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Parshas - Yom Kippur (5773)

Thirteen: Judaism's Lucky Number

For some reason, in many religions and cultures, people get freaked out by the number 13. Even in the modern, “progressive” Western society that we live in, you will have a hard time finding an elevator in a high-rise building with a button indicating the 13th floor. (Just don’t tell the people on the 14th floor that - elevator button or not - they are still really living on the 13th floor!).

Not so in Judaism. We never bought into that whole superstition thing. In fact, we believe that 13 is actually a “lucky”, or rather, a “spiritually significant” number. Consider the importance of the number 13 in Judaism in the following examples:

~ Abraham entered into 13 covenants with G-d through the commandment of Bris Milah, the covenant of ritual circumcision that G-d gave him. [This is derived from the fact that the word bris, covenant, is repeated 13 times in the passages where G-d commands Abraham to perform circumcision on himself and his children – see Genesis 17:1-21 and the Talmud in Berachos 49a.]
~ According to long-standing Jewish tradition, a boy becomes Bar-Mitzvah, a counted member of the Jewish people, at the age of 13.
~ There are 13 rules of logic and textual analysis, otherwise known as hermeneutic principles, by means of which the Written Torah is expounded, as taught by the great Mishnaic scholar Rabbi Yishmael, who received this oral tradition directly from Moses at Mount Sinai.
~ The Mishnah in Shekalim 6:1 teaches that in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem there were thirteen shofros [shofar-shaped charity collection chests]; thirteen tables [used for the various offerings]; and thirteen prostrations [as part of the Temple service].
~ Judaism has 13 Principles of Faith, which were first formulated by Maimonides in his Commentary to Mishnah (Sanhedrin, ch. 10), and which have achieved virtually universal acceptance.
~ There is a tradition that in Messianic era, the Land of Israel will be divided into 13 tribal sections instead of the original 12 of Joshua [see the Talmud in Bava Basra 122a].
~ In Gematria (Jewish numerology), both the words ahavah (love) and echad (one) equal 13.
~ Kabbalistically, the number 13 indicates the ability of the Jewish people to rise above the influence of the 12 signs of the Zodiac (12+1=13), not being bound by the influences of the cosmos.

There is one more example of the importance of the number 13 in Judaism that I have not yet mentioned, and which has relevance to the upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur.

I refer, of course, to the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy recorded in Exodus 34:6-7, which are actually the central theme of all the Selichos (penitential prayers) recited during both the Maariv and Neilah services on Yom Kippur. In fact, the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy are repeated a total of 13 (!) times throughout Yom Kippur.

What are these 13 Attributes and why are they so important for us to repeat so many times on the holiest day of the year?

After the Jewish people sinned with the Golden Calf, G-d proclaimed His readiness to do away with the Jewish people and to start the nation anew with Moses. Moses felt that Israel’s sin was so beyond repair that there was no possibility of interceding on their behalf. G-d then appeared to him in the guise of a chazzan (cantor) wrapped in a tallis (prayer shawl) and taught him the Thirteen Attributes. G-d said, “Whenever Israel sins, let them recite this in its proper order and I will forgive them.” So this appeal for mercy reminds us that we can always do teshuvah (repentance) and return to G-d, and that He always awaits our return to Him.

We can now see why these Thirteen Attributes play such a prominent role in our prayers on Yom Kippur. Without them, we would have no hope. These Attributes afford us a glimpse of G-d’s incredible compassion and mercy, and give us the confidence that He will accept our teshuvah and atone for all of our sins.

Let’s briefly go through the 13 Attributes of Divine Mercy, so that when we recite them on Yom Kippur, we will better understand what we are saying:

(1) Ado-noy - G-d. This Name represents the attribute of G-d’s compassion before one has sinned. Even before a person has sinned, he still needs Heavenly compassion, for G-d owes us nothing; all that we have is only due to His grace and compassion. Also, even though G-d knows that the person will sin in the future, His compassion for him at present remains, since the person has not yet sinned.

(2) Ado-noy - G-d. Although this is the same Name as in #1, it represents the attribute of G-d’s compassion after one has sinned and repented. Unlike the behavior of a human being who will distance himself from a person who has wronged him, and will often never accept him back, G-d remains unaffected and unchanged even after a person sins against Him, and can therefore accept him back with total compassion and love.

(3) E-l - Merciful G-d. This Name represents the power of G-d’s mercy, which sometimes surpasses even the compassion indicated by the Name “G-d”. He bestows great kindnesses and benefits on people, far beyond what they need to survive.

(4) Rachum - Compassionate. G-d mercifully eases the punishment of sinners when they call out to Him. Alternatively, G-d protects His children that they shouldn’t fall spiritually.

(5) V’Chanun - And Gracious. G-d acts charitably to those who ask for it, even if they are unworthy. Alternatively, G-d saves those who have fallen and don’t have the willpower to save themselves.

(6) Erech Apayim - Slow to anger. G-d does not hasten to punish a person for his sins, in the hope that he will repent.

(7) V’Rav Chessed - And Abundant in kindness. G-d shows great kindness towards those who need it but do not deserve it by their own merit. He tilts the scales in favor of merit.

(8) Ve’Emes - And Truth. He is eminently faithful to carry out His promises and to generously reward those who do His will.

(9) Notzeir Chessed La’alafim - Preserver of kindness for thousands [of generations]. G-d guards and preserves the good deeds that righteous people do for many generations, bringing benefits to their descendants far into the future.

(10) Nosei Avon - Forgiver of iniquity. G-d forgives intentional sinners, if they repent.

(11) Va’fesha [Forgiver of] willful sin. G-d even forgives those who purposely rebel against Him and He eagerly waits for their repentance.

(12) V’Chata’ah - And [Forgiver of] error. G-d forgives sins that are committed out of apathy and carelessness. One must repent even on sins which are committed unintentionally, as soon as he becomes aware of them.

(13) V’Nakei - And Who cleanses. In G-d’s great and boundless compassion, He accepts a person’s teshuvah and wipes his slate totally clean, so that no remnant of the sin remains. Even if the person were to commit the same sin again, only the new sin would be held against him, for the old sin has already been forgiven and wiped away.

This Yom Kippur, as we sit in the synagogue for long hours, reciting the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy over and over again 13 times, let’s remember to pause and reflect on just how fortunate we are to have these “lucky 13” in our lives. Considering all the sins we committed in the past year, if we were without G-d’s infinite compassion and mercy on Yom Kippur, we would truly be out of luck!

[Sources: Artscroll’s Yom Kippur Machzor, pages 108-111]


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