The Unlucky Number Thirteen

Main Piece

Subject: So Grandma Gordon was a very superstitious woman. She believed in many of the superstitions that have been passed along from the “Old Country” and carried forth through generations.

Interviewer: The Old Country? That would be Russia?

Subject: Yeah Russia. That’s probably ultimately where it came from. People really believed in a lot of things. Like thirteen was a really bad number. And even to this day, I still have that in my head that there is something about thirteen. So Grandma Gordon wouldn’t live in a building that had a thirteenth floor. So the building that they lived in interestingly, in Fort Lauderdale, didn’t have a thirteenth floor. It was almost a thirty story building but it didn’t have a thirteenth floor. And they built the buildings that way because they were trying to sell to people who really believed in these things that wouldn’t live in a building that had that thirteenth floor. So it went twelve… fourteen.

Context: The subject is a white middle-aged male of Ashkenazi and Eastern-European descent. He was born and raised in Tiverton, Rhode Island with his parents and two siblings. He also happens to be my father, and we are currently quarantined together at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner one night, I was sitting with him in my dimly lit living room, and I asked if he would share with me any folk beliefs he had heard passed through the family.

Interpretation: I am very familiar with superstition that the number thirteen is extremely unlucky, but I had no idea of its ties to “The Old Country.” Upon further research, I found that the number thirteen is considered unlucky across many religions and cultures. The superstition is also tied to the measure of time. Sumerians built the ancient calendar using the number twelve. There are two sets of twelve hours in a day, twelve months in a year. Because twelve was considered the perfect number, thirteen was considered unlucky. Additionally, in Christianity, it is considered unlucky because at the Last Supper, there were thirteen people sitting at the table and one of them, Judas, ended up betraying Jesus. This seemed to be the most common source of thirteen’s unluckiness. I suspect the superstition’s spread in Russia to have originated from a variety of origins. Furthermore, I found that the number thirteen is significant but not considered unlucky in some cultures. In Judaism, thirteen is the year where a young Jewish boy or girl becomes a bar or bat mitzvah. I find it so interesting that despite my being Jewish, my father, and his grandmother, the belief that thirteen is still very unlucky is ingrained in their brains.