Celebrating the Number Thirteen in Jewish Teaching and Observance

Neal Lipsitz

Neal Lipsitz and Alan Rosen

I stretch, lace up my running shoes, get psyched and go for a morning jog. It’s one of those extraordinary mornings — cool, the air is clear and I can see the distant hilltops.

As I proceed through my neighborhood, looking for something to occupy my mind, I begin to take note of the addresses on my street. Mailboxes are clearly marked, even numbers on one side of the road, odd numbers on the other.

As I approach the teens, I notice something strange. On the odd side of the street, the number 13 is skipped. The addresses run from 11 to 15, 13 is nowhere to be found. Then I start checking for other omissions. There are none. I loop over to the next neighborhood and check some more. No 13. Again, on the odd side of the street, the numbers run from 11 to 15.

Over the next few weeks, I took every opportunity to look through more neighborhoods, to check elevator stops in tall buildings, room numbers in hotels and motels, row numbers in commercial airplanes and movie theaters. Thirteen is the missing number.

For centuries, frightening beliefs about the number 13 have found expression in Christian Europe and Christian societies. Probably the most common of the number 13 superstitions today is Friday the 13th. Indeed, published research suggests that we should refrain from going out on Fridays that fall on the 13th, concluding that “it might be safer to stay at home.”

Alan Rosen

Yet superstitious associations with the number 13 aren’t part of Jewish life and tradition. In fact, it’s just the opposite. In Israel, it’s included for floors in buildings, bus numbers, house numbers, apartment numbers, etc. And for Jews, it’s a regular feature of life — a blessing, and not a curse at all.

The number 13 is associated with celebration and joy. At the age of 13, a Jewish boy becomes a bar mitzvah. With this new status, he becomes responsible for religious and social obligations in Jewish life. In this case, the number 13 carries overwhelmingly positive associations.

And so is it the case with Jewish holy days. The Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy is to be recited whenever the Jews are in crisis as a way to beseech God effectively. Traditionally, the prayer is recited on Yom Kippur as we ask God for forgiveness of our mistakes over the past year and the ongoing effort not to repeat them.

With the holiday of Passover in the spring comes Echad Mi Yodea, a major song in Jewish life. The climax of this song is reached in verse 13, once again highlighting the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The song itself is adored worldwide. It has an attractive refrain and is fun to sing — yes, especially at the end of a Passover seder.

To hear a rendition of Echad Me Yodea performed, click on one of the following links: youtube.com/watch?v=1XU-3IuzPEE or youtube.com/watch?v=eGwlcATGwgw.

The ancient Jerusalem Temple offers another example of the special significance of the number 13 in Jewish life, featuring as it did:

  • 13 places of prostration
  • 13 gates of access
  • 13 shofar-shaped charity boxes.
  • 13 tables for offerings

Even further back in history, it is well known that the Patriarch Abraham entered into 13 covenants with G-d.

The list goes on and on. Rabbi Ishmael’s 13 rules of how to interpret scripture also serves as a gateway to morning prayer; the Thirteen Petaled Rose symbolizes one evocative dimension of the world of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism; and Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith provides a concise but far-reaching summation of Jewish belief.

Familiar to us all, the Yigdal, a hymn based on the Thirteen Principles of Faith which are considered binding on all Jews, is recited in many different daily prayers including at the close of evening services on Shabbat and at Jewish festivals.

To hear a rendition of the Yigdal performed, click here: youtube.com/watch?v=fMf1P-47Zys.

The celebration of the number 13 becomes especially relevant in the current Jewish calendar year of 5784 — a 13-month leap year in which we add not merely an extra day but a whole extra month!

Hence, we see that, in Jewish life, positive associations with the number 13 are not just a one-time thing but a regular feature — truly a blessing, not a curse.

This contrast with my odd experience of the missing number 13 during my morning jog helps me realize that the number 13 is actually quite special. A single number that is associated with frightening beliefs is also a source of celebration and joy, forgiveness and faith.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll choose the Jewish perspective anytime.

Neal E. Lipsitz is the associate dean for student development and a lecturer in psychology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Avraham (Alan) Rosen is the project scholar and director for the Elie Wiesel Living Archive at the 92Y in New York City.


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