by Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – I recently reread Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
When reading literary classics, I am often searching for a Jewish angle that I can share with my esteemed readers. In the present instance, that angle turned up about midway through the novel. The hapless hero Pierre Bezukhov was attracted to the Freemasons who injected a strong dose of spirituality into his hitherto meaningless life. One of his new Masonic companions introduced him to a fascinating exposition of a verse in the New Testament Book of Revelation [=Apocalypse]—arguably the best-known passage in that esoteric text. The cryptic verse declares: “let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.” A bit farther down it continues, “The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months.”
Bezukhov’s informant equated Revelation’s haughty blasphemer with Europe’s current evil aggressor, Napoleon Bonaparte. For that purpose, he applied the technique of numerology— assigning a numerical value to each letter of the alphabet and calculating the sums of words or phrases. And behold, Napoleon’s name added up to 666!
Well, not exactly. Napoleon’s name only totals 216. But if you insert his French title “L’Empereur,” then you will reach the desired sum. Furthermore, not only do the French words “quarante-deux” add up to 666, but Napoleon’s age in 1812 was 42 years. Indisputable proof that the Corsican’s reign would end during that year—especially if you conveniently forget that the scriptural forty-two referred to months, not years.
The next step was to employ the same technique to discover who would be Napoleon’s vanquisher. Permutations of the name of Tsar Alexander (in French) did not yield the desired result. But what about Pierre’s own name? This required a bit of tweaking, such as the use of a non-standard spelling [Besuhof instead of Bezukhov], the insertion of a national identifier [Russe] and an incorrectly elided definite article [“l’” instead of “le”]—and voila!: “L’ russe Besuhof” equalled 666. “This discovery excited him. How, or by what means, he was connected with the great event foretold in the Apocalypse he did not know, but he did not doubt that connection for a moment.”
Actually, the entire basis for 666 being the “number of the Beast” might be altogether mistaken. Although this reading was preferred by church authorities in the fourth century, some of the oldest traditions and texts attest to a reading “616,” which is reinforced by discoveries of ancient papyrus manuscripts.
The method employed by Count Bezukhov and his Masonic informants is familiar from Jewish tradition as “gematria,” a hermeneutic technique that was occasionally applied in the Talmud and Midrash to the interpretation of biblical texts. An incorrect popular perception, particularly among Christians who dabble in the occult, associates gematria with Kabbalah. It is therefore understandable that it should attract Freemasons, who cultivate an exotic mathematically based cosmology. Nevertheless, I have not found evidence of an extensive Masonic predilection for gematria.
Back in the 1990s a fashionable theory of “Bible codes” claimed that the Torah contains a statistically significant number of meaningful word patterns that emerge from letters that are equally distant from each other. Interestingly, the scholars who debunked this theory did so by eliciting similar results from a Hebrew translation of… War and Peace.
As we can learn from TV evangelists, there exists an unquenchable market for identifications of the 666 Antichrist with whatever adversary one wishes to vilify at the moment. Most historians identify Revelation’s original target as the nefarious Roman emperor Nero whose name and title, transliterated into Hebrew (albeit with a bit of orthographic creativity), can add up to 666.
An eighth-century commentator on Revelation, Beatus of Liébana, even imagined that Nero will reappear in the future to spite the Jews! “Because the Jews crucified Christ and expect Nero the Antichrist in the place of Christ—therefore God will send this one resurrected as king worthy of those worthy of him, and as a Christ such as the Jews deserve.”
Napoleon’s initial victories generated heated debates among Jewish leaders about his likely impact on religious and communal life. Proponents of liberalism and enlightenment were gratified by the emperor’s determination to demolish the ghetto walls and extend civil rights to Jews in his dominions; however many traditionalists preferred Tsarist tyranny and oppression, because they feared that Judaism could not withstand the threats of freedom, affluence and assimilation.
In Ḥasidic circles, there were teachers who justified their respective political positions from their readings of biblical texts. In classic Jewish eschatology, the redemption is preceded by a cataclysmic battle described by Ezekiel as the “war of Gog and Magog”; and some of Ḥasidism’s dominant figures were convinced that the present conflict fit that prototype. Some of them strove to hasten the messiah’s advent by praying for l’Empereur to triumph against the Tsar, even if this should demand a heavy toll of suffering and bloodshed.
Rabbi Israel Hapstein, “the Preacher of Koznitz,” expounded the biblical expression “nabbol tibbol” (“Thou wilt surely wear away”) as a pun alluding to Napoleon’s collapse: “Napol[-eon] tippol.” A similar expression occurs in Esther, when Haman is advised not to antagonize Mordecai because: “thou shalt surely fall before him.”
At any rate, by the end of Tolstoy’s novel, Pierre Bezukhov has rejected the apocalyptic outlook implicit in the Masonic exegesis: “The idea that had previously occurred to him of the cabalistic significance of his name in connection with Bonaparte’s more than once vaguely presented itself. But the idea that he, L’russe Besuhof, was destined to set a limit to the power of the Beast was as yet only one of the fancies that often passed through his mind and left no trace behind.”
If we may paraphrase Einstein, Count Bezukhov had come to realize that God does not play Scrabble with history or international politics.
Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter