Alex Lubotsky is a professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a Member of the Israeli Knesset. He is personally acquainted with most of the central protagonists of the Torah codes controversy.

The following review was translated from Haartez Sfarim, September 3, 1997.

The Bible Codes by Michael Drosnin, Translated by Dafna Levi Yediot Acharanot Publishing House, 238 pps., 78 NIS
Reviewer: Alex Lubotsky

A cartoon related to Michael Drosnin's book appearing recently in the New York Times depicts a husband examining a Bible and saying to his wife: "Hey, guess what we're having for dinner tomorrow!". This is an exaggerated example of the atmosphere created by the book "The Bible Codes", which attempts to show that the future is hidden or encoded in the Bible. Drosnin bases his book on the work done by Professor Eliyahu Rips, Doron Witztum and Yoav Rosenberg.

Rips and his colleagues present a new way of reading the Torah, the Bible. Based on this technique, one relates to the text as a continuous collection of letters, ignoring inter-word spaces, and reading letters separated by an equivalent number of letters (equidistant letter sequences). When doing this, one discovers that various new words "pop" out of the text, words which do not appear in the original text when read in the traditional fashion.

This method of encoding disappeared from the face of humanity for many generations, at least with regards to the extent described in the research and the book. Indeed, the Medrash Tanchuma commentary on the portion of "Shlach" (in the Book of Numbers), states that the "Anshei Knesset Hagdola", the Scholars of the Great Assembly were called "sofrim" [a play on words where sofrim is the plural form of sofer which means both scribe and one who counts], because they counted all the letters of the Bible (examples of this are brought in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hagiga, p. 15 and the Yalkut Shim'oni commentary, section 545), but nowhere is the technique of Equidistant Letter Sequences mentioned in the extent that is described in the book.

According to Drosnin, the appearance of these new words in the text through this technique, and specifically, their appearance close to each other, point to a connection between them which is hinted to by the text, and also hints to what the future holds. The most outstanding example of this, which by the way is graphically displayed on the cover of the book, predicts the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin: Yitzhak Rabin's name appears in an equidistant letter sequence in the Bible text, where it is intersected by the words "assassin who will assassinate", also appearing in an equidistant letter sequence. So here it is: Rabin's assassination was hinted at in the Holy Scriptures.

To Drosnin's credit it should be said that he claimed that this would occur even before the assassination took place. In the book Drosnin describes a series of meetings, in the year preceding the Rabin Assassination, with various figures in Israel's government and military leadership, meetings at which he warned of the impending assassination. I discussed this with one of the figures who met with him and he confirmed that this was what had occurred. But the establishment didn't relate to the warnings with any level of seriousness (and rightly so, as we will see later on), and the rest is history. After the assassination, those figures again turned to him, this time listening more seriously, but they did not change their skeptical stand.

Drosnin's assassination prophecy may be seen, to his credit, as a convincing proof that he was not trying to behave fraudulently just to make money. However, it would be appropriate to clarify that the fact that one of Drosnin's "prophecies" came true is not sufficient to prove the correctness of his prophecy technique. Moses taught us long ago in the Bible that "If there should stand up in your midst a prophet or dreamer, and he will give you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder comes about.... do not hearken to the words of that prophet or dreamer of dreams.... and you shall destroy the evil from your midst".

Every year, before Rosh Hashana (the Hebrew New Year) we are flooded with various astrologer's and soothsayer's prophecies regarding the coming year. At the end of the year they remind us of those prophecies which were fulfilled, but forget those which were not. Drosnin doesn't let us forget. In the first part of the book he expansively describes the nuclear holocaust which will befall Israel in the Hebrew year 5756 [two years ago]. In the second part of the book, which was seemingly written after the holocaust did not occur, the prophecy is postponed to the year 2010, with the State of Israel receiving a 14 year extension.

To the core of the subject matter: Drosnin's technique is totally baseless. The adjacent appearance of contextually related words or expressions proves nothing. The following is a short mathematical explanation: Were we to randomly open a Koren Bible and examine the two columns before us, we would see a text containing approximately 2,000 letters. How many four letter words are potentially encoded in equidistant letter sequences in this text? Approximately 2,000 words without any skips (that is the four letter word starting with the first letter in the text, the word beginning with the second letter, etc.), approximately another 2,000 words appearing with a single skip (the word comprised of the first, third, fifth and seventh letters, etc.). Continuing up to words based on a 500 letter skip, we will find that these two columns contain approximately one million words.

