Sacred and Profane History of Cherished Jewish Number 18

Neo-Nazis Also Revere Number — for Different Reason

Luckiest Number: What could be wrong with a German shoe store that emblazoned the number 18 on some sneakers? Maybe everything.
getty images
Luckiest Number: What could be wrong with a German shoe store that emblazoned the number 18 on some sneakers? Maybe everything.

By Gavriel Rosenfeld

Published November 06, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

For Jews the world over, the number 18 has long enjoyed a special status. In Jewish liturgy, the prayer known as the Amidah is also called the “Shmoneh Esreh” (“the 18”), referring to the number of separate blessings that originally comprised the prayer. In the Jewish numerological tradition of gematria, the number 18 has long been viewed as corresponding to the Hebrew word “chai,” meaning “alive” (derived by adding the eighth and 10th letters of the Hebrew alphabet, chet and yud).

Anyone who has written a check on the occasion of a Jewish simcha using a multiple of $18 knows that the number is synonymous with “mazal tov!” The number’s celebratory meaning has even been confirmed in present-day architecture, as is shown by Daniel Libeskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, whose plan is based on the upbeat slogan, “To Life!” (“l’chaim!”), and features a hall graced with 36 windows (or “double chai”).

Yet while the number 18 has an affirmative meaning in Jewish tradition, it has a much more controversial reputation in Germany. This past August, the Hamburg-based coffee company and online retailer, Tchibo, made headlines when it released a new item for sale: a pair of children’s sneakers emblazoned with the number 18 on the side.

Howls of protest ensued. After an Internet blogger drew attention to the sneakers on his Facebook page, other German web users condemned the product as highly offensive. For its part, Tchibo swiftly responded to the complaints and within a week issued an apology and withdrew the product from the market.

The reason for the ruckus comes directly from the strange bedfellows department: It turns out that Jews are not the only ones who cherish the number 18 — neo-Nazis do as well. For some time now, neo-Nazis have employed their own right-wing version of gematria to link the number 18 to the initials of the former Führer, Adolf Hitler (“A” being the first letter of the alphabet, “H” being the eighth).

This numerological calculation is part of a larger counter-cultural tradition on the German right. Ever since the end of World War II and the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, the historic symbols of the Third Reich (swastikas, SS runes, and the like) have been officially banned from public display. As a result, right-wing Germans, like their colleagues in other Western countries, have tried to circumvent the prohibition by developing an elaborate semiotic system of doubly-coded signs and symbols that appear superficially benign, but covertly communicate their political allegiances to those in the know.

Among these symbols are combinations of numbers and letters, such as 88 (translating to “HH” and denoting “Heil Hitler”) and H8 (as in “hate”); occult symbols, such as the 12-armed “black sun” that serves as an ersatz swastika; items of clothing, such as Fred Perry shirts (whose trademark laurel wreath has been appropriated as a sign of “victory”); and even footwear (Doc Martens boots have long been favored by skinheads, but New Balance running shoes are now apparently en vogue (the capital “N” apparently signifies “National Socialist”).

Given the depth of this covert symbolic universe, it is no small wonder that the Tchibo sneaker design caused such a furor in Germany. Especially in light of growing concerns about neo-Nazi activity — epitomized by the ongoing trial in Munich of Beate Zschäpe, the lone surviving member of an extremist National Socialist underground cell that killed 10 people, mostly Turkish immigrants, between 2000 and 2007 — it is hardly surprising that the coffee company sought to defuse the controversy before it got any larger.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.