After the grave sin of the golden calf, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai and pleaded with G‑d to forgive the Jewish people. After his supplications were accepted, Moses felt it was an auspicious moment to ask G‑d to give the Jewish people a way to obtain mercy should they fall again in the future.Moses pleaded with G‑d to forgive the Jewish people

G‑d agreed with Moses, and told him to wait on a mountain where G‑d would show him His glory. Then G‑d passed before Moses and proclaimed the verses that are known as the 13 Attributes of Mercy (Middot Harachamim):

The L‑rd passed before him and proclaimed: “L‑rd, L‑rd, benevolent G‑d, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, preserving lovingkindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin, and He pardons.1

The 13 Attributes of Mercy have been known to bring salvation and forgiveness to the Jewish people throughout the generations. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah states that “a covenant was established regarding the 13 Attributes of Mercy that they will never be returned empty-handed.”2

Their importance is underscored by the role they play in our prayer services. Every day when many Jews recite “Tachanun” (a confessional prayer), they say the 13 Attributes of Mercy, invoking G‑d’s mercy in the face our transgressions. Every fast day, which is an opportune time to repent, this prayer is recited. Most telling of all is how often we say it during the Ne’ilah service on Yom Kippur—the holiest moment of the year.

Who Knows 13?

Let us now explore the power and significance of the number 13.

Any person can show mercy to another, yet there are always restraints and calculations as to how much mercy will be shown. For example, most people walking past a beggar on the street will have a sense of rachmanut (mercy) for the unfortunate person. However, before someone reaches into a pocket to give, he or she will think about the children’s tuition, the mortgage, medical bills, etc. And so, only a small sum will be given to the beggar.

The number 13 signifies the infinite. The number 12 signifies constraint and order: e.g., the 12 zodiac signs and the 12 months in a year. Above order and control, 13 connotes boundlessness and immeasurability. The fact that there are 13 Attributes of Mercy teaches us that when G‑d shows mercy, He does so without limit. No matter how low we fall, He will come to our aid and forgive us.

This is further demonstrated in the word echad (one), which has the numerical value of 13 (ד=4 / ח=8 / א=1). This signifies G‑d’s oneness in the world, how He is beyond any measure and limitation.3

Does G‑d Care?

So how can G‑d have mercy? Does G‑d have emotions and feelings? Furthermore, the rabbis of the Talmud refer to G‑d’s actions as “middot,” “attributes” or “character traits,” descriptions that refer to human qualities?

Maimonides4 explains that G‑d Himself does not have any emotions, as G‑d is infinite and not restricted to feelings. Rather these “middot” are used in reference to G‑d’s actions and not His qualities. Moreover, the term “middot” is used only as a “borrowed term,” and not to be taken literally. We use this term for G‑d because He performs actions in a way that is similar to human actions, which stem from our emotions.

Chassidic thought5 further expounds on this idea, explaining that G‑d Himself is beyond emotions and not tied down to them. On the one hand, there is G‑d in actuality, in His essence and glory. On the other hand, there is how G‑d portrays Himself and relates to us in this finite world. When G‑d appears to be angry or merciful it is because that is how we perceive His G‑dly light as it shines in this world.

A Dispute of Numbers

The kabbalists take the following approach to the words that are counted as an attribute.6

The 13 Attributes of Mercy according to Kabbalah:

  1. א-ל / G‑d — mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need;
  2. רַחוּם / rachum — merciful, that humankind may not be distressed;
  3. וְחַנּוּן / ve’chanun — and gracious if humankind is already in distress;
  4. אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם / erech apayim — slow to anger; (once, to the righteous)
  5. אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם / erech apayim — slow to anger; (repeated again for the wicked)
  6. וְרַב-חֶסֶד / ve’rav chesed — and plenteous in kindness;
  7. וֶאֱמֶת / ve’emet — and truth;
  8. נֹצֵר חֶסֶד / notzer chesed — keeping kindness
  9. לָאֲלָפִים / laalafim — unto thousands;
  10. נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן / noseh avon — forgiving iniquity;
  11. וָפֶשַׁע / vafeshah — and transgression;
  12. וְחַטָּאָה / vechata'ah — and sin;
  13. וְנַקֵּה / venakeh — and pardoning.

However, others argue and offer a different approach to the words that count as an attribute.7 For example, they believe that the first two names of G‑d are attributes themselves. In contrast, the Kabbalistic approach did not include the first two names of G‑d, instead, it regards them as introductory notes - as the source for the thirteen attributes of mercy.

