The Rabbi’s Sermon
a short story by Larry Centor

It has been brought to my attention that one of the couples in our congregation is about to celebrate their thirteenth wedding anniversary. Before wishing Joan and Larry Centor a hearty “mazel tov,” I would like to explore with you the meaning of shlo’shah ah’sar, the number 13, a number steeped in mysticism and much unwarranted superstition.

Our society usually marks a marriage with numerical milestones. Certainly, the first anniversary is significant since the sages tell us that if you live with another person for a full year, why not a second? A third? A fourth? Then, of course, there are the traditional markers—5, 10, 25, 50. But why not 13?

After all, does not the word for the One, the Almighty, “Echad”—constituted of the letters aleph, cheth, dalet—add up to 13? Is all the fear and superstition surrounding the number 13 not merely a failure to understand the deeper, fuller aspects of a number so important to us in our lives as Jews, and even too as Americans?

Was it not, after all, the thirteenth amendment to our great United States Constitution that freed the slaves? And was it not 13 colonies that freed themselves from the dominance of a foreign power?

And are not the lyrics for Thirteen Women among the most unappreciated of our time, transcendental as they are to the central theme of shlo’shah ah’sar—13? And is it not significant that the other side of Thirteen Women is Rock Around the Clock, a song in which twelve o’clock and one o’clock also add up to thirteen? And how many other times of our eternal clock add up to the sanctity of thirteen?

The number is indeed blessed.

Beyond its derivation from Echad, beyond the mystique of Echad Me Yodayah, the Pesach rubric that asks us to consider “Who Knows One?”—but, in reality asking, “Who knows 13?”—is the basic essence by which we interpret the Torah itself. I refer to the middot—God’s 13 attributes—which come to us from the Book of Exodus.

“The Lord, the Lord is a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and truth. He extends kindness to the thousandth generation, forgives iniquity, transgression and sin, and clears the guiltless.”

Our scholars tell us that this passage is not meant to describe God’s philosophy, but rather to establish a basis for ethical behavior. It is this basis that the scholars use to guide them in their interpretation of the Torah, which is, of course, the foundation of our individual and collective lives as Jews.

It is not without accident that Bar Mitzvah comes at the age of 13, for the number is regarded as the threshold into the world of responsibility. And here I would like to inject a personal observation regarding Joan and Larry’s son Joshua, now 11, but already preparing for the joyous occasion of his own Bar Mitzvah this Memorial Day weekend, right here in our own sanctuary.

Joshua was born on August 8, 1982—often written 8-8-82, numbers which individually add up to 26, and when divided by his two loving parents, equal 13. It is not insignificant that Joan’s birthday is 5-28-47, again 26, which divided by her parents is again the mystical 13.

And Amanda—born March 18, 1987—written numerically as 3-18-87, numbers which total 27, again divided by the two parents, this time leaving 13 and a remainder of one, the joy of their youngest daughter.

The special significance of 13 was recognized by our sages well over 2,000 years ago when they incorporated their basic interpretations of the middot into the Siddur Ta’ahnoog, a little known but highly relevant book of the Apocrypha.

They started with Genesis 13:13, convinced that God the One—Echad—had spoken to His people through that number. Accordingly, they looked to the Bible and sought out His word. Genesis 13:13 tells us, “Now the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners against the Lord exceedingly.”

What was God trying to tell them in this veiled message concerning the relationship between men and women? After much discussion, the sages concluded with the opening verse of Siddur Ta’ahnoog: “Man is naturally inclined to the pleasures offered by woman, in which he engaged exceedingly in Sodom, to the Lord’s displeasure.”

After pursuing, explaining and rationalizing this line of logic for some portions of the Siddur Ta’ahnoog, the scholars inscribed this next significant verse in their interpretation of Genesis 13:13. “It, therefore, devolves on woman to constrain man’s natural inclination to excess by providing a firm foundation for satisfaction within the confines of the marital relationship as sanctioned by Him.”

It was here that the sages firmly set for time and all time to come the basis for matriarchal domination of the Jewish family. It unquestionably required a great deal of courage for these prophetic and learned men to realize that they themselves were incapable of accomplishing much more than the simplest of tasks while constrained by the precepts of Genesis 13:13.

According to Genesis 13:13, as interpreted by the scholars, man is capable of devoting his entire energy only toward the fulfillment of one basic instinct — an incendiary relationship with woman. The scholars were seeking His help in their one guidebook to the essential relationship among man, woman and God — the Torah.

It devolved upon these sages to reconcile man’s fantasy with hidden and unhidden, bidden and unbidden, sensate pleasures with the responsibilities of traditional Jewish life. They did this by instructing woman to nurture man’s baser instincts within the temple of herself, “to remove temptation by being temptress, to remove fantasy by being fantastic, to capture and enrapture deep within your essence.”

Having reached this precept, they went on to Exodus 13:13 which tells us, “And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break its neck; and all the first-born of man among thy sons shalt thou redeem.”

