Shiur #1: Understanding the 13 Middot - Introduction

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            There is no explicit Talmudic source for the widespread custom to recite the Selichot service, which revolve around the thirteen middot rachamim (attributes of mercy), on fasts, during the month of Elul and on Yom Kippur.  We find one source that addresses the general concept of reciting the thirteen attributes, in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (17b).  The Gemara there discusses different aspects of judgment, both the annual judgment of the Days of Awe as well as the great day of judgment that will take place at the end of days:


“The Lord passed in front of him and called...” (Shemot 34:6).  Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say [such a thing] – this teaches that the Almighty wrapped Himself as a sheli’ach tzibur [leader of the public prayer service] and showed Moshe the prayer service.  He said to him, “Any time Israel sins, let them perform this service before Me and I shall forgive them.”


            This Talmudic passage is a most difficult and enigmatic one, which gives rise to numerous questions.  For one thing, the basic idea conveyed by Rabbi Yochanan requires explanation.  Rabbi Yochanan comments that there is something in the Torah’s description of this event that is somehow unimaginable, were it not for the special permission granted by the Scriptural account. What is so astonishing?


            Secondly, what action is effected through the thirteen attributes?  Rabbi Yochanan addresses the introduction to this narrative – “The Lord passed in front of him and called” – and interprets it as not merely God’s words to Moshe, but rather as a visual demonstration.  In Rabbi Yochanan’s words, “The Almighty wrapped Himself as a sheli’ach tzibur and showed Moshe the prayer service.”  The thirteen attributes were revealed not through learning or writing, but rather through a demonstration.  The thirteen attributes are, essentially, a prayer, and God revealed them to Moshe by presenting Himself as a chazan leading the congregation in this recitation.  Rabbi Yochanan expresses this concept both by referring to the Almighty as a sheli’ach tzibur and by speaking of a “prayer service.”


            In truth, this second question helps us in resolving the first.  The thirteen middot rachamim themselves are not so novel as to be unmentionable.  Rather, the astounding idea relates to the thirteen attributes as a prayer service recited before the Almighty, as Rabbi Yochanan himself concludes, “Any time Israel sins, let them perform this service before Me and I will forgive them.”  The point that we would have been unable to imagine had God not Himself demonstrated such a possibility is that the thirteen attributes serve as a medium of prayer through which atonement can be achieved.


            Later in this Talmudic passage, we read, “Rav Yehuda said: A covenant has been made with the thirteen attributes, that they do not return empty-handed [without achieving their desired goal], as it says, ‘Behold, I make a covenant’ (Shemot 34:10).”  Rav Yehuda understood that the “covenant” God declares after the revelation of the thirteen attributes refers to the attributes themselves.  The significance of the attributes’ status as a “covenant” lies in the commitment that the One who initiated the covenant – the Almighty – made to Benei Yisrael.  After presenting the thirteen attributes, God said to Moshe, “Behold, I make a covenant: I shall perform wonders in view of your entire nation…”  Normal prayer does not guarantee a response; some prayers indeed return “empty-handed.”  But a prayer involving a covenant demands a response – even if that response must take the form of “wonders.”  The thirteen attributes differ from all other prayers in that a covenant has been established that they will never be ineffective.


            This Gemara forms the basis of the custom to recite Selichot as part of the process of performing teshuva and asking for mercy.  We must ask ourselves, how is this recitation supposed to work?  After all, we deal here with but a list of names and descriptions of God.  This is not a prayer in the normal sense.  There is no supplication or request, no petition presented to God.  We simply dictate the divine Names of Havaya, Kel, and so on.  These are all names of God, but how can we call this list a “prayer service,” and how can this service bring atonement?


            If we combine this question with our analysis of Rabbi Yochanan’s remark, the problem is compounded.  On the one hand, the actual recitation of these divine Names appears so simple that we cannot understand why we need special “permission” to conduct this recitation.  But on the other hand, the special power that Rabbi Yochanan and Rav Yehuda ascribe to this recitation leaves us wondering why and how it actually works.  The recitation seems too simple a matter to necessitate the special visual demonstration that Rabbi Yochanan describes; yet the result is far greater than the recitation should be capable of achieving!


            I believe that the fundamental basis of Selichot – or, if you will, the secret of Selichot – is found in a concept that lies at the heart of our relationship with the Almighty, and of our actions, as perceived by Halakha and by Judaism generally.


            There is a rule in Judaism: the revelation of the divine glory in the world takes place upon a human chariot.  The Almighty appears and bestows His Shekhina upon the world to the extent to which human beings call to Him.  In other words, the Shekhina resides in the space that human beings make for it.  Regarding prayer, this means that the Almighty is revealed to the same degree to which people call out to Him.