  1. י-ה-ו-ה / Hashem — compassion before a person sins;
  2. י-ה-ו-ה / Hashem — compassion after a person has sinned;
  3. א-ל / G‑d — mighty in compassion, to give all creatures according to their need;8
  4. רַחוּם / rachum — merciful, that humankind may not be distressed;
  5. וְחַנּוּן / ve’chanun — and gracious if humankind is already in distress;
  6. אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם / erech apayim — slow to anger;
  7. וְרַב-חֶסֶד / ve’rav chesed — and plenteous in kindness;
  8. וֶאֱמֶת / ve’emet — and truth;
  9. נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים / notzer chesed laalafim — keeping kindness unto thousands;
  10. נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן / noseh avon — forgiving iniquity;
  11. וָפֶשַׁע / vafeshah — and transgression;
  12. וְחַטָּאָה / VeChata'ah — and sin;
  13. וְנַקֵּה / VeNakeh — and pardoning.

The consensus amongst the Rabbinic authorities leans towards the kabbalistic approach. One of the reasons given for this is because in halachik analysis, when Torah is discussing a matter which has strong ties to Kabbalah, then the kabbalistic approach is the accepted opinion.9

The Mystical 13

Kabbalists explain that besides the 13 attributes which G‑d said to Moses, there is another set which was later said to the prophet Micah:10,11

  1. מִי אֵ-ל כָּמוֹךָ / mee E-l kamocha — Who is a G‑d like you (in compassion);
  2. נֹשֵׂא עָו‍ֹן / noseh avon — who bears iniquity;
  3. וְעֹבֵר עַל פֶּשַׁע / ve’over al pesha — and overlooks sin;
  4. לִשְׁאֵרִית נַחֲלָתוֹ / lishi’eirit nachalato — For the remnant of his heritage;
  5. לֹא הֶחֱזִיק לָעַד אַפּוֹ / lo hechzik le’ad apoh — He does not retain his anger forever;
  6. כִּי חָפֵץ חֶסֶד הוּא/ ki chafetz chesed hu — for He desires kindness;
  7. יָשׁוּב יְרַחֲמֵנוּ/ yashuv yerachamanu — He shall again have mercy on us;
  8. יִכְבֹּשׁ עֲו‍ֹנֹתֵינוּ / yichbosh avonoteinu — and suppresses our iniquities;
  9. וְתַשְׁלִיךְ בִּמְצֻלוֹת יָם כָּל חַטֹּאתָם / vetashlich bimtzolet yam kol chatotam — casts our sins into the depths of the sea;
  10. תִּתֵּן אֱמֶת לְיַעֲקֹב / titein emet le’Yaakov — You grant truth to Jacob;
  11. חֶסֶד לְאַבְרָהָם / chesed le’Avraham — kindness to Abraham;
  12. אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ / asher nishba’ata le’avotaynu — which You previously swore to our forefathers;
  13. מִימֵי קֶדֶם / mimei kedem — from the earliest days.

However, the kabbalists explain that these 13 attributes are on a loftier plane than the ones that were given to Moses. The kabbalists refer to the 13 attributes given to Moses as “zeir anpin,” which means “small face,” referring to a small revelation of G‑d. The attributes given to Micah are referred to as “arich anpin,” which means “big face,” referring to a great revelation of G‑d. Kabbalah further refers to the attributes said to Micah as the soul/internal attributes, whereas those given to Moses are body/external attributes.12

The reason why the attributes said to Micah are on a grander scale is because they don’t express any aspects of judgment or severity. In contrast, some of the attributes given to Moses, such as “truth,” imply distance and coldness. Truth looks at something for what it is and is unwilling to look past the wrong that was committed. (See True Mercy.)

13 vs. 13

Thirteen is a significant number in Judaism. It is the age when a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah and assumes the obligation to keep the laws of the Torah. It also corresponds toThirteen is a significant number in Judaism the 13 tribes of Israel (when including Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Menashe), and often brings to mind Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith.

There are also “the 13 principles of hermeneutic methodology by which Torah law is extrapolated.” These rules, compiled by the talmudic sage Rabbi Ishmael, outline the methods by which the Torah is elucidated and halachic decisions are deduced.

