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The Secret of Selichot: The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy

Rav Ezra Bick
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The Jewish people have a custom of saying "selichot," penitential prayers on fast days and especially during the days leading up to Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur itself, the custom was originally to say selichot in each of the five prayers of the day. Modern machzorim print selichot for only two of those prayers, the evening prayer (Ma'ariv, Kol-Nidrei) and the closing prayer (Ne'ila). Because there were many different local customs as to which selichot were said in the other prayers of Yom Kippur, older machzorim simply printed one line in the appropriate place - "Here the selichot are said" - and gradually most communities stopped saying them. It is still true that the selichot, and the "thirteen attributes of mercy" that lie at the heart of them, are central to the understanding of Yom Kippur. This is felt most clearly in the waning moments of the day, during Ne'ila, when they are repeated over and over again (seven times in most versions).

The basis for reciting the thirteen attributes of mercy is found in Rosh Hashana 17b.

"God passed by him and called..." (Shemot 34,6).

R. Yochanan said: Were this not an explicit verse, we could not have said such a thing. It tells us that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself (in a talit) like the prayer leader (chazzan) and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever Israel sins, let them perform this order and I shall forgive them.
"HaShem HaShem" - I am He before man sins; I am He after man sins and repents ... Rav Yehuda said: A covenant is made over the thirteen attributes, that they are never ineffectual, as is written, "Behold I am making a covenant" (34:10).

There are a number of perplexing points about this gemara. Why did God have to demonstrate to Moshe how to recite the thirteen attributes? Why did he "dress up" like a chazzan and pretend to be one who prays? Why are the thirteen attributes guaranteed to succeed more than any other prayer, and what is the meaning of the "covenant" which is the basis of that success? Finally, examining the thirteen attributes, we find that they are merely names and descriptions of God, not a prayer at all. Nothing is actually requested. What is the significance of reciting attributes of God? Surely a plea from the heart for forgiveness should be more effective!


How do the Sages know that the thirteen attributes, conveyed to Moshe in a mysterious and powerful revelation after the sin of the golden calf (Shemot 34,5-7), are a means of obtaining forgiveness? The answer to this question is found in a later incident in the Torah. When the Jewish people, after hearing the report of the spies concerning the Land of Israel, seek to return to Egypt, God tells Moshe that He is planning to destroy them. Moshe pleads and argues with God, finally saying,

"And now, the strength of God shall increase, as You have spoken, saying: HaShem, long-tempered and great in mercy, who bears sin and iniquity, and shall cleanse but not cleanse....
Forgive the sin of this people by the greatness of your mercy, as You have borne this people from Egypt unto here."
And God said, "I have forgiven by your words."

The verse Moshe is citing ("as You have spoken, saying...") is a quote of the original thirteen attributes from Shemot (though not a completely accurate quote, nor can all thirteen attributes be discerned here - but that is a different question which we will not solve now). Here we find Moshe using the recitation of the attributes as the clinching argument of his prayer - and God responds, "I have forgiven, BY YOUR WORDS." What's more, Moshe ascribes this recital to a promise of God. The Sages understood, accordingly, that the revelation of Sefer Shemot included a method of achieving forgiveness - hence, the conclusion: "Whenever Israel sins, let them perform this order and I shall forgive them."

But this passage also contains an enigmatic hint of the inner meaning of this recitation. Moshe prefaces his words to God by praying, "And now, the strength of God shall increase, as You have spoken." What does Moshe mean by asking God to increase His strength? In what sense can we speak of God's strength increasing in any way? Why is this request the preface to the attributes of mercy?



The secret which God revealed to Moshe, the principle which is so amazing that "were this not an explicit verse, we could not have said such a thing," is exactly what Moshe refers to when he says, "And now, the strength of God shall increase." The attributes of God, in Judaism, are not theology. They are revelations, manifestations of God's presence in the world. But God does not impose His presence on the world. God is found where people, created in the image of God, call on His name. Every day, at every prayer, Jews declare: "Yitgadel ve-yitkadesh shemei raba" - His great name shall be sanctified and increased! This is precisely the meaning of COVENANT - "A covenant is made over the thirteen attributes, that they are never ineffectual." A covenant is not a promise; it is a two-sided agreement. It creates something which exists only in partnership. The thirteen attributes exist in covenant, because God has agreed that His presence in the world will depend on the free-willed calling of humans, who shall be the bearers of His name, His presence, His glory.

