Thirteen Attributes of Mercy
The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy or Shelosh-‘Esreh Middot HaRakhamim (שְׁלוֹשׁ־עֶשְׂרֵה מִידּוֹת הַרַחֲמִים) as enumerated in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 34:6–7) are the Divine Attributes with which, according to Judaism, God governs the world.
According to the explanation of Maimonides these attributes must not be regarded as qualities inherent in God, but as the method of His activity, by which the divine governance appears to the human observer to be controlled. In the Sifre, however, these attributes are not called “middot”, which may mean “quality” as well as “rule” and “measure”, but “derakhim” (ways), since they are the ways of God which Moses prayed to know and which God proclaimed to him.
The thirteen attributes are alluded to a number of other times in the Bible. Verses where God is described using all or some of the attributes include Numbers 14:18, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2, Micah 7:18, Nahum 1:3, Psalms 86:15, 103:8, 145:8, and Nehemiah 9:17.
The number thirteen is adopted from Talmudic and rabbinic tradition. There are divergent opinions as to which word they begin and with which they conclude. According to some, the Thirteen Attributes begin with the first “Adonai“, in verse 6, and end with the word “ve-nakeh” in verse 7. The single attributes are contained in the verses as follows:
- יְהוָה YHVH: compassion before a person sins;
- יְהוָה YHVH: compassion after a person has sinned;
- אֵל El: mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need;
- רַחוּם Raḥum: merciful, that humankind may not be distressed;
- וְחַנּוּן VeḤanun: and gracious if humankind is already in distress;
- אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם Erekh appayim: slow to anger;
- וְרַב-חֶסֶד VeRav ḥesed: and plenteous in kindness;
- וֶאֱמֶת VeEmet: and truth;
- נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים Notzer ḥesed laalafim: keeping kindness unto thousands;
- נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן Noseh avon: forgiving iniquity;
- וָפֶשַׁע VaFeshah: and transgression;
- וְחַטָּאָה VeḤata’ah: and sin;
- וְנַקֵּה VeNakeh: and pardoning.
According to others, the Thirteen Attributes begin only with the second “Adonai“, since the first one is the subject of vayikra (and He proclaimed). In this case, to achieve the total of thirteen attributes, some count notzer hesed la-alafim as two while others divide erekh appayim into two, since forbearance is shown both to the good and to the wicked, and still others end the thirteenth middah with “lo yenakeh” (he does not pardon), this being considered a good quality, since through punishment man is moved to repentance, after which he is pardoned and pure. Others term “ve-nakeh lo yenakeh” a single middah, the thirteenth being, in their opinion, “poked avon avot al banim” (visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children), “this being regarded as compassionate since the transgressor is not punished immediately”.
The general usage is that the various recitations of the thirteen middot begin with the first “Adonai” and conclude with “ve-nakeh”.
They must not be recited by only one person in prayer, but by an entire congregation, which must consist of at least ten persons, a minyan.
- They are recited on every weekday holy day when the Sefer Torah is taken from the Ark.
- In Ashkenazi synagogues, it is also customary that on the fast days on which Exodus 32:11–14 and 34:1–10 are read, the reader stops at the word “Vayikra” in order that the congregation may recite the thirteen attributes, after which he continues his reading.
- The Thirteen Attributes are very frequently recited in Selichot prayers, as in the case in the seliḥah of the eve of Rosh Hashanah, which is repeated at the morning service on Yom Kippur, and which begins with the words “Shelosh esreh middot”, and in the pizmon Ezkera Elohim of Amittai b. Shephatiah for the fifth day of repentance, which is recited also at the evening service on Yom Kippur (and in some liturgies is the final selihah of the liturgy of Ne’ila concluding Yom Kippur), and in which the attribute of compassion is particularly invoked.
- On fast-days as well as during the week before the New Year (the so-called selihot days), and on the days between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, called the days of repentance, many penitential prayers are recited in addition to the usual daily prayers. After every such petition the thirteen middot are recited with their introductory prayer, the well-known El Meleḥ yoshev, which runs as follows: “Almighty King, sittest on the throne of mercy, showing forth Thy compassion, and forgiving the sins of Thy people by ever taking away their former guilt, ofttimes granting pardon unto sinners and forgiveness to the transgressors, making manifest Thy goodness both to body and to soul, nor punishing them according to their iniquity; Almighty One, as Thou hast taught us to recite the thirteen [middot], so remember now the thirteenfold covenant, as Thou didst in former days proclaim it to the modest one [Moses], even as it is written…” (then follow the verses Exodus 34:5–7a and 9b).
- Moreh Nebukim, i. 54, which is confirmed by the Sifre (Deut. 49 [ed. Friedmann, p. 85])
- Tobiah ben Eliezer, Midrash Lekach Tob ad loc., ed. Buber, Vilna, 1884; Rabbeinu Tam, in Tosafot Rosh Hashana 17b, catchword “Shelosh-‘Esreh Middot”; Abraham ibn Ezra in his commentary, ad loc.; Asher ben Jehiel; and Kalonymus, “Meshoret Mosheh”, ed. Goldenthal, p. 14, Leipsic, 1845
- Rabbeinu Nissim (quoted in Tosafot Rosh Hashana, l.c.), Isaac Alfasi, and others
- Rabbeinu Nissim in Tosafot l.c.
- Compare the gloss on Tosafot, l.c. and Ibn Ezra, l.c.
- Maimonides, “Pe’er ha-Dor”, p. 19b, Lemberg, 1859
- Compare Yoma 86a; Aaron b. Elijah, l.c.; and “Etz ha-Hayyim”, chapter 92
- Maimonides, l.c.; Aaron ben Hayyim, l.c.; compare also “Da’at Zeḳenim”
- Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim; 565:5
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia