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Question 11.9.7:
Symbols: What is the significance of the number 3?

Answer:

Three is extremely significant in Judaism, as the human condition is seen as tripartite: mans relationship to himself and the world of his mind, mans relationship to others in the quote real world unquote and mans relationship with God. According to the Maharal, this is the meaning of the three pillars in Avot 1:2—Torah, Avodah (Service of God), and Acts of Kindness.

Next, we have R Samson Refaeil Hirsch, who speaks about the messages mitzvot convey through symbols. He speaks of the primary colors in the following terms:

  1. Red. The most bent by physical matter (in the rainbow). Also, adom (red) is similar to adama (earth), representing mans physical nature. This is why the red heifer is burnt as a means of ending impurity, and the red string turns white on Yom Kippur when atonement was gained, etc.

  2. Green. The color of growth and human growth.

  3. Blue. Spirituality. The color of tzitzis, the walls of Herod's temple, the color of the sky. Spirituality.

Note the same triad.

Similarly Hirsch's treatement of numbers: 6 days of physical creation, the 7th day of rest, and 8—going beyond the natural order. The eight strings of tzitzis (the eighth, according to Maimonides, the blue one), the eighth day of Shemini Atzeres, why Chanukah had to be eight days, etc.

We can do the same with the three do-or-die sins, the three forefathers, the three mitzvos of the seder (the lamb, matzah, and maror), the three means of gaining atonement (teshuvah, tefillah and tzadakah -- repentance, prayer and charity), the three items in the fore-room of the Temple—the table of showbread (12, one for each tribe), the menorah (representing wisdom and Torah), and the gold altar (for a quote pleasing odor before Gd end-quote), etc.

Kabbalists, such as the Vilna Gaon, ties 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.


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