In this study I would like to examine the symbolism, significance, and meaning of the number three (3).

 

The number three is used in the Torah to mediate between two opposing or contradictory values. The third value mediates, reconciles, and connects the two. Three is the number of truth.

 

Time is divided into three portions: The past, the present, and the future. The position in time that is most expressive of the non-physical is the present, because it is so fleeting and instantaneous. The function of that time, the present, is its service as connector. The number three expresses connection.

 

According to Jewish law, once something is done three times it is considered a permanent thing. This is called a “chazakah[1]“. Once we have done something three times, we have connected to it and connected it to this world.

 

The number three represents permanence. That’s why we do things in threes, since it adds strength to our acts. For example: The Amida is repeated three times. There are three people standing when a sefer Torah is read. The minimum number of verses read a a single reader is three. The minimum number of readers is three,

 

In The Hebrew Alefbet

 

This mediating or connecting aspect can be readily seen in the numerical value of the Hebrew letters when divided into groups of three:


ן-700

ת-400

ק-100

ע-70

מ-40

י-10

ז-7

ד-4

א-1

ף-800

ך-500

ר-200

פ-80

נ-50

כ-20

ח-8

ה-5

ב-2

ץ-900

ם-600

ש-300

צ-90

ס-60

ל-30

ט-9

ו-6

ג-3

 

From the above chart we can see that the average of the values of א and ג is ב. Thus we can see that the third mediates between the two. This same pattern holds true for the entire alefbet, as can be seen from the above chart.

 

The number three connects the dichotomy of two and shows a common purpose. Two lines may go in different directions; the third line unites them into a single triangle. Two bricks lying side by side share no common goal; the third brick placed on top of them, unifies them in a common effort.

 

The Maharal tells us to imagine a link chain. When you hold it up, the first link touches the second one. The second one touches both the first link and the third one. The third one touches the second one and not the first. Thus the third link is the first in the series that doesn’t have any connection to the first link. The number three thus symbolizes something new, but not disconnected.

 

The Maharal[2] also says that three connotes a complete unit, by embracing an item, its opposite, and the middle ground between those two. To illustrate, three parts make a complete form by joining the end with the beginning.[3]

 

The number three has a unifying element, and can represent a unity. This is why the thirteenth rule of Ishmael is used as a hermaneutic principle to understand Torah: Two verses that seem to contradict one another until a third verse reconciles them.

 

Sivan’s Mazzallot (Constellation)

 

Nefesh

Ruach

Neshama

Chessed

Avodah

Torah

physical

emotions

intellect

Avraham

Yitzchak

Yaakov

Pesach

Shavuot

Succoth

 

Each month has a constellation of stars that expresses its deeper message. The constellation of Sivan, the third month, is twins. Quite appropriately.

 

Twins are two separate people, who by their unique nature as twins, share a unity larger than themselves.

 

That is the exact message of the metaphysical side of three: finding a common theme in the dichotomy of two.

 

The Maharal indicates that three is significant in the written and the oral law, as the human condition is seen as tripartite:

 

  1. Mans relationship to himself and the world of his mind,
  2. Mans relationship to others in the “real world” and
  3. Mans relationship with HaShem.

 

According to the Maharal, this is the meaning of the three pillars in Avot 1:2, The world stands on three things:

 

  1. Torah,
  2. Avodah (Service of God), and
  3. Acts of Kindness.

  

Y Y Y

 

 

 

 

 

Dayah

Nefesh

Pshat

Torah

Binah

Ruach

Remez

Mishna

Haskil

Neshama

Drash

Talmud

 

 

Many Threes

 

The Zohar points out that the Torah was given in the third month of the Biblical year, to a threefold people (Priests, Levites, Israelites), through the thirdborn - Moses, who was the third child in his family (after Miriam and Aharon).

 

Y Y Y

 

We have the three Patriarchs: Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaaqov.

 

Y Y Y

 

The three mitzvot of the seder (the lamb, matzah, and maror).

 

Y Y Y

 

The Torah lists three animals that chew their cud but are unkosher because they do not have split hooves:

 

  1. The camel, it says in the present tense, “its hoof is not split.”
  2. The hyrax, it says in the future tense, “it will not split its hoof.”
  3. The hare, it writes in the past tense, “it did not split its hoof.”

 

Y Y Y

 

The Gemara[4] rules that if someone is offered the ultimatum to violate one of the prohibitions in the Torah or be killed, that person has the duty to violate that law and save his life. This rule applies to all the prohibitions in the Torah with three exceptions. The three exceptions are:

 

  1. The prohibitions of idol worship,
  2. Illicit sexual relations and
  3. Murder.

 

Y Y Y

 

The three means of gaining atonement: Teshuva (repentance), tefillah (prayer), and tzadakah (charity).

 

Y Y Y

 

The Torah says that if you plant a tree, all fruits which grow during the first three years are “orlah[5]“ -- off-limits.[6] Just as orlah fruit is off-limits for three years, so too we leave a child’s hair alone during the first three years. What’s the connection? In various places, the Torah compares a person to a tree:

 

Devarim 20:19 “A person is like the tree of a field...” 

 

Yeshayahu 65:22 “For as the days of a tree, shall be the days of my people.” 

 

Yeremyahu 17:8 “He will be like a tree planted near water...”

 

Therefore, like orlah, we leave a child’s hair alone during the first three years.

 

The term “orlah” appears in three different references in the Torah, regarding:

 

  1. Fruits (Vayikra 19:23),
  2. Brit Milah (Bereshit 17:11), and
  3. The heart (Devarim 10:16).

 

Y Y Y

 

The three items in the Holy of the Temple: The table of showbread (twelve, one for each tribe), the menorah (representing wisdom and Torah), and the golden altar (for a pleasing odor before HaShem), etc.

