By Michael E. Abrams
What's in a number?
Numbers are clues in the mystic world of Kabbalah, the medieval
writings that have become a focus of attention today in a revival of
things of the spirit and soul.
In Kabbalah the mysterious spectacle of the universe is explained and
made whole. Secrets are made free.
white light is spilled upon the
relationship between the creator and the
creation, the physical and the spiritual, male and female, soul and
flesh, understanding and wisdom, judgment and mercy.
||See also conjectures of the relationship
between Secret Jews of Spain and Mexico and the passion flower at my
page on the history of the
Conversos and the discovery of the flower.
spins and weaves the
the Hebrew alphabet in mystical ways that relate words and ideas to
each other and to the fervant religious imagination.
Reinterpreted from the Hebrew and Aramaic writings, many of
them obscure and recondite, Kabbalah, it is argued, goes back to
concepts formulated in the first century by Rabbi and sage Shimon Bar
Yokhai, a mystic and disciple of Rabbi Akiva, martyred by the Romans.
Bar Yokhai hid in a
cave for 13 years until it was safe to return to Jerusalem, where he
taught his followers the secrets of mysticism.
But these legendary teachings were largely untapped until the
13th Century,when there appeared a book of writings called the Zohar or Book of Radiance. Some
attribute this book to one Moses de Leon.
Uneven and some would say of dubious authenticity,
the Zohar nonetheless regales readers with tales of rabbis and the
story of a light-filled universe
exploding into 10 dimensions, and of the possibility of great spiritual
Popular centuries ago, a few of its concepts are used in prayer books
Pop Culture of Kabbalah
In truth, kabbalah was neglected by most, save a few rabbis and
scholars, and a novelist now
and then. Kaballah had fallen into disuse, like once-treasured but now
forgotten jewelry in a chest in the attic.
But someone spilled the contents, and found that it contained a message
fragmented society. Once light hit the rubies, the refracted beams
seemed a cure-all for modern ills.
pop-culture of Kabbalah, and the hundreds of books hot off the
press belie the stiff undergirding of serious study
required even before one begins Kabbalah.
stars and pop sensations Madonna and Brittany Spears claim that
revitalized their lives. Add to that list celebs Demi Moore and Paris
Hilton. Madonna, 'the material girl,' is on tour, where she sings and
the symbolic red string on her wrist to ward off the evil eye. Good seats sell
from $1,000 to $6,000 each.
The age of 40 must be
attained, say the rabbis, before one has the maturity and learning to
into the hidden mysteries of the cosmos with proper restraint.
usufructs of Kabbalah, divorced from its religious context, may be
sparse and even misguided.
For what it's worth, Madonna, a Leo with Virgo rising, reached
the venerable age of 50 on Aug. 16, 2008.
Undeniably, the pathways that
concepts, words and numbers can inspire,
inform, and sometimes transform.
The ancient and challenging numerological study, Gematria. is closely
related to Kabbalah and its prescription for illumination.
every word, there is a number, and for every number, there are,
indeed, many words.
And so this article reaches tangentially into the cookie box, but
merely touches upon some concepts
which truly require more time.
The nature of religious learning
should not stop one from delving into concepts, we think.
The Pope Viewed The Flower
Discovered by the
conquistadores, the passion flower was first described by Spanish
explorer Cieza de Leon.
That happened in 1553, in Colombia, write Emil E. Kugler and
Leslie A. King in "A Brief History of the Passionflower" in the book Passiflora - Passionflowers of the World
by Ulmer and MacDougal (2004, Timber Press).
Spanish physician Nicolas Monardes, in the late 1500s, listed the
his famous book on plants and herbal remedies, write Kugler and
Spanish Jesuits handed a curious Pope Paul V some dried plants
and a color
drawing in 1608, write historians.
One early popularizer was
the ecclesiastic historian and cleric Jacomo (or Giacomo) Bosio writing
in Italian in 1609.
The Spanish friars named it, said Bosio, "La Flor de Las cinco
Llagas," the flower with the 5 wounds, for five red spots adorned on
the species he described.
