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In the piyyut Echad Mi Yodeya, recited at the Passover seder, we discuss what relates to the first thirteen numbers.

Most of these are central to Jewish belief: One is Hashem, two are the Tablets (representing the giving of the Torah), the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Written and Oral Torah, Sabbath and circumcision (two of the most important mitzvos), the Ten Commandments (which include the whole Torah), the twelve tribes, Hashem's mercy.

But two of these stand out: Nine are the months of pregnancy and Eleven stars [in Yosef's dream]. These seem to be only marginally related to central Jewish thought.

Is there some special significance of the nine months of pregnancy and the eleven stars of Yosef's dream? Or did the author just not think of anything better to say for nine and eleven?

  • In a small sense, #9 is a follow-up to #8 (in terms of the explanation as well as numerically ;-) You can't have a brit milah unless the child is born! In another sense, birth itself is a mitzvah. I can't say about the 11 stars, unless somehow Yosef's dream eventually started our entire being in Egypt in the first place? – DanF Mar 24 '15 at 21:29
  • Actually, the gemara notes that it could be only seven months, meaning six and a half months... Moshe was born three months early at minimum viability. I have a currently unsubstantiated feeling that the 9 months has a more esoteric connotation regarding spiritual formation of X where X is humanity, human efforts, etc. something like that. Yosef's dream is a bit more explicable as it relates to golus and ge'ulah, but I don't have any specific sources to point to for providing proof... – Isaac Kotlicky Mar 25 '15 at 9:31
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R' Shimshon Pinkus published a sefer called ברכות בחשבון (that's breichos, not brachos) which goes through the song Mi Yodeya and explains the philosophical significance of each one and how it fits in to the chain of the song. His thesis is that the words of the refrain are not מה אחד מי יודע - "who knows what there is one of" - but rather "אחד מי יודע" - "who knows one," i.e. who knows what "one" is. He explains how each chosen item demonstrates and epitomizes what that number represents in Jewish thought.

The ideas are rather complex and difficult to summarize, but I'll do my best:

Nine: Eight represents "למעלה מן הטבע," going above nature, that Hashem is not subject to and can override the natural order. Nine represents something above that - that Hashem is beyond all definition, אין סוף (limitless), and we can only describe Him by what He is not. This, however, is still not the highest level. This is still something we can understand - we understand that Hashem's existence is beyond our understanding. But even that is, at the end of the day, a shade of "definition," albeit a safer one. This is the "presentation" to us, on our level, of Hashem being beyond definition. But above that is the level of לך דומיה תפילה (Tehillim 65:2), to You silence is praise - meaning that there isn't even anything we can express. "Nine" is the level of the realization that Hashem is אין סוף.

This is encapsulated in the process of birth, through which the soul, which is destined for eternal life, and through it man has in him צלם אלקים and an aspect of infinitude, is put into man. This parallels the "revelation" of Hashem's infiniteness being presented on our level - the חלק אלוק ממעל being put into man - the "אין סוף הנגלה והנתפס," the "infinite which is revealed and expressed" (quotation is from R' Pinkus).

Eleven: I am going to majorly oversimplify because he goes on for pages developing this idea. Eleven is the number which represents the sitra achra, the "negative side" of spirituality, as well as the ability to overcome the sitra achra. R' Pinkus goes at length to explain how and why this is so, but I won't attempt to do it justice here. The eleven stars in the dream represented the ability of the brothers (as part of the greater picture of the thirteen stars, as there were actually thirteen stars in the dream) to vanquish the sitra achra.

I suggest reading it (and the rest of the book!) inside to actually get what he is saying.

  • 2
    +1 the entire book is about this song?! – user6591 Mar 25 '15 at 23:03
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    @user6591 53 pages. Then some random stuff at the end about other things. – Y     e     z Mar 26 '15 at 0:01
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    +1, very nice. In Kabbalah, this is also the explanation of why there are 11 spices in the Kitores - because it rectifies the sitra achra. – Yishai Mar 26 '15 at 2:29
  • @Yishai Yes, he talks about that also. Among many other things. – Y     e     z Mar 26 '15 at 3:48
  • "When working toward a solution it always helps to know the answer!" – Al Berko Apr 27 at 17:55

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