Echad Mi Yodea: I Know Thirteen

hero image

We take so much for granted, even on Seder night. Even as we celebrate the how’s and why’s of our redemption from Egypt too often we leave unanswered the most important question, Why? Why the redemption?

That there were miracles, signs, wonders and plagues we accept without question. It is the why that remains unasked. Until we near the conclusion of the Seder. Then we ask. We sing, Echad mi yodea?

One question.

Thirteen answers.

The song enumerates our faith, beliefs and traditions, founded in the affirmation of One God and summing up in the recognition of His thirteen attributes.

But what is the song’s special connection to Pesach? That it is a powerful statement about Jewish faith and experience is unquestioned. It could very well be recited every day of the year, as a reminder to young and old alike of the tenets of our faith, just as the thirteen principles of faith enumerated by Rambam are recited by many following the morning services.

Reb Yissachar Dov of Belz suggested that it is precisely the celebration of the Seder that brings out our very public declaration of these tenets. He compared the singing of the “Song of Thirteen” at the Seder to the wealthy man who is generally circumspect about revealing his riches. But on those rare occasions when he’s had too much wine to drink, the nobleman is more loquacious than usual and, unable to hold back, publicly proclaims the gold, silver and jewels in his possession. So too the people of Israel, after consuming the four cups of wine, cannot hold back from revealing the wealth they possess – One God, two tablets, three fathers, four mothers…

Riches and wealth, fine. But it is the number thirteen itself that seems to draw us. Is there any particular significance to why we list thirteen categories, themes and elements basic to our faith and observance? Is the number thirteen of any particular significance on the night of Pesach?

There is another set of “thirteen” listed in the Haggadah – the thirteen plagues. Thirteen plagues? Yes. Ten plagues plus the three as understood by Rabbi Yehudah, who grouped them by initials to ensure our remembrance of them. Thirteen.

What horror these plagues visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians! So much so that some might suggest that the reason for the Exodus was primarily to punish those who had so mistreated the Israelites. Certainly the punishment of evil is a necessary and noble reason. In this view, the why of the Exodus was to inflict the thirteen plagues.

Who can argue that such punishment was much deserved by Pharaoh? But is the punishment of evil, well deserved by definition, the reason we are brought together at the Seder table to celebrate our redemption? No. The Haggadah ends on a positive and laudatory note. Yes, it is true that “He brought us out from Egypt, executed judgments upon them and upon their gods . ,” but that was not the reason we were redeemed. “He led us before Mount Sinai, gave us the Torah.” The nation of Israel was born and chosen for good; we have not been chosen to demean or degrade others, but rather to serve God, study His Torah and observe His commandments.

Our answer to the why of redemption is clear. We were redeemed to serve God; to observe His Torah, to continue the traditions of the patriarchs and matriarchs, to study the Torah, keep the Sabbath… These are the reasons why, thirteen of them and they must be proclaimed before the Seder is done.

Thirteen plagues. Thirteen attributes.

And God’s thirteen attributes of mercy.

We were redeemed from Egypt. That said, there are many times when we do not fulfill the promise of our redemption. We succumb to the seductions of the world around us. Eventually, we come back to our senses and wonder what if anything could be done to repent and do teshuvah.

We come back not just as individuals but also as a community, as a klal. We join hands with all Israel, link ourselves with Moses our teacher, aim our hearts directly at God, and we recite selichot. The most important and most characteristic act of preparation for the Yamim HaNoraim is the special midnight service known as selichot. The singular form, selichah, literally means “forgiveness” and is a prayer in which the worshipper appeals to God for forgiveness of sins and reminds Him of His promised mercy. At the same time, selichot are preoccupied with the suffering, affliction, persecution and humiliation that have been our people’s lot in exile. Yet we confirm our faith in God’s mercy and reaffirm our absolute conviction that redemption will replace the anguish of our dispersion.

The first mention that there is a distinct order to the selichot is a most insightful and revealing text found in Tanna devei Eliyahu Zuta. It reads,

David knew that the Temple was destined to be destroyed and that the sacrificial system would be abolished as a result of the iniquities of Israel. David was distressed for Israel. With what would they effect atonement? The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “When troubles come down upon Israel because of their iniquities, let them stand together before Me as one band and confess their iniquities before Me and recite before Me the order of the selichot and I will answer them. . . .” Rabbi Johanan said, “The Holy One. blessed be He, revealed this in the verse and the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, the Lord, the Lord, manifest and gracious … Hashem, Hashem rachum vechanun. This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, descended from the mist like a shaliach tzibur, enveloped in his talit, stood before the ark and revealed to Moses the order of the selichot.”

What a revelation! God, cognizant of mortal man’s frailty and fragility, eager for man to live, repent and strive higher, shows man in very specific ways and even with specific words how to approach Him in prayer, by reciting His Thirteen attributes of mercy. God went so far as to appear as a shaliach tzibur, enveloped in a tallit, therby instructing His nation to, first and foremost, stand united and together in confession and prayer, and He will answer them. After all, “You are a God slow to anger, and are called Lord of Mercy, and have shown the way of repentance.” (v’derech teshuva ho’reita.)

Central to the selichot are two well-developed units—the thirteen Divine attributes and the confession of sin.

The thirteen attributes of God have their origin, in the Torah’s account of the golden calf crisis. The Torah relates that Moses prayed on behalf of the children of Israel and that God forgave them. Moses prayed again, “Show me, I pray Thee, Thy glory.” God answered his prayer and made known to him “all His goodness.” Va’yered Hashem be’anan… Hashem keil rachum v’chanun (Shemot 34:5-6)

The Divine attributes are mentioned a second time in the Torah, in connection with the twelve spies who returned from the Holy Land with an evil report. The people were dejected and cried: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, etc.” They openly rebelled against Moses and God. God was ready to “strike them with pestilence and disown them.” Upon hearing God’s intention, Moses prayed for his people. He pleads for forgiveness on behalf of all Israel by invoking the thirteen attributes of God. He concludes the plea with “O forgive the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of Thy kindness. “ And God responds: “I have pardoned as you have asked.”

In the selichot service, the congregation repeats this supplication of Moses in the hope that their prayers will prove as effective as Moses’. Several times throughout each selichot service the thirteen attributes are recited and conclude with Moses’ prayer. The Talmud quotes Rabbi Johanan as saying: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, Whenever Israel sins let them read the passage containing the thirteen attributes and I will forgive them.’ “ Furthermore, Rabbi Judah said, “A covenant was decreed that the recitation of the thirteen attributes never be rejected.” The recitation of the thirteen attributes, however, is not meant to be a magic formula which results in absolution. First and foremost in the process of teshuvah is the recognition of one’s own sin and failure, accompanied by a willingness to confess one’s sin ant resolve not to repeat them. The recitation of the thirteen attributes is therefore followed by the vidui, the confession of sin; an alphabetical listing of sins expressed in generic terms, stated in the plural; ashamnu, bagadnu, etc.

From the first premise then of belief and faith in One God, the “Song of Thirteen” brings us back full circle to God and His merciful attributes. The number thirteen has special significance on Pesach night when we reaffirm more than on any other occasion our abiding faith in the One God, who “took us out of Egypt. Not through an angel and not through a seraph, and not through a messenger—only the Holy One blessed is He, in His own glory and selfhood.” On Pesach night we are reminded of the special and intimate relationship we enjoy with God, who intervenes personally, who demonstrates concern, guides our destiny and cares for the individual and the collective community. This relationship is ultimately affirmed by God in His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which when sincerely invoked by His children will never be rejected.

Echad mi yodea? Shelosha asar mi yodea?

Who knows one?

Who knows thirteen?