            For example, one of the attributes of God with respect to the world is that of malkhut, kingship.  An ancient saying declares that “ein melekh be-lo am” – “there is no king without a nation.”  When the people proclaim, “Long live the king!” they do not simply express their acknowledgment of this fact, as though declaring to a wall that it is a wall.  “Long live the king” is also a declaration of loyalty which yields two related results.  The nation accepts upon itself the yoke of kingship, and, correspondingly, the king’s royal status is enhanced. The declaration effects kingship, and does not merely attest to it.


            This pronouncement is not simply descriptive; it is constitutive.  The nation’s declaration of loyalty creates the king’s kingship.  It crowns him – for there is no king without a nation, and if the nation does not acknowledge his kingship, then by definition, he is not a king.  This applies to mortal kings, and it applies just as well to the King of the universe.  When we declare, “Hashem Melekh, Hashem malakh, Hashem yimlokh le-olam va’ed” (“The Lord reigns, the Lord has reigned, that Lord shall reign for all eternity!”), we not only acknowledge the past and present, but also commit ourselves to accepting divine kingship, and thereby crown God for all eternity.  This concept is, of course, a most fundamental one in understanding the significance of Rosh Hashanah.  This occasion does not only commemorate the Almighty’s kingship, as an annual celebration of the day of His crowning, but rather marks the actual coronation, an event that we repeat each and every year.  The night of Rosh Hashanah is the night of the Almighty’s coronation, on which, as it were, we place a crown on His head.  How can human beings, mere subjects of the King, place a crown on His head?  How can a lowly being crown the Supreme Being?  The answer is simple.  The very concept of kingship stems from the subjects’ submission of their will to the ruler’s will.  Through our active acceptance of His rule, we create the Kingship of God.


            Our acceptance of divine kingship is thus important and significant not only for us, but also for the kingship itself, for it is our acceptance that establishes it, as we say in the High Holiday prayer service, “Ve-yitenu lekha keter melukha” – “and they shall give You a royal crown.”


            In kindergarten we learned to sing – but not necessarily to understand – the song of Adon Olam:


Master of the World, who reigned before any creature was created;

At the time when all is done as He wished, then His Name was called ‘king’. 


On the one hand, God is king even “before any creature was created” – even if no world exists.  But on the other hand, only when all has been done in accordance with His will can we say that “His Name was called ‘king.’”  The “Name" of God signifies how the He is known among the world’s creatures, and hence depends upon His creatures’ acceptance of His kingship and their performance of His will.  If nobody truly calls His Name, if it were possible for the world to have no one who recognizes His kingship, this would gravely undermine the very concept of kingship in the relative sense, meaning, to the extent to which the term describes a connection to the world and a presence in the world.


            The principle underlying the thirteen attributes and the covenant made with them is that this concept applies to all divine attributes.  Not only the attribute of kingship – regarding which this concept clearly emerges from the deeper meaning of kingship – but also with regard to all of God’s attributes, the Shekhina is revealed in accordance with the people’s awareness.  Why?  Because this is the covenant God established with the world.  Before creation, God’s perfection lacked nothing; in the absolute sense, He was the king, He was compassionate, He was good, a judge, mighty and great.  God’s perfection was absolute before the world’s creation, and so will it remain when nothing exists.  Creation signifies the decision of the absolute God to reveal Himself through relative attributes – to be not only a King, but a King over a people; to be not only compassionate, but to be compassionate toward His creatures; to be not only a God, but to be our God and for us to be His people.  The very concept of creation means a decision that these attributes be manifest in the world through the means of man’s actions.  Without human recognition, then, a given attribute cannot be manifested in the world.


            This is what the Gemara means when it speaks of the covenant established with the thirteen attributes that they do not “return empty-handed.”  This does not refer to a mutual agreement that if we do our part by dictating the thirteen attributes, then God will do His by granting forgiveness.  The connection runs far deeper than that.  According to this covenant, calling God’s Name, the names of compassion, results in their manifestation in the world.  Declaring the thirteen attributes increases the presence of the attributes themselves in the world; the Almighty appears to the same degree to which man calls His Name.  If we read these Names of mercy, then the Shekhina’s manifestation must, by necessity, take the form of the manifestation of mercy.  Revelation without a prior invitation would amount to the negation of the world and of creation.  If the Almighty would force Himself upon the world, this would contradict the entire achievement of the initial act of creation.  The attributes exist independently, without any connection to the world, and existed before there ever was a world.  But the creation of the world adds the relative quality of the divine attributes, which demands the willing cooperation of the world’s creatures.


            In the event that there is no invitation on the part of human beings, the world ceases to serve as an arena of divine revelation and a chariot of God.  The will of the Shekhina to reside in the lower world requires that we call out the attributes of mercy, for the very presence of these divine Names in the mouths of people constitutes the presence of mercy in the world.