The clearest and most obvious example of this principle is the attribute of God called "malkhut" - kingship. There is a basic principle in kingship - "ein melekh be-lo am" - there is no king without a people. God's kingship, which is an intrinsic attribute of His majesty, cannot be complete without the acceptance by people. The end of the "Aleinu" prayer, which forms a centerpiece of the prayers of Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, reads: "And they shall all accept the yoke of Your kingship, and You shall rule over them forever.... and God shall be king over all the earth; on that day God shall be one and His NAME ONE." The words, "God is King," recited by the Jewish people on Rosh Ha-shana, complete the coronation of God on that day. In the words of the Sages and the prayers, He ascends the throne.

This principle, so revolutionary in its implications, is actually taught to children in preschool.

Adon olam asher malakh:

The Master of the world
Before any creature was created;
When everything shall be done according to His will,
THEN His name shall be called KING.

The same is true for the attributes of mercy. Because God is committed to being our God as we call on Him, then when we call Him by His names of mercy, that is How His presence will be felt. God is not only God - He is our God, the God of Israel. When one calls Him "merciful and graceful, long-tempered and great in mercy," then that is how He is OUR God.

This then is the meaning of the gemara quoted above. God appeared to Moshe wrapped in a talit, as the leader of the prayer, because the thirteen attributes are not a prayer TO God. He is not listening, receiving, considering. He is part of the prayer itself. The words are not TO Him, they are about Him. They, as it were, create the Presence of God Himself. God is changing Himself ("rising from the throne of judgment and sitting on the throne of mercy"). He is as much part of the recitation as we are. Properly speaking, before the creation of the covenant, ONLY God could have "recited" the thirteen attributes. God has to show Moshe how this is to be done, for He is giving over to Moshe and the Jewish people something which belongs to Him alone. He is making the Jewish people the bearers of God's presence in this world.

Therefore, "A covenant is made over the thirteen attributes, that they are never ineffectual." There has to be some effect to a sincere calling of the attributes, because the terms of the covenant are that otherwise, God will have no presence in the world at all. There is no base for God within the world other than the hearts of men. If God is not revealed within the prayers of Israel, how shall He be revealed?

Therefore, the forty days between the beginning of the month of Elul and Yom Kippur are the days of Selichot. The revelation of the thirteen attributes to Moshe took place on the first day of Elul (forty days after the sin of the golden calf on 17 Tammuz), and the sign of the forgiveness of Israel was given on Yom Kippur, when Moshe descended the mountain for the second time with the second tablets of the law. The second tablets are God's acceptance of the covenant - His presence in the world; the ten commandments as given to the Jews, are carved by Moshe (unlike the first, which were carved by God), by Man.

The Kotzker Rebbe, commenting on the verse, "For the distance of East from West, have our sins distanced Him from us" (Psalms 103:12), said: What is the distance of East from West? - the turning of one's head! If we turn to God and call, He is there. Prayer, requests, pleading - that begins afterwards.



The gemara states that there are thirteen attributes of mercy found in Shemot (34:6), but does not actually enumerate them. There are various opinions found in the commentaries. The most widely accepted is that found in Tosafot (RH 17b):

1. HaShem (before the sin)

2. HaShem (after the sin)

3. Kel (power)

4. Rachum (merciful)

5. Chanun (grace)

6. Erech apayim (long-tempered)

7. Rav-chesed (great in mercy)

8. (Rav) emet (great in truth)

9. Notzer chesed l'alafim (keeps mercy for a thousand generations)

10. Nosei avon (bears iniquity)

11 (Nosei) pesha (transgression)

12. (Nosei) chata'a (sin)

13. Nakei (cleanse).

The meaning of and difference between each attribute is a subject worthy of extended discussion, which will have to await a later date.

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