Reports of this “stupendously marvelous” new world flower which told
the story of Christ's crucifixion, were disbelieved by a skeptic church
until plain evidence was carried to Rome,
writes John Vanderplank in his profusely illustrated book Passion Flowers (MIT
Represents the Crucifixion
The ten petals and sepals, to the
represented ten disciples
at the crucifixion. The three stigma represented three nails on the
cross, the five anthers the five wounds of Christ.
The many fringes
represented the crown of thorns in the passion story.
Bosio counted 72 fringes or filaments, which according to tradition,
writes Vanderplank, is the number of thorns in the crown of thorns.
A poet of the time explains that this
flower was used to
persuade Indians of the power of the cross. The passion flower, he
writes, was a witness at the
But the powers of Hell, in shame, carried the flower away
This usurpation was to no avail, as the Indians "whose faith
is similar to ours" were now empowered to read of "God's tortures
in that holy
This lovely fruit was cultivated by native Americans.
It was reported in North America in 1608 by
Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) in his diary as the "maracock -
a wild fruit like a lemmon." In Florida, the Apalachee Indians left
The maypop was among the wild fruits eaten by native Americans at
the San Luis Mission (near present-day Tallahassee, Florida) and
at prehistoric Indian sites.
Archaeologists discovered maypop seeds at the Mission San Luis de
Apalachee site (1656-1704) in
The native Apalachee plant diet included maize, brean, squash,
sunflower, persimmon, grape, maypop, saw palmetto, cabbage palm, plums,
blackberries, hickory nuts, acorns, chinquapin and beech.
brought and planted the old world crops of wheat, garbanzo,
peach, watermelon and fig.
At Lake Jackson in Tallahasee, Florida, the maypop or fruit of the Passiflora incarnata grows
prolifically. The lake is the site of Indian mounds dated 1000-1500
A.D. (See essay Plant
Production in Apalachee Province by C. Margaret Scarry in The Spanish Missions of La Florida,
University of Presses of Florida, 1993, edited by Bonnie McEwen).
The incarnata so enamored
Europeans that it was planted in Paris by 1612 and in Rome
by 1619, write Kugler and King. Herbalists, perhaps learning first from
Aztec or Mayan lore, noted a tranquilizing, sedative effect of the
To this day, parts of the plant are used in soothing teas
other herbal remedies.
Locked into History
A more ecumenical name change for the
family Passifloraceae, a name
appended for historical reasons by the Swedish botanical genius
Carolus Linnaeus, is not in the offing.
Given the nature of the science of taxonomy, such changes seldom, if
Freighted with a Latinate gloss of centuries of botanical
enterprise and some intrigue, it was set in order by the Swedish
"father of taxonomy" in the mid
Linnaeus, a pious man who learned botany in his medical
education, held a strong belief in natural theology.
Proof of the
existence of a divine being was evident in nature's construction, a
theme that motivated the learned botanists of his time.
Rectifications in nomenclature that are made in today's world are made
slowly and deliberately. So much plant description simply seems locked
The general public has no more sayso in this honorific
Latinization than the insects, spiders and bats who familiarly
pollinate the plants.
Scholars must present scientific botanical
evidence of new discovery, or indisputable historical findings
International Botanical Congress of the International Association for
Plant Taxonomy, headquartered at the University of Vienna.
And we are not even whispering that the name
passion flower should be
altered -- for it means so much to too many people.
But we would like
to engage in some speculation about the naming of flowers, and how what
we come to know about them is so closely attached to how they are
Continued at top right
on picture to enlarge
this beautiful print of an unnamed passionflower
is found in The Romance of Nature or
the Poetical Language of Flowers, by Thomas Miller, first
published in London in 1847. It is probably the hybrid Passiflora x
was first raised in Colvill's Nursery in London in 1827 (see a
similar flower in Vanderplank, p.
71). The yellow wallflower stands for "fidelity," the white violet
"candor" and the woodbine or honey suckle at the top right "affection."
Thanks to Gerald
Grow of Tallahassee who found this page in a book passed down
through his family.
Photos copyright M. Abrams
Passiflora species are now grown around
The Kabbalah Flower,
or the Flower of the Zohar
History suggests that what we call
our plants and animals follow
the first names bestowed upon them by explorers, although surely the
natives possessed their own words.