            I believe that this is the meaning of Rabbi Yochanan’s enigmatic remark, “Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say [such a thing].”  What makes the verse “impossible to say”?  First, the concept itself is nothing short of astounding.  I, you, we – we determine the nature of God’s presence in the world?!  If we do not call out in the Name of God – He will not be present?  Can a person chase a king from his throne?  Do we control, as it were, the Almighty?  It would, indeed, be impossible to say such a thing – had God Himself not informed us that this is in fact the case.


Moreover, God not only told this to Moshe, but also demonstrated it.  If God had only stated the principle, Moshe would have been unable to carry it out.  Who can bring the Shekhina down into the world, other than God Himself?  This is the meaning of the visual demonstration – the Selichot service includes also having God serve as the sheli’ach tzibur.  Even once we understand the notion of man as the chariot of the Shekhina, the actual descent of the Shekhina onto that chariot must clearly come from God.  We can express our preparedness to serve as the chariot, and we can crown God and thereby establish His kingship, but the remarkable merging of the King of kings, whom even the highest reaches of the heavens cannot possibly contain, and the lower world, the four cubits of man, is possible only because God bestows His Shekhina and exalted kingship upon this small world.  Therefore, strictly speaking, only God can serve as the sheli’ach tzibur.  Until Moshe saw with his own eyes God calling out the attributes of mercy, he could not imagine a person doing so.  The sheli’ach tzibur who leads the Selichot service does not ask God to appear, but rather actually substantiates the Shekhina – and this power is a divine one.  If so, then who stands in front of the congregation, wrapped in a tallit, calling the Name of God – “Hashem Hashem Kel Rachum…”?  Who leads them in bringing down the Shekhina?  “The Almighty wrapped Himself as a sheli’ach tzibur…and said, ‘Any time Israel sins, let them perform this service before Me…’”  They should perform this very service – not by simply repeating the words, but by placing the Shekhina at the center of the prayer service.


In a standard prayer service, the person stands on one side, opposite the Almighty.  During Selichot, by contrast, we stand not opposite the Shekhina, but rather amidst the Shekhina; we are surrounded by it and bring about its manifestation.  God Himself is situated at the head of the congregation forming the chariot.  He does not listen to this prayer service, but rather is present within it.  Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say such a thing!


When Avraham first came to Eretz Yisrael, he immediately built an altar and “called in the Name of God.”  Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains, “He caused the Name of God to be called in the mouths of people.”  “Calling in the Name of God” does not mean speaking with Him, but rather establishing His existence and presence in the world.  It is not a means of bringing about the Shekhina’s presence, but rather the presence itself.  Thus, the encounter in the nikrat ha-tzur forms the basis of the entire Selichot service.  “The Lord descended in a cloud and stood there with him; and He – the Lord – called in the Name of the Lord…”  God called in His own Name.  When we call in His Name, He calls His Name and is thus revealed.  The mention of God’s Name in our mouths constitutes the manifestation of the Shekhina in the world.


The Gemara emphasizes that we deal here with a “seder tefilla” – a prayer service.  The Sages who arranged the Selichot service made a point of ensuring that it would follow the same structure as the standard prayer service.  It begins with ashrei and half-kaddish, followed by verses of praise describing the greatness of God, corresponding to the first three berakhot of the amida prayer.  We then proceed to the thirteen attributes and conclude with tachanun and kaddish titkabal.  This structure directly parallels the mincha prayer service.  For this reason, the Gemara speaks of the thirteen attributes as a seder tefilla (“prayer service,” or, literally, “an order of prayer”) – because prayer follows a required, fixed structure.  Still, there is a vast difference between regular prayer and the recitation of the thirteen attributes.  At the heart of the standard prayer service lies the thirteen blessings in the main body of the amida, in which we present our requests to God.  Correspondingly, the Selichot service revolves around the thirteen attributes – but this recitation contains no requests or petitions to God.  How can this be called a “prayer service,” an “order of prayer”?


The Sages describe prayer as avoda she-ba-lev – “service of the heart.”  By turning to God to fill all our needs, we express our recognition of the fact that everything depends on the King and everything comes from Him; we place God at the center of our lives.  Thus, the requests we present in the amida constitute an act of avodat Hashem, serving the King.  (For a more thorough discussion of this topic, see my series of essays on the amida prayer –  In Selichot, we serve God in a more direct fashion.  We make ourselves a chariot for the Shekhina in the world, to be a basis for His kingship and presence in the world He created.  This is avodat Hashem, a servant’s service to his Master, in the almost simplistic sense of the term.  This concept is a most startling and frightening one – “had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say such a thing.”  We are the chariot of revelation, it is we who support the King and allow Him to sit on the royal throne, and in the framework of Selichot, that throne is the throne of compassion and kindness.