The 13 Attributes of Mercy are perhaps the most significant of the 13s that appear in Judaism. The notion of mercy is especially relevant and necessary when dealing with penitence. It is for this reason that the Attributes of Mercy are recited numerous times during the Hebrew month of Elul, and especially on the Day of Atonement.

The kabbalists also suggest that there is a correlation between the 13 principles of Torah interpretation and the 13 Attributes of Mercy.13 The name of the month of Elul can be read as an acronym for the words of the verse from Shir HaShirim, “אני לדודי ודודי לי,” “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me."14 The verse concludes, "Ha-roeh bashoshanim,” “He browses among the lilies.” The Talmud15 teaches not to read the verse as “bashoshanim,” “lilies,” rather as “shoshanim ba’Torah,” “the teachings in Torah.” The idea that both the month of Elul—when the 13 Attributes of Mercy are more regularly referenced and revealed—and learning Torah are alluded to in the same verse demonstrates a clear link between the two.

Further, Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the month of Elul, began the 40 days when Moses ascended Mt.Sinai to receive the second set of Tablets. The sages tell us that many more dimensions of Torah were revealed at that time, which further demonstrates the connection between Torah and the month of Elul, and more particularly their shared theme of 13.16,17

There is another set of 13. According to the Zohar there are 13 strands of a beard, which correspond to the 13 Attributes of Mercy. This correlation demonstrates the holiness of a beard, and how growing one brings down Divine help and mercy.18

The Talmud

The Talmud states,

G‑d passed before him and proclaimed … Rabbi Yochanan said: “Were it not written in the text, it would be impossible for us to say such a thing; this verse teaches us that G‑d enwrapped Himself like the shaliach tzibbur [prayer leader] of a congregation and showed Moses the order of prayer. He said to him: ‘Whenever Israel sin, let them carry out this service before Me, and I will forgive them.’”19

So what does it mean, “It would be impossible for us to say”? What is it that would be impossible? What is Rabbi Yochanan coming to teach us here? Finally, what is this “service” to which G‑d refers?

For any of us to imagine that G‑d plays dress up is simply ludicrous. And yet, the sages say that G‑d wrapped himself in a tallit, prayer shawl, like a prayer leader, and appeared to Moses. The sages learn this from the words, “G‑d passed before him.” The verb “pass” is used when speaking of a prayer leader, when we ask him to “pass” before the ark to lead the prayers.20 G‑d portrayed Himself in this way to teach us the holiness of these 13 Attributes of Mercy: they can be said only when there is a minyan, a quorum, as per the rule that a holy act may be done only in the presence of a minyan.21

But what is this service that G‑d wants us to do?

Speech vs Action?

“Whenever Israel sin, let them carry out this service before Me, and I will forgive them.”22

So what does G‑d wants us to do in order for Him to forgive us? “Let them carry out this service before Me.” What is “this” service? It seems ambiguous and vague.

Some commentaries23 believe that mentioning the Attributes of Mercy in prayer alone has the power to influence G‑d to forgive us for our sins. However, most kabbalists and commentaries on the Talmud explain24 that G‑d is asking us to imitate His actions: just as He is merciful, so too should we be merciful; just as He is kind, so too should we be kind. Most opinions seem to follow this explanation; because if G‑d meant for the prayer alone to be sufficient, the verse should have read, “Let them carry out this prayer before me.”

However, others say that this expectation is placed on the leader of the congregation alone; the one leading the service should be of good character, and only then will the prayers of the community be answered.25

The Chassidic Approach

The concept of arousing G‑d’s Attributes of Mercy is understood simply: when we sin and seek forgiveness, or we areWhen we are going through a trying time, G‑d will come to our aid going through a trying time, G‑d will come to our aid.

However, Chassidut takes us a step deeper.26 It teaches that reciting the 13 Attributes of Mercy creates a strong bond between G‑d and the soul.

Every Jew has within a spark of G‑dliness that is constantly reanimating the body at every moment. When we nullify ourselves by putting away our selfish desires and letting that Divine spark grow into a raging fire, to the extent that we are willing to sacrifice our life for G‑d, then G‑d responds in kind, measure for measure, and reveals to us His inner G‑dly light.

This is because the people of Israel, G‑d and the first attribute of mercy (according to Kabbalah) all contain the word “E-l,” “G‑d,” in them. This reveals the deep and powerful bond the three share, and shows that no matter what challenges we face, G‑d is our father, and when we cry out, He will embrace us and love us as His children.