I am certain that in their deliberations many pilpuls were delivered on every phrase of this truly significant verse from Exodus. We can conclude, at the least, that it is highly suggestive in nature. It poses positive the theorem that not only is man an ass, a stubborn animal, but in another sense that he is preoccupied with that anatomical portion for which a multitude of phrases have come into the vernacular. And here we say, “Thank you, God.”

If, then, man is an ass, then woman is the lamb. It is her responsibility, pointed out the sages, to redeem man by “breaking the neck” of that with which man is preoccupied. The sages concluded that “neck” was an allusion, and woman could resolve the illusion by wilting, or breaking, the allusion—the “neck.”

“In this way,” wrote the sages, “woman will satisfy man’s natural instincts while cleaving him to his familial obligations.”

Interestingly, the sages based a portion of their reasoning on an earlier commentary to Exodus 13:13 which says simply, “Every one would prefer parting with a lamb to losing an ass.”

The scholars further expressed their conviction that Exodus 13:13 obligated woman to conceive, so that the generations to come could adhere to the Lord’s will as set forth in the Torah. Interestingly, it was here that they formulated the postulate that, “In order for future generations to exist side by side with the generations which both precede and succeed, then it is incumbent upon woman to assure the continuity of man.”

It is here that the sages became concerned not only with man’s baser instincts as expressed in Genesis 13:13, and his character as specified in Exodus 13:13, but also with the quality of the “lamb’s sacrifice” necessary to pacify man and allow him to fulfill his patriarchal role as father and provider in a docile yet respectable manner.

You must remember that all this took place thousands of years before the women’s liberation movement, a movement that further strengthened the role of woman as the dominant force not only in Jewish society, but in every aspect of civilization. The eternal quest for kabootie, however, is outside the scope of this discussion.

And so, the sages came to Leviticus 13:13. “Then the priest shall look; and behold, if the leprosy have covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce him clean that hath the plague; it is all turned white: he is clean.”

This appeared to the sages to be quite straightforward. If the priest—“woman”—an extremely liberal definition for a time some two millennia back, shall find “his”—her husband’s—flesh in an irritated, agitated state, it shall be considered a sign from Him that she shall fulfill her injunction and cause it to be “all turned white.”

“Thus,” agreed the sages, “would the temple of her body be fulfilled, and His will be done.”

Numbers 13:13 was approached with much excitement, for it was felt that here was the crux of God’s message to man concerning the inevitability of matriarchal dominance. And they were not to be disappointed. According to Numbers 13:13. “Of the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael.”

While the verse may, at first, appear somewhat obscure, to the sages it was a sentence that shone with clarity.

Asher is, of course, Jacob’s second son by Zilpah, Leah’s handmaiden, and Leah in her joy for her husband’s fortune in having another son named him Asher, which is translated as happy.

Indeed, in Jacob’s blessing to his sons, which came to be regarded as prophetic anticipation for succeeding generations, he reached into his son’s “happy” soul.

“As for Asher, his bread shall be fat,
And he shall yield royal dainties.”

Here the sages agreed that since this derived from Numbers 13:13—a verse which in reality deals with the spies sent into Canaan by Moses—it was essential that for man to be joyous and successful in his endeavors, it was incumbent upon woman not only to vest him with the succor of her temple, but to offer it in the frequency proscribed by the Torah, by the injunction of the double 13s, reiterated to the extreme in the verse from Numbers.

“It is clear,” scribed the sages in Siddur Ta’ahnoog, “that in order to maintain her role as the dominant member of the family, the wife must offer up her temple at least 13 times in a month, ’One’—’Echad’—aleph, cheth, dalet—one, eight, four—’13.’”

To this, the sages further deduced that the notation for the sacred verse in Numbers—13:13—consisted of four characters and one symbol—a total of five. This when added to 13 gives us—chai—18—“life.”

“While 13 is sacred in terms of the devotion of a woman to her family, 18 should be considered a blessing in the extreme. While it is not commanded of woman to allow man to pray at her temple 18 times between full moons, God looks with increased favor upon the woman who assumes this added measure of religious devotion.”

Finally, the sages looked to the only book of the Bible directly attributed to the hand of Moses, Deuteronomy. In verse 13:13 of that sacred text it is written:

“Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you.”

Here the sages harkened back to Moses’ confrontation with the Burning Bush, with God, Echad, 13. And God thundered from the bush—itself not an insignificant allusion—“Go down Moses!”

Moses, of course, himself a product of Genesis 13:13, not to mention the more specific Exodus 13:13, rushed with word of the revelation to his wife Zipporah, a wise and prophetic woman in her own right. It is written in Siddur Ta’ahnoog that she responded, “Moses, if you must go down, whom am I to stand in God’s way? I will await whatever is to come.”

It was this simple theological statement that forms the concluding verse of Siddur Ta’ahnoog, that verse which has come to define the essential spirit of Jewish domesticity.

“It was a bright cold day in Tishrei, and the sun showed that it was 13 in the afternoon.”


©1999 Larry Centor

Click here to leave a comment on this story