And so, in attempting to understand the recitation of Selichot and the thirteen attributes, we will not search for hidden secrets and mystical meanings of the words.  The plain meaning of the thirteen attributes is, very simply, the Names of God.  We must understand why these Names are the Names of compassion, and identify the underlying basis of each attribute, but the principle behind our recitation is the preparedness to serve as the bearers of the Shekhina in the world.  The emotional state of one reciting the thirteen attributes differs from that of a person in prayer, who falls upon his face and pleads to God.  In prayer, the individual feels weak and hapless, broken and crushed – “A prayer by an impoverished man as he is faint” (Tehillim 102:1).  One who reads the thirteen attributes, by contrast, prepares himself to serve the role of a chariot for the Shekhina, to be the royal throne of the King of kings.  On the one hand, this role expresses the greatness of man, and this is a majestic event, the crowning of the Almighty.  On the other hand, the individual is no longer his own; he has entirely devoted himself to serving God by being His bearer in the world.


This act of sustaining the King’s presence poses a certain risk.  Human beings, in their intrinsic anxious nature, might perhaps prefer to forego the Almighty’s presence altogether.  If God is not present in the world, then there is no punishment or demand of responsibility.  Bringing Providence into the world means potentially exposing ourselves to danger. We therefore emphasize that we do desire  Providence and the presence of the attributes of mercy.  From the short-term, pragmatic point of view, it might perhaps be preferable not to call on God’s Name and leave the Shekhina in exile.  The Midrash Rabba (beginning of Parashat Lekh-Lekha) comments that Avraham “icha et ha-kera” – “mended the tear.”  The Midrash later explains that the four kings (who battled the five cities of the Jordan River valley, as told in Bereishit, chapter 14) sought to harm Avraham, the one who “mended the tear” and brought Providence back into the world, because they preferred a world without Divine providence.  Calling on the Name of God, even the attributes of mercy, means placing oneself into the King’s hands.  A person must approach this not with the hope of escaping, but rather out of a sense of responsibility and greatness.  He brings himself to judgment – and it is our wish that the judgment express compassion and grace, patience and abundant kindness.


This is the meaning of Rabbi Yehuda’s remark that “a covenant has been made with the thirteen attributes that they do not return empty-handed.”  If we would imagine that, Heaven forbid, these attributes can “return empty-handed,” that they do not necessarily achieve their desired goal of revealing God’s presence into the world, then how would God be revealed?  There is no other way.  Hence, the attributes cannot possibly “return empty-handed,” for the only alternative is the complete absence of the Shekhina, which would negate the entire purpose of creation.  The alternative to the effectiveness of the attributes of mercy is not the revelation of judgment, but rather the absence of revelation altogether.  The absence of revelation, the absence of any connection between the Almighty and the world, means the negation of the world’s existence.  There cannot be a situation of a person who calls in the Name of God, thereby making himself a basis for God’s presence in the world, but receives no response.  God established this covenant with Israel after the sin of the golden calf, and it thus clearly pertains to the world’s continued existence even after sin.


After the sin of the scouts (Bamidbar 14:17-18), when Moshe invokes the revelation he beheld forty years previously in the nikrat ha-tzur, he introduces his petition for forgiveness by requesting, “And now, may the strength of the Lord be increased, as You spoke…” (“Ve-ata yigdal na ko’ach Hashem ka’asher dibarta…”).  What exactly does this verse mean?  Wherein lies the connection between the attributes of mercy and the “increase” of “the strength of the Lord”?  In light of what we have seen, the answer becomes clear.  God is indeed exalted and glorified as a result of the recitation of the thirteen attributes; His strength in the world increases and intensifies.  According to the Aristotelian theology of the Middle Ages, such a notion is a logical absurdity – the absolute God can never grow or increase.  Moshe, however, understood the secret revealed to him in the crevice of the rock at Sinai.  Within the world, in relation to our world, God’s strength and presence indeed increases through people, including sinners – and perhaps specifically through sinners - who turn to Him and call in His Name.  This increase of God’s “strength” forms the basis of forgiveness, which itself constitutes the basis of the continued existence of a world that had been sentenced to destruction just a moment earlier, when the “strength” of compassion and its manifestation were weaker and hence insufficient.


At this point, then, our job becomes to understand the thirteen different attributes.  Chazal received a tradition that there are thirteen attributes of mercy, and we must understand the difference between them and the unique significance of each.  The verse does not count the thirteen attributes by number, and the Rishonim present different views in identifying them.  In our studies we will follow the position of Tosefot (Rosh Hashana 17b) in this regard.  We will attempt to explain each attribute independently, basing our analysis on the comments of Chazal and the Rishonim.


In our next installment, we will address the first two attributes (as identified by Tosefot) – “Hashem, Hashem” – in light of the Gemara’s comment, “Hashem, Hashem – I am He before a person sins, and I am He after a person sins” (Rosh Hashanah 17b).




Translated by David Silverberg