 

Kabbalists, such as the Vilna Gaon, tie this back to the three aspects of the soul discussed in the Zohar: the nefesh, the life-force we share in common with animals (do not consume the blood [of the animal], for the blood is of the nefesh); the ruach (lit wind), the unseen mind which causes change and motion; and the spiritual neshamah.

 

Y Y Y

 

The proscription against taking interest appears in the Torah three times (Vayikra 25:35-37, Shemot 22:24, and Devarim 23:20), to indicate how serious a matter it is.

 

Y Y Y

 

We have three pilgrimage festivals:  Pesach, Shavuot, and Succoth.

 

Y Y Y

 

“For it was taught: ‘And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water (Shemot 25:22)’. Upon which those who expound verses metaphorically said: Water means nothing but Torah, as it says: ‘Ho, everyone that thirsts should come for water (Yeshayahu 55:1)’. It thus means that as they went three days without Torah they immediately became exhausted.”[7]

 

Y Y Y

 

The Torah was read in a triennial cycle of three and a half years during Temple times.

 

Y Y Y

 

According to R. Yehudah, HaShem Himself studies the Torah for the first three hours of every day.[8]

 

Y Y Y

 

The Torah is read in public on three different days of each week. It is read on Shabbat morning and afternoon (at the Shacharit and Minchah services), Monday morning (at the Shacharit service) and on Thursday morning (again at Shacharit). Thus there is never a gap of more than three days between public readings of the Torah.

 

Y Y Y

 

The Shulkhan Aruch and Mishnah Berurah indicates that each oleh[9] to the Torah must read at least three pesukim (verses).

 

Y Y Y

 

The TaNaK (or Tanach) has three sections:

  1. Torah (the Law),
  2. Nevi’im (the Prophets), and
  3. Ketuvim (the Writings)

 

Shabbat casts on the both the past and following week. The week is made up six workdays. The first three days are an extension of the past Shabbat. During these days the holiness and influence of the past Shabbat are still felt. The last three workdays of the week are a preparation for the following Shabbat. During these three days the holiness of the upcoming Shabbat can be felt.

 

Third day of the

 

S

H

A

B

B

A

T

Second day of the

 

S

H

A

B

B

A

T

First day of the

 

S

H

A

B

B

A

T

      S

     H

     A

     B

     B

     A

     T

 

The 7th 

day

Erev

 

 

 

S

H

A

B

B

A

T

Fifth day of the

 

S

H

A

B

B

A

T

fourth day of the

 

S

H

A

B

B

A

T

 

This idea has ramifications in Halacha as well. If one forgot or was unable to recite havdalah at the conclusion of Shabbat, he is permitted to recite havdalah until Tuesday. This is because the influence of the past Shabbat remains until the Tuesday of the following week. Likewise, if one is planning to travel a great distance and his travel arrangements conflict with Shabbat, if he begins his trip more then three day before Shabbat he need not be concerned. When Shabbat arrives he will make arrangements the best he can. However if he plans to set out within three days of Shabbat he must be sure to arrange his trip so that there will no conflict with Shabbat whatsoever. This is because within three days of Shabbat one is obligated to prepare for Shabbat.

 

Y Y Y

 

We find in the Torah three mitzvot that are referred to as a “sign“ or “covenant“ between HaShem and the Jewish people:

 

1. Shabbat,

2. Brit milah, and

3. Tefillin (phylacteries). Tefillin (Tosafot)  is used three times in the Torah:

     1. Shemot (Exodus) 13:16;

     2. Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:8,

     3. Devarim (Deuteronomy) 11:18

 

In The Human Body

 

The human body is divided into many sets of three: The head which is not clothed, the upper body connects the head to the lower body and is clothed, and the lower body which is also clothed but is divided from the upper body by a belt or a different kind of cloth.

 

The head is then subdivided into three parts:  The right brain, the left brain, and the mid-brain which connects the left and right brains to the body.

 

The upper body, like the head, is also subdivided into three parts: The right arm, the left arm, and the torso which connects the left and the right arms.

 

Finally, the lower body is subdivided into three parts: The right leg, the left leg, and the organ of procreation which Kabbala calls the third leg.

 

We see that the arm is further divided into composed of three parts:  The upper arm, the lower arm and the hand.

 

Finally, each of the fingers is divided into three parts:  The part which is connected to the hand, the part used for touching, and the mediating part which connects them.

 

This pattern of three repeats itself throughout the body.

 

Y Y Y

 



This study was written by

Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David

(Greg Killian).

Comments may be submitted to:

 

Rabbi Dr. Greg Killian

4544 Highline Drive SE

Olympia, WA 98501

 

Internet address:  gkilli@aol.com

Web page:  http://www.betemunah.org/

 

(360) 918-2905

 

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Send comments to Greg Killian at his email address: gkilli@aol.com


 



[1] Chazakah: (a) An act of property acquisition. (b) The halachic status of permanence that is established when an event repeats itself three times. (c) An entity’s assumptive state based on its nature or personal track record.

[2] Maharal: Pirkei Avot, by Rabbi Tuvia Basser, pg. 289

[3] Sefer Yetzirah 1:7, Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 46:10.

[4] Sanhedrin 74a

[5] Hebrew עָרלָה; “uncircumcised”.

[6] Vayikra 19:23

[7] Baba Kama 82a

[8] Avodah Zarah 3b

[9] An oleh is one who is called to read the Torah in the synagogue.