What’s in a number? This week: 13

What’s in a number? This week: 13

Rabbi Garry Wayland looks into the meaning of a special number in Judaism

A torah scroll
A torah scroll

Triskaidekaphobia sounds exotic, but is a remarkably common phobia of the number 13.

Skyscrapers are built without a 13th floor; houses can jump from number 11 to 15. People even avoid travelling on Friday 13th.

In Judaism, however, the number 13 is rich with positive associations.

Maimonides famously elucidated his 13 Principles of Faith, such as the uniqueness and omnipotence of God, the immutability of the Torah, reward and punishment, and the guarantee of eventual redemption via a personal messiah.

One of the more curious songs at the end of the seder, Who Knows One? also mentions the 13 Attributes.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the Torah revolves around the events of the Golden Calf. Furious at the idol-worship days after the giving of the Torah, God threatens the destruction of those who took part.

Moses, through heroic self-sacrifice and prayer, persuades God to not only renege on His threat, but to teach him the 13 Attributes of Mercy, through which the Jewish people can gain mercy at even the most perilous of times.

We relive this encounter when we recite this Hashem Hashem prayer, most famously in the Yom Kippur prayers.

There are, of course, other sets of 13: the totality of the 12 Tribes plus the Levites; the 13 Principles of Torah exegesis, recited at the beginning of the morning service; the age of barmitzvah.

Perhaps why it is an auspicious number relates to the Gematria  (numerical value) of the word echad – meaning ‘one’ – which is 13.

The number 13 relates back to One – God – and gives us a variety of ways to relate to Him in a complex world in which His Presence is not so easily perceived.

  •   Rabbi Garry Wayland is the former assistant rabbi at Woodside Park United Synagogue
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