Why Jews are Good at Math

Jewish children learn early on about numbers and their properties

It’s commonly accepted that Jews do well in math and science because there’s such a strong emphasis on learning within their tradition, as well as amongst Jewish families in general. But can good study habits and parental prompting account for the incredibly disproportionate share of awards (Nobel and others) that have been garnered by Jewish mathematicians and scientists?

Why would a people making up such a small percentage (~0.25%) of the global population earn 25% (or more) of the world’s top prizes in economics, physics, mathematics and medicine?

To delve a little deeper into why this might be, we will explore how the structure of the religion may play a crucial role in embedding complex social, mathematical and dimensional associations into the Jewish psyche in very subtle ways.

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Modes of mathematical unity in progressive dimensions
(as embodied in the Hebrew teachings)

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First Dimension (numbers)
Ten as One: Accounting 101

The Hebraic numeral system is one of the oldest decimal systems in existence. The letters of the aleph-bet (aleph through yod shown below) have number values according to their placement in the alphabet.

The number ten, yod, is the next logical step in the evolution of unity from the number one, aleph, just as in the modern decimal model. (In a way, yod is a more ‘concentrated’ form of ‘singularity’ than aleph, because aleph also reflects the fundamental duality present in the creation; the division of light from darkness; the division of ‘waters above’ from ‘waters below’. This is visually expressed in how an aleph is drawn. Below, right.)

Great emphasis is placed on the number ten in Jewish lore and practice: Ten are the primary commandments. Ten are the Lost Tribes. One-tenth is for tithing. Ten were the plagues of Egypt. Ten are the Days of Repentance. Ten is the quorum of group prayer. Ten are the Sephirot of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Ten were the generations between Adam and Noah. Ten were the generations between Noah and Abraham.

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Second Dimension (shapes)
Seven as One: A cyclical view of time and space

The most basic 2-dimensional shape is the circle; all points along its perimeter are equidistant from its centre. It takes seven circles (one in the centre and six around it) to achieve the next most efficient (and unified) use of 2D space using multiples of the same-sized circles. (This applies not only to flat [2D] shapes but also to extruded [3D] forms thereof.)

This lesson can be demonstrated at home with cookies of the same variety or equal-sized coins; echoes of it are to be found everywhere in nature, from honeycombs (extrusions) to snowflakes (polarised ions that attract and consolidate water vapours along flat, crystalline planes) to the most common carbon-ring molecules, like benzene or hexane.

The “seven as one” progression engenders the familiar six-pointed star (Star of David or Seal of Solomon) and represents the seven days of the week as individual cycles of equal length (circumference), six of which are equally anchored to the seventh day (Shabbat), the Holy Day.

The seventh is G-d’s day of rest. Seven are the days of the purification cycle. In the seventh year, a field should be left fallow. A debt should be forgiven after seven years. A Jubilee year follows seven times seven years. The Counting of the Omer is seven times seven days. Seven are the days of mourning (Shiva). Seven are the aliyahs. Seven are the windings of marriage. Seven are the wedding benedictions. Seven are the Shepherds; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. Seven are the branches of the Menorah in the Tabernacle. Seven-fold would be G-d’s vengeance for the murder of Cain. Lemech lived for 777 years. The Israelites circled Jericho for seven days, after which, its walls came tumbling down.

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Third Dimension (forms)
Thirteen as One – The unseen aspects of unity

Moving from circles to spheres (2D to 3D), we find that it takes twelve equal-size spheres to enclose (hide) a central sphere of the same size. Each sphere perfectly touches its five neighbours as well as the centre sphere.

Each sphere can symbolise a year in the life of a male child, culminating in the age of Bar Mitzvah (son of the commandments), at thirteen. The kind of man he will be, however, is still for him to determine through his own future decisions. Female children are honoured upon reaching the age of twelve (Bat Mitzvah), signifying their nature as vessels intended to bear the “hidden” unity of a nascent individual.

Thirteen are the tribes; Joseph was split into two tribes, Ephraim and Menashe, whereupon the Levites became the (esoteric) thirteenth tribe. Thirteen are the Articles of Faith as described by Maimonides. Thirteen are the merciful attributes of G-d set down in the Torah. Thirteen are the nodes of Metatron’s Cube in Kabbalah. Adar II is the 13th (semi-hidden, intercalary) month of the year.

Thirteen is at the crux of the Newton-Gregory Problem (year: 1694), defined during an argument between David Gregory and Isaac Newton. Linear calculations and harmonic analysis show that the number of equal-sized spheres touching a common sphere cannot exceed thirteen, but in using this calculation method, thirteen is likewise shown to be impossible — unless, of course, the centre sphere is recognised to be touching itself (i.e. being self-relative as well as relative to the greater whole).

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The Most Primary Number (The Ultimate One)
One as One as One

This is not the same as aleph’s “#1”, but is The One that cannot and should not be named.

Each of the foregoing modes of unity were derived by projecting “multiples of one” into the most fitting analogs of “oneness” at each basic level of dimensional reality. G-d, meanwhile, is ever One. Ever was and ever will be. There are no multiples.

This primary tenet of monotheistic unity in Judaism is boldly embodied in one of the chief prayers of the religion; the Shèma (which means “to hear”).

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is G-d; The Lord is One.

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Obviously, a person doesn’t have to be Jewish in order to be smart, but it apparently does help. How much of that effect is due to the influence of community and genetics; the way in which mathematics is woven into the religious culture and narrative; the acquisition of the ability to read and write in either lateral direction — is probably unknowable.
It should, of course, also be stated that none of the preceding is intended to strip credit from persistent and devoted Jewish mothers everywhere for the achievements of their sons and daughters. This has simply been an exercise in reminding us Where Else credit is always rightly due.
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3 Comments

Filed under Esoterics, Reason

3 responses to “Why Jews are Good at Math

  1. Ken Hood

    One engineer’s defijnition of an airplane is a set of component parts flying in formation; by that same logic, airplanes fly because they don’t have time to fall. Perhaps Jewish thinkers, by virtue of not investing in the false permanence of intellectual idol worship, have left the open space necessary for the Way that is not yet finished.
    G_d is not done with us!

  2. This is brilliant, thank you! 🙂

  3. Pingback: The Tetragrammaton «

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