Triskaidekophobia and the Jewish Condition

Jews have many oddities, but triskaidekophobia is not one of them. Triskaidekophobia is fear of the number 13 – why hotels have no thirteenth floor, why airports omit “Gate 13,” and why some offices close on Friday the 13th. Fear of Friday the 13th specifically, incidentally, has its own name — paraskevidekatriaphobia — a condition that is certainly not natively Jewish.

Friday, after all, is erev Shabbat, a day most dearly to be desired. And as for 13, well, already in the second century, a midrash offered 13 principles for interpreting Torah. In the Middle Ages, Maimonides produced his 13 principles of faith. And in modern times, Menachem Mendel of Satanov (1749–1826), an admirer of Maimonides, and influenced also by Benjamin Franklin’s ideas on moral reform — drew up a list of 13 character traits to be pursued. The Passover song “Who knows One [Echad mi yode’a?]) ends with, “Who knows 13?”

It should not surprise us, therefore, to find the Talmud announcing thirteen attributes of God, a topic so fascinating that I’ve just edited a book on the subject (Encountering God, [Jewish Lights Publishing], due out this spring).

The attributes are revealed while Moses hides in the cleft of a rock where God’s glory is about to pass him by. No mortal can see God’s face and live, but Moses is allowed to see God’s back side, as it were, the wake, that is, of God’s presence. What he sees are the 13 attributes, beginning with Adonai Adonai el rachum v’chanun (“God, God, merciful and gracious”) and then moving on to the judgmental side of God as well. Jewish liturgy incorporates only the first half, however, the kind and gentle side of God that embraces human beings in forgiveness and love.

These attributes appear most prominently as bookends to the Yom Kippur service, when our sins lie prominently before us and we wonder whether God will even put up with us anymore. That matter is quickly settled by the selective perception by which the Rabbis conveniently ignore the attributes of God’s judgment and focus instead on God’s mercy alone.

Yes, mercy. But not just that alone. Other words will do as well: love, kindness, compassion, for example. These are the ways we Jews remember God.

And not just at synagogue services. Perhaps the best instance of acknowledging God’s presence comes from Jewish wisdom on visiting the sick. The Talmud stipulates most of the rules, which then find their way into our medieval codes of Jewish law: the Tur, for example, from the 13th century.

Contrary to expectation, we are not urged primarily to pray for those who are sick. Not that prayer is denigrated, but most of the rules refer to more ordinary things: sweeping the floor, making the patient comfortable, and instead of chattering endlessly, awaiting cues from the patient as to what conversation is desirable.

The most fascinating rule is the instruction to sit at the foot of the bed — because God sits at the other end, at the patient’s head. Patients cannot see God, who sits above their sight line, but that seems to be where we come in. The patient sees us and in our eyes, sees God reflected. Sitting on the bed is like sitting in our own cleft of the rock, watching God’s presence and having that presence reflected in our faces for the patient to see.

What the patient sees in our faces is the synopsis of the 13 attributes: our own love, compassion, gentleness and kindness — characteristics we learned to take on because we are made in God’s image.

The world becomes Godly because we make it so. We are ambassadors of the divine and to the extent that we make the 13 attributes of God’s love the mark of our presence in the world, we represent God the way God wants to be known.

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2 responses to “Triskaidekophobia and the Jewish Condition

  1. My bat mitzvah was on a Friday night the 13th, and despite my mother’s wardrobe masterminding (think tall hair and a big velvet bow smack in the back of it) I still remember it as the night I realized that I loved to lead services and read from the torah. I’m in my 13th year as our congregation’s educator, and as a part of my particular job I have the rare privilege of helping to lead services and chant torah as well as going on pastoral visits (sometimes with clergy, sometimes without.) Yesterday I visited a patient, and (for no reason, I thought) sat at the foot of the bed. Perhaps God is helping us to “represent?” I’ve often thought that. Thank you for writing.

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