Being the day before my fortieth birthday, it occurred to me today that the number 40 seems to have a strange significance in our culture. I mean, you have Lizzie Borden, who opened a can of WhoopAxe on her mother no less than 40 times; you have the Great Flood, during which it rained for 40 days and 40 nights; a good night's sleep supposedly consists of 40 winks; 40 lashes is considered ample punishment for certain crimes; the observation of Lent for 40 days. It got me to wondering where all these references came from. And, the beauty of the internet means that I didn't have to haul ass down to the public library and go through the card catalog or scroll through endless newspaper articles on those evil microfiche machines, which always made me feel like I was going to throw up.
Upon Googling the matter, I at first came up with this:
"How Did It Begin?" by R. Brasch (Pocket Books, New York, 1966) has a whole section on the number 40. "Once it was believed that there was magic in figures and the number 40 especially was thought to possess supernatural powers. A unit of 40, as it was imagined in early days, could shield a man from all kinds of evil."
But that seemed just a little simplistic, so I Googled a little harder, and found this at OHR.edu, a Jewish information resource:
We find the number 40 in several places in the Torah. 40 days of rain during the flood; Moses was on Mount Sinai 40 days receiving the Torah; the minimum amount of water required in a mikveh - ritual bath - is 40 seah (halachic measures). The Torah prescribes 40 lashes for some serious crimes. In addition, our Sages teach that a fetus takes 40 days from conception to develop into human form.
The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, explains that the number 40 always means cataclysmic change and new creation. The flood eradicated all trace of the terrible spiritual state that existed previously and created a new mankind. By receiving the Torah, the Jews were born as a new nation. One who is impure immerses in the mikveh and emerges as a new person who is pure. Lashes motivate the criminal to recreate himself spiritually and return to the ways of the Torah.
Our Sages teach that the world was created through ten Divine utterances. Mystically, each of these ten utterances manifests itself on four different levels, hence a total of forty. On Shabbat, we refrain from 39 categories of forbidden labor. The Talmud refers to these 39 as "forty minus one" because each one parallels one of the forty levels of creation, except for the highest level of creation - creation of something from absolute nothingness - which has no parallel in our physical world.
But, looking for something a bit less stuffy and a bit more in layman's terms, I finally found this from WikiAnswers:
The number 40 holds particular significance in the Bible and refers to a precise number, not just a long period of time. There are at least ten instances in the Old Testament and New Testament where 40 occurs, either in years or days, e.g. it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights, the Israelites wandered 40 years, Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and was seen on the earth for 40 days after His crucifixion.
A 40-something time period, whether days, months, or years is ALWAYS a period of testing, trial, probation, or chastisement (but not judgment) and ends with a period of restoration, revival or renewal.
Thankfully, God is consistent, so the meaning of a number in Genesis remains the same all the way to the book of Revelation. Sometimes the spiritual significance is not revealed directly, but in the case of "40" and its many examples throughout the Bible, we can be certain of its importance and significance.Cataclysmic change and new creation. Wow. That's kinda heavy. Is it true when they say that life really starts at 40? Has my life up until now just been the dress rehearsal, and now it's time for the real show to begin? I guess I'll have to stick around for the rest of the performance. And if I get any backstage passes, you can bet your ass I'm gonna get an autograph from *somebody*.