Noah’s Sweet Fifteen By Rabbi Eli Birnbaum
Noah’s Sweet Fifteen
There’s a real storm of a debate (sorry) surrounding the whole story of Noah and the flood. Did it really happen? If it did, could that not-so-enormous boat really float? Were there kangaroos on board and, if so, without Deliveroo (so cheesy you could put it on pasta), how on earth did they get from Australia to Mesopotamia where Noah lived?
The answer to these questions is definitely beyond the depth (there I go again) of this article. But thanks to extensive research by a group of keen physics and engineering students at the University of Leicester, we now know that a vessel built to the dimensions of the Biblical Ark would be able to float with a maximum cargo capacity of 50,540 tonnes; or to put it in relative terms: 2.15 million sheep.
As with every Biblical narrative, there are multiple levels of understanding that we are able to access. The first of these levels is known as ‘Peshat’ – the literal, simplest interpretation of the text. The next level is known as ‘Remez’ – the deeper, metaphorical interpretations that only become apparent through a careful reading. An example of this is as follows: According to Peshat, the flood covered the entire globe. But according to Remez, the scope of the flood was most certainly limited, only affecting a single, large region (probably Mesopotamia and most of the Levant).
Similarly, viewed through the prism of Peshat,the University of Leicester is owed a debt of gratitude for demonstrating how the dimensions of the Ark can be interpreted literally. In fact, Parshat Noach is a mathematician’s dream. Everywhere you look, there are sizes, numbers, and lengths of time. For a narrative that is primarily concerned with conveying the serious totality of action and consequence in a Divinely governed world, it spends an awfully long time focusing on and discussing seemingly trivial arithmetic. Forgive my bluntness, but stating the length of the flood (150 days) is a philosophical catch-22. If I don’t believe the Flood ever happened, the length of time is irrelevant. And if I do believe it happened, the length of time makes little to no difference to me; what matters is that Homo Sapiens corrupted its way on the planet, and was punished as a result – with only a select few righteous individuals surviving the upheaval.
Is there a deeper, metaphoric interpretation behind the endless numeric detail?
Now I don’t know about you, but maths was never my strongest subject. I needed a tutor to get me through the GCSE before unceremoniously dropping the subject at the earliest possible juncture. And no, fifteen years later I still haven’t used an algebraic equation, nor has there ever arisen a need to work out the hypotenuse of a triangle.
Speaking of the number 15, hold on to your hats. Number junkies, you’re going to love this. Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (better known by the title of his major work, Kli Yakar) notes the following:
Genesis 7:20 records that the waters of the Flood rose to 15 amot above the tallest mountain.
Genesis 7:11 mentions that Noah was 600 years old, whilst Genesis 7:4 notes that it rained for 40 days and nights. I’ll leave you to work out 600 divided by 40.
Genesis 7:24 writes that the waters peaked for a total of 150 days.
As mentioned, the Ark was in theory able to float while carrying a weight equivalent to 25% of the sheep in Wales. And what were its dimensions? 300 amot by 50 amot, giving it a total surface area of…15,000 amot squared.
But that’s not all. Genesis 6:15-16 specifies that the total height of the Ark was 30 amot divided into 3 ‘decks’, each 10 amot high. Which means – you already know where we’re going with this – each deck of the Ark was 150,000 amot cubed.
Over and over again, the number 15 appears. Like a beacon constantly realigning our focus throughout a seemingly mundane list of technicalities. But what exactly is the Torah trying to draw to our attention?
When you think about it, the number 15 appears all over the place. In fact, if we had a ‘Who knows 15!’ line in the popular Pesach Seder song, an already ridiculously late night would get much later. Talking of the Pesach Seder, did you know there are 15 parts to it? Nope, me neither.
15 blessings of gratitude in the morning prior to the morning prayers.
15 words in the priestly blessing.
15 steps in the Temple where the Levites would stand and play music to accompany the service.
15 ‘Songs of Ascent’ at the end of Psalms.
Pesach starts on the 15th of Nissan.
Sukkot starts on the 15th of Tishrei.
15 Judges judged Israel.
Trust me when I say that there are more. Loads more. But still: what is the significance of the number 15, and why does the Torah make it a central (albeit hidden) theme of the Flood narrative?
There is a concept in Hebrew called ‘Gematriah’. Put simply, this is a process by which every letter of the Aleph Bet has a numerical equivalent. The number 15 corresponds to the letters ‘Yud’ (10) and ‘Hey’ (5). Combined, these two letter form God’s Name. Or to be more precise: The Name of Mercy and Closeness to the Creation.
This ingredient, more than any other, was what the generation of the flood sorely lacked. Despite unprecedented wealth and material comfort, Noah was the only person who managed to maintain a relationship and closeness with God. As the sound of the shofar and spiritual bustle of the High Holidays begins to fade into Greenwich Mean Time, the Torah’s message is clear:
Don’t let Yom Kippur turn into a ‘so long, see ya next year’. Let’s strive to do more than just tread water (I’m here all evening); let’s make that relationship as deep and meaningful as can be.
 Most of which apparently chose to settle in New Zealand and Wales following the deluge.
 The third and fourth levels of analysis are known as ‘Drush’ – the method of comparing and contrasting similar narratives and expression elsewhere in scripture, and ‘Sod’ – the mystical, mostly Kabbalistic readings of the material. Together, these four levels form the Hebrew acronym PARDES, a word closely related to the English ‘Paradise’, literally translated as ‘orchard’ and commonly used as a byword for the Garden of Eden. In other words; one who masters all four levels of textual analysis is said to exist in a state of clarity and perfection equivalent to the Eden experience.
 Genesis 7:17-24
 Babylonian Talmud Zevachim 113a, Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 32:19 et al.
 Genesis 6:12
 The ancient measurement of an amah is roughly 50cm in length.
 Talmud Sanhedrin 108a