I work on the fourth floor of an office building in Manhattan. This week my eyes glanced up in the elevator and I noticed that my building does not have a 13th floor. I realize that is common, but it still seems strange that it goes from 12 to 12A to 14. And in some buildings they just skip the floor completely. It seemed a little crazy that in an industrialized country in the 21st century we still have a fear of the number 13. What is the origin of Triskaidekaphobia?
According to Cecil Adams:
But 13’s stock dropped like a rock in the middle ages. The proximate cause of this apparently was the observation that Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, made 13 at the table. Other great medieval minds, I read here, pointed out that “the Jews murmured 13 times against God in the exodus from Egypt, that the thirteenth psalm concerns wickedness and corruption, that the circumcision of Israel occurred in the thirteenth year,” and so on.
Pretty thin excuse for maligning a number that never meant any harm, you may think. I agree. We must inquire further, and if we do we conclude that while open hostility to 13 may be relatively recent, folks have had their suspicions about it for quite a while. Thirteen is a prime; primes have always attracted attention (compare 7). What’s worse, 13 is one past 12, the dozen, almost universally regarded as a perfect number, signifying harmony and all good things. Thirteen, by contrast, is a number of transgression, taking matters one step too far, turning harmony into discord. ( The Straight Dope)
Having just finished Passover, I am not that interested in any more Last Supers, but I am interested in the idea of going beyond perfection and or the norm. 13 is just past the perfect 12 ( Hours in 1/2 a day, months in a year, tribes, and of course the disciples). But why is this bad and not good?
In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the ceremony to ordain the priests and consecrate the Tabernacle on the eighth day. Moses instructed Aaron to assemble calves, rams, a goat, a lamb, an ox, and a meal offering as sacrifices to God, saying: “Today the Lord will appear to you.” ( Leviticus 9:1-4) They brought the sacrifices to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and the Israelites assembled there. Aaron began offering the sacrifices as Moses had commanded on this the eighth day. What is the significance of the number eight?
Seven are the days of creation. This eighth day is the first commemoration of the first day of creation.( Megilah 10b) It is the number of the natural world. Eight is also one day beyond God’s creation. Eight is the number related to our impact on the world. Eight is what makes us partners in creating the world. Similarly we perform a Brit Milah on the eighth day. While in Jewish imagination we are born without sin, it does not mean that we are born perfect. We still have work to do to better ourselves. The number eight corresponds to our realizing our role in the universe.
It seems that both 7 and 12 represent important natural numbers. Going one beyond these numbers is a mixed lot. For us as Jews the number eight is an auspicious number, and for our neighbors the number thirteen is not as lucky. So I am confused when I get off on the 12A-th floor, but at least on the “eighth day” I know where I stand. I still have a lot of work to do to realized my role in making the world a better place.