I have long loved and respected the work of Art Spiegelman, author of Maus and Maus II, two graphic novels which autobiographically recount the experiences of his father Vladek through World War II and the years previous.
One thing in his account puzzled me, though – the exchange recounted in the panels below, just after Vladek arrives at Auschwitz.
I had no idea why the priest said that 17 in Hebrew was “kminyan tov,” because seventeen is “shiv’a ‘asar.” The internet didn’t help, because every reference to “k’minyan tov” led back to Spiegelman’s work. I was stumped. It turns out I just didn’t know enough about Hebrew or kabbalistic customs.
After letting the matter rest for about five years, during which interval I began a study of modern Hebrew, I returned to it with a vengeance and did some more digging.
The Polish priest was learned in the ways of gematria, or the mystical assignment of numerical values to Hebrew letters, and divining meaning from how words add up; I first became aware of gematria when I read The Chosen by Chaim Potok.
I was coming at my puzzle all wrong, assuming that minyan was referring to the quorum of ten Jewish male adults required for certain religious obligations. The word itself also means “count,” with “k’minyan” meaning “like the count of.” That expression appears to be used almost exclusively in referring to values in gematria. Look at this post in a forum:
A week or two ago, a posting on the number of brakhot in shmoneh esrei suggested, IIRC, something like that the addition of birkat ha-minim in E”Y changed the 18 to 19. It appears, however that in E”Y there were originally 17 b’rakhot, gematria tov and the addition of birkat ha-minim made it 18, k’minyan chai.
This entire sentence is far over my head in terms of understanding the context, but to have found the expression in an external source was significant. It seems then that this phrase can be read “like the count of ____”, whatever number is being referred to.
Thus the priest reads Vladek’s number (175113) and notes that the first two numbers are 17 – with “טוב” (tov, meaning “good”) being the numbers 9+ 6+ 2 (each Hebrew letter is assigned a value corresponding to its position in the alphabet). Hence “tov” has the value 17; “k’minyan tov” can be interpreted in this case as “like the count of ‘good’.) This would be seen as a good omen. Another interpretation I found indicates that 17 would indicate the 10 men necessary for a minyan, plus seven more, making it a “good minyan” or a “strong prayer group.” I can’t speak to the accuracy of this interpretation, but it’s interesting nonetheless – this was the first thing that occurred to me, and it didn’t make sense. Now it does. Sorta.
Vladek’s priest friend notices that 1+7+5+1+1+3 equal 18, and the Hebrew word for “life” (חי – chai) is composed of the numbers 10 + 8, or 18, the number referred to in the quote above, which could be read as “like the count of ‘life’.” And this was sufficient for Vladek to express the feeling that he had been given another life. Vladek escaped, and the priest was never seen again.
I don’t think I have the intellectual discipline to pursue this any farther, but my curiosity has been silenced. At least I understand the basic meaning of what Spiegelman was relating in this scene, and that will have to do.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
(For what it’s worth, “Old Wolf” in English gematria is 522, which has the same value as Truth, Birthday, Stephen, Russia, Muslim, Bill Gates, Twelve, Justice, Victor, Vincent, Rand Paul, Priest, Person, Nothing, Lotus, Hail Mary, Yahuwah, Street, Stealing, The Sun, Blessing, Elishone, Cnaan Aviv, Noahs Ark, Elohiym, Lee Vayle, Dustin, Democracy, Praises, Potato, Euro Bay, String, Taav Aaleph, Myth U, Ninety, Baptist, Crackpot, Company, Inside Job, Architect, God Of Buddha, Different, Cotton, Buddhist, The Eyes, Chin Woo, Diaper Dude, Project, Break The Ice, Manifest, Charlemagne, Helsinki, Mackenzie, Gram Of Fat, Oh My God, Gnostic, Archigonic, Samskarda, Tornado, Forecast’, Paternal, Ho Chi Minh, Natural, Black On Black, Dream Logic, Swedish, Sonnet, Mind Of God, Cortez, Paul Rand, Indeed Jobs, Shelter, My Garden, Get Hay At, Consider, King Of All, Vietnam C, All Is One, Veronica, Punish, Fulfilled, Sam Bowie, The Gilded Age, Whether, Def Leppard, Get A T Hay, Pat Crock, טרוטה Truth, Canaanites, Dependent, Lumpy, Fallout, Frighten, Happily, Sticky, Pell Mell, The Mayan, Idiocracy, Pitagora, and Got Milk. Make of that what you will.)
You solved it impressively! Are you sure you’re not a member of the tribe? 🙂
LoL. House of Ephraim here. 😉
Well done. But as I recall from my reading of The Chosen and the surrounding educational materials we used in class to explore Judaic traditions,, such numerology is also debated fiercely afterwards in a typical Hassidim gathering.
I have no doubt. Everything would be debated fiercly at a yeshiva or shul.
Can you please tell me the basic meaning of what he meant in this scene?
Sure. The number 17 stands for “good.” 13 is the age at which a Jewish boy becomes a man. And added together, the numbers total 18, which stands for “life.” These things gave Vladek hope that he would survive the camp, as he said “it put a new life in me.” And it came to pass.