judaism that every word and every letter in the Torah was given to Moshe Rabbeinu at Sinai. The Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the variant wording of the Ten Commandments does not contradict this.]
Is gematria ever appropriate? Yes. Ibn Ezra’s point is that what appears to be a derivation of an idea through gematria should not be construed as such. The idea came first, whether it is a peirush (interpretation) of the verse or a drash (homily) which was merely attached to the verse. Gematria was only employed by the Sages to present the idea.
Taken from: http://kankanchadash.blogspot.com