One of the main features of the prayers of the High Holy Days is the recitation of the י"ג מדות של רחמים – the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. These play a particularly prominent role in the daily Selichos recited at this time and in the Yom Kippur prayers. The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy were first revealed to Moses by God in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, when God forgave the Jewish people. (Exodus 34:6-7) The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 17b) tells us that God established a covenant that the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy never go unanswered and that God instructed Moses, “Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them perform this ‘order’ and their sins will be forgiven.”
There are, unsurprisingly, a vast number of commentaries on the exact meaning of these Thirteen Attributes and there is even some dispute about exactly how the words in these two verses should be divided into thirteen. For the ordinary person who wishes to recite the Thirteen Attributes with proper kavanah (intent), however, there is a need for a basic, straightforward, interpretation of the attributes that one can actually have in mind during prayer.
Moreover, as should be obvious, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are not a magical incantation of forgiveness. The Reishis Chochma (R’ Eliyahu di Vidas d.1592) writes (שער הענוה פרק א') that the Gaonim point out that the Talmud does not say that the Jewish people should “recite this order” for their sins to be forgiven, but that they should “perform this order.” This means that we must emulate these middos (attributes) in our own lives, and through this we will gain forgiveness. It is therefore important that when we recite these attributes, we have a clear idea of what they mean, not only as descriptions of God’s mercy, but also as practical guides for our own behavior.
The following is an highly condensed explanation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that I compiled several years ago for my students (based on a wide variety of sources). After each attribute I am including, in parentheses, some additional commentary and notes on how we can apply this middah in practical terms.
- ה' – “Hashem” – God is merciful before we sin. (Even though He knows that we will sin, He is still merciful. So too, we should be kind and considerate to others, even if we don’t think they will appreciate it or reciprocate.)
- ה' – “Hashem” – He is merciful after we sin when we repent. (If someone
hurt us and sincerely wishes to make amends, we should forgive them
- א-ל – “God” – His power saves us from our sins after we repent. (If
someone sincerely wishes to make amends for hurting us, then we should share
the burden of reparation with them.)
- רחום – “Merciful” – His mercy is active even before we repent. (If someone
hurt us, we should not respond with anger and rejection, but with love and
kindness, showing that way to forgiveness is still open.)
- וחנון – “And Gracious” – He is kind to us even when we have not earned it.
- ארך אפים – “Slow to Anger” – He waits patiently for us to repent. (Instead of
punishing us immediately for our sins, as would be justified, God gives us time
to repent on our own and avoid punishment. So too, if someone wrongs us, we
should give the person time to make amends.)
- ורב חסד – “And Abundant in Kindness” – He is biased to judge us favorably. (Whenever there is
room for “doubt”, God’s kindness inclines Him to judge us favorably. Similarly,
whenever there is room for doubt, we should judge others favorably.)
- ואמת: – “And Truth” – He keeps His promises of good even if we are not deserving.
(If we promised to do a good thing for another person, we should keep our word
even if the person no longer deserves it.)
- נצר חסד לאלפים – “He Keeps Kindness for
Thousands [of generations]” – He rewards
the righteous for two thousand generations. (If we owe a debt of gratitude to
someone, we should continue to express that gratitude even to that person’s descendants.)
- נשא עון – “He Lifts Up Sin” – When we repent, God “lifts up” our sins [of temptation]…
- ופשע – “And Rebellion” – And our sins of rebellion…
- וחטאה – “And Error” – And our unintentional sins, and transforms them into merits. (When a person sincerely wishes to make amends for hurting us, we should use this
as an opportunity to develop an even closer friendship with the person.)
- ונקה – “And He cleans” – Even when we need to be punished (i.e. cleansed) for our sins, He does so gradually, rather than overwhelmingly at once. (Even with repentance, the spiritual damage caused by the more severe sins may still require suffering to fully rectified. Even so, if the total punishment would be beyond our capacity to handle at once, then God spreads it out over time. So too, even in those cases where we must demand that someone make reparations for the harm that they have caused us, we should still be merciful and not demand that they do so in a way that is too difficult for them to handle.)