CHRONOGRAM (from the Greek χρόνος = "time," and γράμμα = "writing"):
A sentence or verse certain letters of which express a date, while the sentence itself alludes to or is descriptive of the event to which the date belongs. The words "chronograph," "chronicon," "chronostichon," "eteostichon," and "eteamenchemerodistichon" are all synonyms for "chronogram"; but the latter is now almost exclusively used. In general, the Latin literature of the Middle Ages is the richest in chronograms; but they are also found in German, Dutch, Belgian, and Hungarian. In English and French but few are found, and in Italian hardly any. Chronograms are especially popular in the East, there being several books in Persian on the art of constructing a "ta'rikh," the Persian equivalent for "chronogram" (see Rodgers, "Tarikhs," in "Jour. Royal Asiatic Soc." 1898, pp. 715-739). It is not improbable that the chronogram originated in the East, where such poetic juggling is common. The great popularity of chronograms among the Jews, and the extent to which they have been cultivated, may be explained by the fact that they are a variety of GemaṬria, which latter was highly regarded by the Jews and much practised by them.
The earliest chronogram in Jewish literature is one found in a Hebrew poem of the year 1205 by Al-Ḥarizi (ed. Kaminka, p. 412; compare Rapoport, in "Kerem Ḥemed," vii. 252), while the earliest Latin chronogram is dated five years later (compare Hilton, "Chronograms," iii. 4). According to Firkowich, Hebrew chronograms date back to 582 (compare the epitaphs in his work "Abne Zikkaron," p. 10); but the inscriptions cited by him are probably forgeries. In the thirteenth century chronograms are found in the epitaphs of German Jews (Lewysohn, "Nafshot Ẓaddiḳim," No. 14, of the year 1261; No. 16, of the year 1275).In Epitaphs.
It is evident, therefore, that for a period of five hundred years chronograms occurred in the epitaphs of European Jews. Thus the dates of the epitaphs of the family of Asher b. Jehiel in the first half of the fourteenth century are indicated by chronograms (Almanzi, "Abne Zikkaron," pp. 4, 6, 9); and among sixty-eight Frankfort epitaphs of that century four chronograms have been preserved (Horowitz, "Inschriften . . . zu Frankfurt-am-Main," Nos. 8, 29, 36, 68). The German Jews seem to have possessed little skill in the composition of chronograms, there being only about twenty-five (and these very simple) in a total of some 6,000 inscriptions. In Bohemia and Poland, chronograms in epitaphs occur more frequently, and are often very clever; for example, the epitaph of the physician Menahem b. Asher Mazzerato, who died at Prague in 1680, reads as follows: (Lieben, "Gal 'Ed," p. 36); and the numerical value of the marked initial letters therein amounts to 440; i.e., 5440, the Jewish year in which Menahem died. The year of death of the associate rabbi of Prague, Zalman, who perished in the great fire of 1689 (=5449 Jewish era), is indicated by the words (ib. No. 59).In Books.
While the epitaphs, in addition to the chronograms, in many cases directly mention the dates, many manuscripts, and an even greater number of printed books, are dated simply by means of chronograms; authors, copyists, and typographers rivaling one another in hiding the dates in intricate chronograms, most difficult to decipher. Hence, many data of Jewish bibliography still remain to be determined,or at least rectified. Down to recent times the custom of indicating dates by means of chronograms was so prevalent in Jewish literature that but few books are dated by numerals only. In the earliest printed books the chronograms consist of one or two words only: the Soncino edition of the Talmud, for instance, has for its date the earliest printed chronogram, ("Gemara") = 244 (1484
The chronograms on the works and documents of persons who were followers of Shabbethaism, and who in this manner indicated their belief, are most interesting. Thus, Samuel b. David ha-Levi's well-known work, "Naḥalat Shib'ah" (Amsterdam, 1667), has the date ("Messiah, son of David, is come!") on the title-page; and the community of Holleschau, in Moravia, similarly engraved in the epitaph of its beloved rabbi, Shabbethai b. Meïr ha-Kohen, the words ("Messiah is come to-day for a redemption"; compare Weisse, in "Kokebe Yiẓḥaḳ," i. 77). Many important years in Jewish history are indicated by their respective chronograms; e.g., the year 1492 by ("scatterer" = 252, after Jer. xxi. 10, which says that God scattered Israel). This was the year when the Jews were expelled from Spain (Abravanel's Introduction to his Commentary on Kings).In Poetry.
Neo-Hebraic poetry, which laid especial stress on the formal side of verse, also cultivated chronograms. A number of Hebrew poems were produced in the first half of the nineteenth century, in which the letters of each verse have the same numerical value, being generally the year in which it was written. A New-year's poem in this style, written in the year 579 (=1819), is found in Shalom Cohen's "Ketab Yosher" (ed. Warsaw, p. 146). Two years later Jacob Eichenbaum wrote a poem in honor of a friend, each line of which had the numerical value of 581 ("Ḳol Zimrah," ed. Leipsic, pp. 50-53). While this poem is really a work of art, in spite of the artifice employed, Eichenbaum's imitators have in their translations merely produced rimes with certain numerical values. Gottlober (in "Ha-Kokabim," i. 31) wrote an excellent satire on these rimesters, each line of his poem having the numerical value of 618 (=1858). The first two verses of the poem are as follows:
But even poets like I. L. Gordon and A. B. Lewensohn have a great weakness for the ("minor eras"), though employing them only in the super-scriptions to their poems. The modern school of Hebrew poets has given up these artifices, the "minor eras" being now chiefly employed for New-Year congratulations, especially by the poor of Palestine, who frequently distribute printed New-Year cards, the wish consisting of a verse whose numerical value is equal to the year.
- James Hilton, Chronograms, i. 542-545, ii. 593-600;
- Steinschneider, Jüdische Typographie, in Ersch and Gruber, Encyc. xxviii. 27-28;
- Zunz, Z. G. pp. 214 et seq.