Some speculate that the word
new world bird "turkey" first came from the lips of Luis de Torres
was escaping the Spanish inquisition and who sailed with
Columbus. The word is from the Hebrew word "tukki" which describes a
bird in the Bible.
What if the passion flower had been first described by a Spaniard
with the Kabbalah? Many exiles fled from Spain. The
inquisition began just as Columbus sailed. It could have happened. We
may have some entirely different aspects, for it is a
flower most representative of a kabbalistic
Meadow of Passion
North Florida, decked out handsomely to attract the bees and
butterflies, is as showy as most of the 500 or more
species. It is known as the maypop or apricot vine with sweet fleshy
seeds like a pomegranate
With a signature five green sepals and five
diaphanous white petals, it boasts three lemon-yellow female
greenish male anthers and a corona of more than a hundred purple
|One of our recent
forays took us into a meadow of purple
passion flowers, and so this essay.
As we picked our summer path through a hip-high meadow of old briars,
we also wandered through fresh geen vines in abundance. On the vines
bold purple flowers.
The lemon-size fruit dangling from the vines is
yet green, but it will ripen to yellow in a few weeks. In some
countries, the fruit of this vine is so large and full of sweet juice
is of great
bursts from each seed
of the fruit of the species incarnata.
The purple grenadilla fruit is cultivated all over the
world. It is a thriving industry in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii,
as well as its native South America, and flourishes from Jamaica to
Israel to India.
Explorer and environmentalist John Muir, wrote of the passion flower as
having "the most delicious fruit I have ever eaten." The sweet flesh
surrounding the seeds is strained off to create the juice.
Flowers and special plants loom in
passages of Torah and we especially
to browse Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s purple Chumash -- the Five Books of
Moses in Hebrew -- with its botanical
footnotes and drawings of plants.
The writings, legends and oral traditions give us much more than Torah,
which is sparse with description. It is said
Mount Sinai bloomed as Moses was given the Torah, and so homes are full
of flowers on the holiday of Shavuoth occurring in the summer.
Threads Reflect Passages of
night guard the wildflowers
and cause them to
flourish, each plant having a special star, writes Gershom Scholem in
his Zohar-The Book of Splendor-
Basic Readings from the Kabbalah.
Kabbalists see the unity of the world as a
which all natural phenomenon
belong to "ayn sof" -- the beginning of all things -- a universe
Thus begins Jewish mysticism. The petals of these
flowers do have a place in
that world and in the world of Gematria.
The serene ultimate intensity of prayer and oneness is matched by what
I feel wandering through the forests, meadows and bogs with my camera.
It is a
feeling that goes beyond and stays within. It is something that I try
to portray in words, and on film of fleeting seconds of the lives of
Torah, the original Five Books
of Moses, has
references to flowers.
Legend says Mount
Sinai, in the
midst of the desert, was covered with flowers as the Torah was given.
The passion flowers of almost all
species, whose petals range from
spicy cinnabar to raspberry pink to autumn yellow to the purest vanilla
white, clothe themselves with a circle of delicate and fashionable
These flowers reflect the passages within the Shema,
one of the most important prayers in the entire Jewish liturgy.
are the essential bargains between man and G-d, where the
relationship is outlined. "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord
And it is in this essential prayer that Moses was
called to tell the Children of Israel to make for themselves Tzitzit
(fringes) putting a thread of blue upon the corner fringe.
Because the source of the dye for blue has been lost in history, the
modern-day Tzitit and the larger prayer shawl, the Tallis, do not have
blue threads. Many a Tallis, however, is colored with stripes and
shades of blue.
The fringes of the tzitzit and the verse in the Hebrew prayer book
where the Jewish people are commanded to wear the garments "throughout
their generations" Verses of the Shema are from Deuteronomy
6:4–9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37–41
fringed Tallis is worn by all religiously observant Jewish men in
morning prayer. While in conservative and reform congregations, women
sometimes wear a Tallis, in Orthodox congregations, usually only the
married men wear them.
These garments are more than symbolic regalia
- they are essential reminders of the special obligation keep one's
on prayer. Some think they are a protection from evil. Touching the hem
of such a garment is also thought to have healing power.
The fringes may also speak of the explosion of light, a kind of big
bang, that is the source of the universe in Kabbalah.
