Code Breakers


Cabalists, Jewish and Christian, have had the Book of Splendor to ponder since the 13th century, and the truly wise among them have said that it is a work of such wisdom that nothing can be understood of it at all. They have used such hermeneutical tools as gematria, by which the words of scripture are converted into numbers and the secrets of the divine are revealed to those who can see them. They have used formulae, tradition, and exegesis to guide them on their search for the hidden and the holy. What they didn't have was equidistant letter sequence (ELS) technology, computer-based calculations capable of finding patterns of equally spaced letters.

In 1994, they got ELS. That year, researchers announced in the journal Statistical Science that a computer search of Genesis revealed many famous rabbinical names "hidden" in the text, along with the dates of each rabbi's birth or death. Three years later, Michael Drosnin's best-selling The Bible Code asserted that Hebrew scripture contained forecasts of innumerable historical and future events, including wars, assassinations, and earthquakes. Drosnin's book inspired a wave of media coverage, copycat books, bible software, and at least one movie (The Omega Code).

Last fall, however, another group of researchers announced in Statistical Science that Leo Tolstoy had apparently left us similarly encrypted messages: An ELS search of War and Peace in Hebrew also yielded prophetic results. (The application of ELS to variant biblical Hebrew texts, by contrast, yielded no results.)

These findings received far less publicity than Brosnin's book did. Indeed, mathematician Brendan McKay, the lead author of last fall's skeptical study, has been actively debunking Bible Code notions for years, with virtually no publicity. Back in 1997, Drosnin responded to skeptics by challenging them to find assassination predictions in Moby Dick. McKay soon determined that Melville had foreseen the murders of Indira Gandhi, Leon Trotsky, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy. (His findings are available at

Both Drosnin and some of the authors of the original 1994 statistical article claim that the skeptics have misconstrued their methods and conclusions. But an argument over the meaning and method of hermeneutical insight sounds rather like the inner history of cabalism. Perhaps that is why the initiated cabalist, on encountering a work reputed to be of transcendent truth, may conclude that it passeth understanding.