A chronogram is a sentence or inscription in which specific letters, interpreted as numerals, stand for a particular date when rearranged. The word, meaning "time writing", derives from the Greek words chronos ("time") and gramma ("letter"). In the pure chronogram each word contains a numeral, the natural chronogram shows all numerals in the correct numerical order, e.g. AMORE MATVRITAS = MMVI = 2006. Chronograms in versification are referred to as chronosticha, if they are a hexameter, and chronodisticha if they are a distich.
The practice originated in the late Roman Empire and was particularly popular during the Renaissance, when chronograms were often used on tombstones and foundation stones to mark the date of the event being commemorated. For instance:
Many lengthy examples of chronograms can be found in Germany, notably in and around the town of Bad Salzuflen. These commemorate the building of houses in the form of prayers or quotations from the Bible. For instance, SVRGE O IEHOVA ATQVE DISPERGE INIMICOS TVOS ("Rise, oh Jehovah, and destroy your enemies", a slightly altered version of Psalm 68:2) gives 1625 as the year of building.
One double chronogram, in Latin and English, on the year 1642, reads, "'TV DeVs IaM propItIVs sIs regI regnoqVe hVIC VnIVerso." — "O goD noVV sheVV faVoVr to the kIng anD thIs VVhoLe LanD." The English sentence demonstrates that the origin of the letter w as a double v or u was recognised historically.
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 Gematria, 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-Harizi (ed. Kaminka, p. 412; compare Rapoport, in "Kerem Hemed", vii. 252), while the earliest Latin chronogram is dated five years later (compare Hilton, "Chronograms", iii. 4). According to Abraham Firkovich, 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 Zaddikim", No. 14, of the year 1261; No. 16, of the year 1275).
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 ben 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: איש צדיק ישר חכם וענו האלוף מהר״ר מנחם רופא מומחה (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 'באש יצא מאת ד (ib. No. 59).
Many important years in Jewish history are indicated by their respective chronograms; e.g., the year 1492 by מזרה ("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).
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 ("Kol 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 לפקים ("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.