One who gazes upon the passion flower to admire its dress of delicate
filaments may be mindful of
these beautiful threads of prayer. Such a beautiful flower attracted
the Spanish, who quickly
imagined its possibilities. When they gazed upon the passion flower,
they were transfixed by another religious message.
Passion Flower Under the Glass
We put six of our magnificent
specimens into to a vase of cool water
and moved one under the lens of a magnifying glass. And we began to
Yes, there were the three stigma, the five anthers, five
petals and five sepals.
The number of these basic elements are the same among the passion
flowers of almost all species.
Letters, Numbers Speak of Wisdom
From the viewpoint of a Gematriast,
every letter and every number has a spiritual meaning. The number
'three' for the stigma, may very well
of Hashem (the Most Holy) in the Torah.
three may also represent "wisdom, understanding and
knowledge," the nature
of which have garnered such deep religious interpretation that they
might require a lifetime to plumb.
This letter represents the
unity of G-d and Nature,
according to the Kabbalists.
And the ten petals represent the Tree of
Life of the Kabbalah consisting of the ten
brilliant lights of the "sephiroth" which are the parts of G-d, and 22
pathways between them.
These spritual understandings are so essential to religious
belief that they are reflected in the name one of the most successful
rebirthing movements in the world today, Chabad. The name is the
of the three Hebrew words: wisdom (chachma), understanding (binah) and
The three sectioned stigma is, of course,
female, in that the female role is
"binah" - "understanding"
wisdom and knowledge would be feckless and vain.
The five anthers may represent the letter "hay" in Hebrew, the second
of Hashem’s name (the name of the Most Holy).
Every Torah begins wth the first
word of Genesis and
letters. If one of
letters is blemished, if two
letters happen to touch, or
if there is a
rip or a tear, then the Torah
must be repaired.
The sephiroth are the basis of the Zohar,
that mystical and homiletic book attributed to Moses de Leon.
Fringes Open a World
On this special passion flower, I
counted 111 purple and white
These delicate threads or corona filaments bring everything into focus,
as in a
letters Aleph, Vav,
Hay represent the number "111." In Gematria, the number 111
has three parts.
The number "one" relates to the divine world and the "ten" to a
The "hundreds" signify the physical world. Thus we have unity of all
And in Psalm 111 we read:
I will give
thanks to the LORD with my whole
heart, in the
company of the
upright, in the
are the works of the LORD,
by all who
delight in them.
majesty is his work,
But, in true testiment to diversity in nature, each flower may have its
own personality by number of
fringes, and its own interpretation.
Now, we hasten to say, every flower will not have
the same number of fringes, as, for instance, daisies of the same
species certainly differ in the
number of petals or the old game, 'she loves me, she loves me not'
would be rigged.
In the year 1609, the churchman Bosio counted 72 on his species of
passion flower. These actually
coincide with "the 72 names of G-d" and a book by that name by
Kabbalist Rabbi Yahuda Berg, a popularizer of Kabbalah whose clients
include Madonna. He likens these names to energy fields or mantras or
current that flows through life's realities and can solve life's
If one were to study the history of
the religious significance of
plants and flowers, one
would see that the Bible has many references. In daily life,
the synagogues are often filled with flowers in times of celebration,
and hardly an embroidered mantle or silver adornment is without them.
stunning fringed yellow Torah mantle from the year
1750, in a Czechoslovak state collection, is stitched with paranormal,
illusionistic orange and yellow flowers that, to this writer,
resemble passion flowers. (The
Precious Legacy, 1983, David Altshuler editor, Summit Books. p.
The fashion of the day was to improvise on Dutch still-life
paintings of flowers, say the authors.
It is said that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught that each Hebrew
letter is like a flower of the field “and from these letters one forms
bouquets.” Each word is filled with its own resonance. One may
elevate one's soul to the divine presence, write the Kabbalists.
Flowers need not represent one religion or another, nor should they,
but the many interpretations available should allow us to see that they
can communicate symbolically to all of us.
And so we may venture into the fields of flowers knowing that what we
see is not only scientific -- but can be
related to a larger spiritual world -- and that our journey may be
enhanced by the joy of observing manifold creation and the
oneness of all.
We have added a list
of recommended readings below.
Tallahassee, Florida USA