08. The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy

The pinnacle of the Seliḥot service is the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the divine attributes through which God governs the Jewish people. God revealed these attributes to Moshe Rabbeinu after forgiving the Jews for the sin of the Golden Calf. At that point, Moshe requested, “Let me behold Your presence” (Shemot 33:18). God replied, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name ‘Lord’” (ibid. 19). In other words, “I will reveal to you the attributes with which I relate to Israel.” Then:

The Lord came down in a cloud; He stood with him there and proclaimed the name Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and absolving them.” (Ibid. 34:5-7)

  1. Yoḥanan commented:

Had the verse not stated this, we would not have been able to say it. God wrapped Himself in a talit like a ḥazan and showed Moshe how to pray. God said to him: “Any time the Jews sin, they should recite these words, and I will forgive them.” (Rosh Ha-shana 17b)

We therefore recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy frequently during Seliḥot, on fast days, and on Yom Kippur.

Following the terrible sin of the Golden Calf, it became clear that the connection between God and the Jews is eternal and cannot be negated, no matter how sinful we are. Sins will indeed lead to punishment and terrible suffering, but the deeper connection between God and the Jews remains. Therefore, it is always possible to repent. By reciting the Thirteen Attributes we deepen our faith, connecting with God in such a profound way that it becomes clear that our sins are peripheral and external to us, and thus we can easily repent for them. Because the Thirteen Attributes reveal the exalted status of the Jewish people, they may be recited only with a minyan (SA 565:5; see section 7 regarding an individual praying alone).­­­[4]


[4]. To understand the power of the Thirteen Attributes, we must first explain that there are two ways in which God relates to the world. Kabbalistic sources usually call them ze’er anpin (smaller face) and arikh anpin (greater face). In Da’at Tevunot §134 and many other places, Ramḥal calls them governance through law (hanhagat ha-mishpat) and governance through unification (hanhagat ha-yiḥud). Normally God relates to Israel through law, according to which everything depends on a person’s actions. If he chooses good, he receives blessing; if he chooses evil, God’s shefa is withheld from him. However, God also relates to the world in a more elevated, hidden way. It is through this relationship, referred to as unification, that the world constantly advances and progresses toward its redemption. Even at low points of sin and punishment, God directs matters behind the scenes to ensure the continued elevation of the world. This relationship is dependent upon God’s covenant with Israel, which is expressed in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The more connected we are to the relationship of unification, the more our faith grows, and the more we can connect the world to its purpose. In a sense, this is repentance on the global scale. Forgiveness and atonement ensue, the heavenly prosecutors disappear, and blessing flows to the world.

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