“The Thirteen Attributes of G-d’s Mercy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we encounter the dramatic episode of the Golden Calf. Moses comes down from the mountain with the two Tablets of Testimony in his hands, and beholds the Israelites dancing around the calf with great enthusiasm. In anger, he casts down the Tablets, shattering them.

Moses then takes the Golden Calf, burns and grinds it into dust, mixes it with water, and gives the mixture to the people to drink as a form of expiation. He then calls upon his tribesmen, the Levites, to punish the hardcore idolaters. 3,000 men died in that day’s action.

G-d then instructs Moses to carve a second set of stone tablets like the first ones that Moses shattered. Moses is to ascend Mt. Sinai, where G-d will inscribe the words on the tablets. Moses will then present the new tablets to the people of Israel.

Moses carves out two new tablets and ascends the mountain early in the morning as G-d commanded. At that moment, G-d comes down in the form of a cloud, and calls out in the name of G-d. G-d passes before Moses and proclaims (Exodus 34:6-7): “Ah’doh’nai, Ah’doh’nai, Kayl rah’choom v’chanoon, eh’rech ah’pah’yim, v’rav chesed veh’eh’met. No’tzayr chesed l’ah’lah’feem, no’say ah’vohn va’feh’shah va’chah’tah’ah, v’nah’kay loh yih’nah’kay. Poh’kayd ah’vohn ah’voht ahl banim v’ahl b’nei vanim, ahl shee’lay’sheem v’ahl ree’bay’eem.” L-rd, L-rd, G-d, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and who cleanses–-but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the grandchildren, to the third and fourth generations.

This declaration, which is known as the “13 Attributes of G-d’s Mercy,” plays a crucial role in Jewish life. Reciting these 13 Attributes is considered the most exalted prayer that a Jew may utter when beseeching G-d for mercy. Therefore, the “13 Attributes” are recited on fast days and on holidays before the Torah is removed from the synagogue ark. The 13 Attributes also play a central role in the High Holiday liturgy and selichot, the penitential prayers, that are recited before the High Holidays. They represent the epitome of G-d’s compassion.

Although there are disputes about exactly how the 13 Attributes are counted, it is important to know the intended underlying meanings of these words.

1. “Ah’doh’nai”–-Merciful L-rd. The four letter name of G-d (Y-H-V-H), the Tetragammaton, is always regarded as the Supreme expression of G-d’s mercy and Divine love.

2. “Ah’doh’nai”–-Merciful L-rd. The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah 17b, explains that the name of G-d, the Tetragammaton, is repeated in order to underscore G-d’s declaration: I am the same merciful G-d before a person sins, and the same merciful and forgiving G-d after the person has sinned.

3. “Ayl”–-Powerful G-d. It is the all-powerful nature of G-d to be good and forgiving.

4. “Rachoom”–-Compassionate. The Hebrew word “rachoom” is derived from the root of the Hebrew word, “rechem,” a mother’s womb, for it is the one who bears the child who possesses ultimate love. So is G-d’s forgiveness based on His ultimate love for His creations.

5. “V’cha’noon“–-the Hebrew word “chayn” means grace. G-d always tries to see the good in people and never tires of finding justification to forgive His people. The two terms “chanoon” and “rachoom,” merciful and gracious, are often linked to one another.

6. “Erech ah’pah’yim”–-this phrase is frequently translated as long-suffering or slow to anger. G-d is not quick to punish sinners, always offering them opportunities to win the struggle against the evil enticements. The fact that the Hebrew word “apayim” (anger) is plural, is interpreted by some commentaries to indicate that G-d is long-suffering for both the virtuous and the wicked.

7. “Rav chesed”–-Abundance in goodness. G-d grants goodness to humans beyond what they deserve. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch defines the term “chesed” to mean love translated into action.

8. “Emet”–-Truth. G-d is true to Himself, rewarding those who are obedient to His will, and pursuing His plans for the salvation of humankind.

9. “No’tzayr chesed l’ah’lah’feem”–-G-d keeps His mercy for thousands of generations, and reserves reward and recompense to the remotest descendants. A good deed performed by a person in one generation, is a source of strength reaching far beyond the scope of that person’s lifetime and serves as a blessing for later generations.

10. “No’say ah’vohn“–-G-d forgives iniquity.

11. “Va’feh’shah”–-G-d forgives transgressions.

12. “V’chah’tah’ah”–-G-d forgives sin. The Talmud details the differences between “ah’vohn,” “feh’shah,” and “chah’tah’ah”–iniquity, transgression and sin. “Ah’vohn” or “ah’vohn’oht” (in the plural) are deliberate misdeeds. “P’shah’eem,” transgressions, are rebellious deeds. “Chah’tah’oht,” sins, are inadvertent trespasses of omission or commission. In effect, Moses petitions G-d, so that when Israel sins before Him and repents, G-d will regard their premeditated sins as errors.

13. “V’nah’kay”–-G-d cleanses. According to some commentators, this underscores the greatness of G-d’s mercy, enabling a human being to be entirely renewed through teshuvah, repentance. Others read the 13th attribute as “V’nah’kay lo y’nah’keh,” that G-d will by no means clear the guilty, that G-d will never obliterate the eternal and unbridgeable distinction between light and darkness, or between good and evil.

Some commentators, such as Rabbi Joseph Hertz, argue that G-d’s goodness cannot destroy G-d’s justice. Each sinner must bear the consequence of his misdeeds. Punishments for sin are thus not vindictive, but remedial.

Some Chassidic interpreters explain this to mean that G-d holds parents responsible for not giving their children a proper religious and moral upbringing. While the unfairness of such accountability seems rather blatant, it is certainly true that the bad habits of parents are, too often, repeated by their children, for whom parents are the primary role models.

As we have previously noted, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz was once asked: If mortals are supposed to imitate G-d, are they permitted to imitate G-d’s vengeance? He answered: If one’s vengeance is preceded by 12 qualities of mercy, then perhaps the vengeance is permissible.

How fortunate are we, Israel, to have a G-d, a Divine Power, who longs for His children to return and is ceaselessly prepared to grant His people forgiveness.

May you be blessed.