In the Hebrew language, based on a 22 letter alphabet, there are 22x22x22x22 four letter words, or in other words, approximately two hundred thousand "words" (most of them, obviously, meaningless letter combinations). If we were to make the following (inaccurate) assumption, just to simplify things, that each letter appears with an equal frequency, then each word appearing in the short text before us would appear on the average, five times. Of course, there might be words which would not show up at all. However, it would be no surprise were we to find the three words "Bibi", "Ehud", and "5757" in the text. It would be quite naive to assume that the Bible prophesied that Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak would head the two major political forces in Israel in the Hebrew year 5757.

"Prophesies" like these can clearly be found within any text - such as this page of the "Haaretz" newspaper, and even back-issues of "Haaretz" printed long before Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak were even born.

Uses of the Bible such as these have embarrassingly enough, been used at many Outreach Seminars. Those using these techniques should remember that this can be a double-edged sword. For example, in a booklet published by a missionary group known as "Hashalom", which has been widely distributed in Israel over the last few months, charlatan use of the equidistant letter sequence technique was made. It is therefore, unnecessary to expound any further on Drosnin's book. Let it suffice to say "futility of futilities, all is nonsense". Prof. Rips too, whose work was the basis for Drosnin's book, dissociates himself from the book.

Rips is a world-renowned mathematician, respected and esteemed by his colleagues for both his professional capabilities and his basic human traits. An article describing his technique appeared in the scientific journal Statistical Science in 1994. Without getting into the mathematical subtleties and intricacies, let me state that Rips is not at all impressed with the appearance of a single word in an equidistant letter sequence in the Biblical text. He searches for the "minimum appearance", that is the appearance of the word with the least number of letters skipped between. If the words "Bibi", "Ehud" and "5757" were to appear adjacently in their "minimum appearance", then that would be interesting. This is somewhat similar to shooting three arrows at the text, and having them land together in a closely bunched grouping.

The article by Rips and his colleagues is brought as an appendix to Drosnin's book, describes an experiment in which they investigated the appearances (minimum appearances) of a list of Torah scholars' names cross referenced with a list of their birthdates. Again, it would be appropriate to emphasize that there is no "wonder" in the fact that the names appear in an equidistant letter sequence. The phenomenon they discovered, and that which ostensibly proves the truthfulness/correctness of the technique, is that the name/birthdate pairs appear unexpectedly close to each other, from a statistical point of view.

Rips' work is based on scientific methodology. Its Achilles Heel is the process by which the word pairs were selected: The Torah Scholars' names and their corresponding birth-dates. The names can be written in several ways. For example, The Gaon of Vilna is know as 'the GR"A', the Gaon Rav Eliyahu, Eliyahu son of Shlomo Zalman or Rav Eliyahu son of Rav Shlomo Zalman.

Another group of researchers (Prof. Maya Bar-Hillel, Dr. Dror Bar-Natan, Prof. Brendan McKay) thoroughly investigated the technique. In an article which is to be published in the coming weeks they prove that by a clever choice of the appellations selected, they can produce the same phenomenon that Rips found in the Biblical text, in ... War and Peace. The researchers proclaim loudly and clearly: "we want to 'cheat'" - we chose the spellings and appellations so as to achieve the optimal results. They claim that the list used by Rips and his colleagues was selected to give optimal results and therefore, their results do not in any way, shape, or form prove the existence of any hidden codes in the Bible, just as no one would consider their existence in the text of "War and Peace".

In order to believe in Rips' work, one must believe in the integrity of his colleagues who selected the list of names completely without bias, without attempting any sort of optimization of the list with regards to spellings and/or appellations selected. In a situation like this, Rips' work cannot be considered a valid scientific proof of the existence of hidden Bible Codes; this despite the fact that based on my personal knowledge of the man, I do not believe that he intentionally used an unfair or biased list. Psychology literature is full of cases where a researcher's expectations have influenced his judgment and/or considerations, and therefore bias the results in a manner which would tend to justify his hypothesis. This phenomenon is known as the "expectancy effect".

Truthfully speaking - I am also influenced by the "expectancy effect". My perspective as an observant Jew causes me to resent and rise up against the use of the Biblical Texts as a crystal ball for predicting the future, while at the same time my scientific background prevents me from accepting the existence of the phenomenon. Therefore, in my opinion, the conclusions of Bar-Hillel, Bar-Natan and McKay are preferable to those of Rips, Witztum and Rosenberg. Yes, we mathematicians too, while notoriously educated, are real human beings with opinions and beliefs that affect our thought processes. It is from this amazing discovery, that we too are human beings, that we can draw the most encouragement.