New York Times

I had the pleasure of contributing comments to an article about mysticism by Jennifer 8. Lee of the New York Times.

SEPTEMBER 4, 2009, 3:57 PM
09/09/09: An Auspicious Start to School?

By JENNIFER 8. LEE
Sept. 9, 2009 — or 09/09/09 — will be a significant day for baby boomers (the digitally remastered Beatles collection is being released) and for gadgetphiles (Apple may introduce new products).

But it will also be significant for New York City children. It is the first day of school.

Given the diversity of cultures in New York City, we wanted to know whether this means anything. After all, given how 9/9/99 was widely heralded, perhaps we could expect a repeat a decade later.

City Room first thought of reaching out to rabbis, given that many are familiar with gematria, the Hebrew numerological art of finding meaning by spinning numbers and words. Eighteen is lucky, because the letters in chai (חי) — the word for “living” — are composed of letters that add up to 18.

Since 18 is 9 plus 9, what would another 9 add? Would it be 50 percent more luck? Or does the extra 9 mess everything up?

But the purists among our first round of rabbis would not even look at the Gregorian calendar. (”The English calendar is basically random from a Jewish perspective,” one said, somewhat dismissively.)

Alas. But we found one willing to humor City Room. Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT, noted in an e-mail message that if you add up the three 9’s, you get 27. Similarly, that corresponds with the numeric value for the Hebrew letters in chida (חידה), the word for “riddle”: het, yud, dalet, hey.

Asked to expound on what “riddle” might mean in a school year context, Rabbi Brenner wrote:

Jewish education is based on the critical inquiry that happens between teachers and student, and riddles — which ask us to challenge how we define our world — are one of the fun ways that teachers engage students in learning. On the first day of school, I would hope that teachers not only set out the classroom rules, but set forth the “riddles” that they will explore with their students over the year.

Then we turned to the Chinese, another group that embraces numbers. We called Justin Yu, president of theChinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, for his take. The word for the number nine, jiu (九), sounds like the word for longevity in Chinese, jiu (久). He added, in Chinese, “Ninety-nine means forever, so 999 is even better.”

When asked about what that meant for students, he said:

The Chinese say that on Sept. 9, you can go very, very high. Sept. 9 is a day that people go up climbing mountains. For students, going back to school by Sept. 9 means that their score will be very high, and whatever they achieve will be much higher.

Are there other cultures that find meaning in 09/09/09 as the beginning of the school year?

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