The Amidah (Part 37) Afterword: When Twelve Becomes Thirteen
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (George Orwill)
As our journey of discovery into the Amidah draws to a conclusion, an intriguing issue has not yet been addressed. The original text of the Amidah comprised eighteen blessings as was composed by the Men of the Great Assembly. The number eighteen is so integral that the Amidah is often called “The Shemoneh Esrei” in Jewish sources and colloquially today. As mentioned in part fifteen of this series, an additional blessing was added by the Sanhedrin under the leadership of Rabban Gamliel in Yavne, hundreds of years after the original composition. Even allowing for the threatening situation the Jewish community in Israel faced from Jewish heretics and instigators at the time, taking the step of adding another blessing to the Amidah was a somewhat radical move. Nonetheless, Rabban Gamliel initiated and sanctioned the extra blessing, giving a clear indication that its addition did not change the spiritual dimensions of the Amidah.
One might ask: “Why was it permitted to turn eighteen blessings into nineteen blessings, without concern for there being a fundamental change to the precise and flawless structure of the Amidah as composed by the Men of the Great Assembly?”
In order to answer this question, we need to take a short detour to explore the numbers twelve and thirteen. On several occasions, the numbers twelve and thirteen seem to share a duality that gives them the appearance of being identical. Possibly the most famous example is the number of months of the year. The secular year always consists of twelve months. Yet, the Jewish year is usually twelve months long, but, every three years (give or take) it becomes thirteen months. How does that happen? In general, the Jewish year is lunar-based but it is also regulated by the solar cycle. Using the solar cycle ensures that the Torah directive for Pesach to always be in the spring is followed. (Devarim 16:1) However, due to the fact that the lunar year is eleven days shorter than the solar year, an extra month is added to the cycle every few years to make up for the accumulated “loss” of days and to keep the solar and lunar years aligned. Fascinatingly, the extra month is not considered an independent month with its own identity. Rather, it is regarded as an extension of the last month of the year. The Jewish year, according to the months, begins in the spring with Nissan and Pesach. And the year ends with the month of Adar and Purim. When an extra month is added to the year, the twelfth month is called Adar Rishon – the first Adar – and the thirteenth month is called Adar Sheni – the second Adar. Our Sages did not give the second month its own name because both months share the same spiritual characteristics and really belong to each other.
Another example is that of the Twelve Tribes. From its inception, the Jewish nation has been comprised of Twelve Tribes. Yet, when Yosef asked his father to bless his two children, Ephraim and Menashe, Yaakov Avinu did something, seemingly, inexplicable. He did not just bless them, but, rather, he elevated them to the status of Tribes (Ber. 48:5). This meant that there were now thirteen Tribes and not twelve (when Ephraim and Menashe are listed, the Tribe of Yosef is not counted). How was it possible for Yaakov to alter the Divine scheme and add another Tribe? Because, as we have seen with the months of the year, when twelve becomes thirteen, the essence of the Jewish People is not changed in any way. More than that, the Rabbis teach that each month corresponds to one of the Tribes. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak from Berditchev (1740-1809) was renowned for his endless love and infinite concern for the Jewish People. He was nicknamed the “defense attorney of Israel” due to the way that he would always plead with Hashem on their behalf. Sometimes his entreaties were extremely convoluted as he attempted to find a positive angle that he could present to Hashem. But he never failed to find one. His teachings about the Torah portions and the yearly cycle are published as Kedushat Levi and are considered to be a timeless classic in Chassidic thought and philosophy. In Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak writes that when there are twelve months in the year, the month of Adar corresponds to Yosef. But, when there are thirteen months, the two months of Adar correspond to Ephraim and Menashe.
There are other examples as well, but the general principle is that the numbers twelve and thirteen can be interchanged without affecting the spiritual configuration they are associated with. Just as with the months of the year and the Tribes.
How does this symbiotic relationship between twelve and thirteen connect to the Amidah? Every Amidah shares the same structure. The three opening blessings and three concluding blessings are consistent for every single Amidah. It is the blessings in the middle that define which Amidah is being recited. For example, on Shabbat the blessings in the middle all revolve around the sanctity of Shabbat. The Amidah that is recited on a regular weekday is comprised of all the blessings and requests that we have explored together. Aside from the six blessings every Amidah opens and concludes with, during the week there are another thirteen blessings recited. They are thirteen blessings that were originally twelve. And this is why, when Rabban Gamliel added a thirteenth blessing to the central part of the Amidah, the addition did not alter the spiritual underpinnings of the Amidah. There is a shared duality that exists between the numbers twelve and thirteen. And this explains why it is still known as the Shemoneh Esrei despite actually being comprised of nineteen and not eighteen blessings.
But what is it about twelve and thirteen that connects them together in a way not found with other numbers? One of the most basic characterizations of the Jewish People is that of the Twelve Tribes. The Midrash teaches that Yaakov, Rachel and Leah knew they were destined to have twelve sons and that those twelve sons would be the nucleus from which the Jewish nation would emerge. In a sense, the number twelve encapsulates the wholeness of Hashem’s Chosen nation.
The number thirteen, on the other hand, represents Hashem. In gematria of the number thirteen is echad – one (aleph-1, chet-8, dalet-4). The Maharal (Netivot Olam, Netiv HaAvodah) explains that echad denotes something that is absolute and complete. That is why the Shema, probably our most universally recognized prayer, declares “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.”
Our eternal identity as the Twelve Tribes is entirely dependent on our unwavering bond with Hashem. We are inexorably attached to our Father in Heaven. It is from Hashem’s “Oneness” that we draw our identity and our ability to navigate the stormy seas of Jewish history. It is when we add our twelve to Hashem’s Echad that we become thirteen.
Twelve and thirteen are numbers that belong to each other. And what could be more fitting than to find them “hidden” within the Amidah, the prayer that defines how our spiritual and physical identity is dependent on Hashem. As the Ramchal (Adir Bamarom), based on the words of the Zohar, writes in Aramaic, “Kudsha Brich Hu v’Oraiyta v’Yisrael Kulah Chad Hu.” “Hashem, the Torah and the Jewish People are all one.”