This week finds us continuously mentioning the Yud Gimmel Middos of Rachamim, those esoteric Thirteen Attributes of Mercy recited throughout the month of Elul, Aseres Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur. What is their power and meaning? Are they some sort of chant that mysteriously arouses Heavenly assistance through mere utterance? And why do they not always, so to speak, work? Do these words, or concepts, carry innate power, so that reciting them without understanding their concepts still effect forgiveness? And how are 29 words of two psukim divided into thirteen attributes?
Many people may find themselves davening alone on the upcoming Yom Kippur. Is one permitted to recite these psukim alone, or only with a minyan? Do the psukim have the same power when recited alone? What happens if it takes me a long time to recite all the psukim and the tzibbur has already continued – can I still say the Yud Gimmel Middos?
Yom Kippur – The Yud Gimmel Middos of Rachamim
Each of the Yom Kippur prayers is followed by a set of Selichos – prayers intended to invoke Divine forgiveness and mercy. These prayers include various piyutim, liturgical compositions unique to every community and tradition, and prayers, interspersed with the recitation of the Yud Gimel Middos – those Thirteen Heavenly Attributes of Mercy. In this week’s article, we will explain how this prayer is recited, its meaning and power.
The Revelation of the Yud-Gimel Middos
In Parashas Ki Sisa, we find Hashem forgiving Am Yisroel for the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe Rabbenu saw the time was opportune for asking, “Show me, now, Your glory!” (Shemot 33:18). To this request, Hashem answered: “I will let all My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and I will favor when I wish to favor, and I will have compassion when I wish to have compassion… You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live… Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen” (ibid. 19-23).
The psukim then continue the awe-inspiring account: “And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and He called out in the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed: ‘Lord, Lord, benevolent G-d, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; yet He does not completely clear [of sin]. He visits the iniquity of parents on children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generations” (Shemot 34: 5-7).
Rashi explains (Shemos 33:19): “‘I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you’: to teach you the procedure for begging for compassion [i.e., praying] even if the merit of the Avos is depleted. According to this procedure, [during] which you [will] see Me enwrapped in a tallis and proclaiming the Thirteen Attributes, teach the Jewish Nation to do likewise. Through their mentioning before Me [the words] “Compassionate and gracious,” they will be answered, for My compassion never ends.”
The Taz (Divrei David) explains Rashi’s comment regarding the Zechus Avos: Human activities are innately finite, even spiritual results like Zechus Avos. But the Yud Gimmel Middos are infinite because they are Heavenly. Through connecting with those Attributes, one connects to Hashem’s mercy. Since Hashem’s mercy is boundless, there is no end to the blessing that can be result from this prayer.
The Gemara (Maseches Rosh Hashana 17b) writes: “Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say this: The Almighty wrapped Himself as a shliach tzibbur and showed Moshe the prayer service. He said to him, ‘Any time Yisroel sins, let them perform this service before Me and I shall forgive them’. Later in this Talmudic passage, we read, ‘Rav Yehuda said: A covenant has been made with the Thirteen Attributes, that they do not return empty-handed [without achieving their desired goal], as it says, ‘Behold, I make a covenant’ (Shemot 34:10).’”
Normal prayer does not guarantee a response; some prayers indeed return ’empty-handed.’ But a prayer involving a covenant demands a response. The Thirteen Attributes differ from all other prayers in that a covenant has been established that they will never be ineffective. And indeed, the Zohar (Idra Rabba, Naso 131b) writes that the Yud Gimmel Middos have the spiritual power to break and cancel all evil decrees.
Attributes of Connection
The Rambam (More Nevuchim part 1, chapter 54) follows the Sefer Ikkarim in his analysis of Moshe Rabenu’s request. Moshe asked, “Show me Your ways” — Moshe wanted to perceive G-d’s actions in the world, the apparent contradictions – tzadik v’ra lo, etc.. G-d answered that it is impossible to perceive certain actions and Moshe Rabenu had no capacity with which to understand them. Our only perception of G-d is through these, the worldly manifestation of the Thirteen Attributes, with which we can praise and pray before G-d. We are forbidden to turn to G-d (i.e. connect) with the other Attributes because we have no perception of them and although Moshe was shown “all His goodness,” i.e., all His works, only these thirteen Middos are mentioned.
These Middos, or Attributes are, as explained in the More Nevuchim:
Whenever any one of His actions is perceived by us, we ascribe to God that emotion which is the source of the act when performed by ourselves, and call Him by an epithet which is formed from the verb expressing that emotion…God creates and guides beings who have no claim upon Him to be created and guided by Him; He is therefore called gracious (cḥannun).
These middos by which we praise Hashem are our comprehension of the acts of G-d as we see clearly illustrated in the world.
The Ba’al HaIkrarim explains the argument mentioned in the Gemara (Maseches Yoma 69b) along the same lines:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why are the Sages of those generations called Anshei Knesses Hagdola? It is because they returned the crown of the Holy One, blessed be He, to its former glory. How so? Moshe came and said in his prayer: “The great, the mighty, and the awesome G-d” (Devarim 10:17). Yirmiyahu came and said: Gentiles, (i.e., Nevuchadnezzar and his soldiers) are carousing in His sanctuary; where is His awesomeness? Therefore, he did not say ‘awesome’ in his prayer (Yirmiyahu 32:18). Daniel came and said: Gentiles are enslaving His children; where is His might? Therefore, he did not say ‘mighty’ in his prayer (Daniel 9:4). Anshei Knesses Hagdola came and said: On the contrary, this is the fullest expression of his might, that He conquers His inclination in that He exercises patience toward the wicked. G-d’s anger is flared by the gentile nations’ enslavement of His people, yet He expresses tremendous might by suppressing His anger and holding back from punishing them immediately. Therefore, it is still appropriate to refer to G-d as mighty. And these acts also express His awesomeness: Were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One, blessed be He, how could one people, i.e., the Jewish people, who are alone and hated by the gentile nations, survive among the nations?
Yirmiyahu and Daniel maintained correctly that one could not praise G-d with an attribute that has no physical manifestation in the world. Although Moshe mentioned them and they are indeed true, if we have no comprehension of them, we cannot use those as a medium of praising and connecting with G-d. But Anshei Knesses Hagedola who reinstituted those praises explained that aderaba — G-d’s power is revealed even now in His allowing those evil ones do as they wish, as chazal tell us: (Pirkei Avos chapter 4:1): “Who is powerful? He who overcomes his inclination.”
G-d’s kindness is apparent quite simply, if one does not seal his eyes shut. The complex creation, the constant renewal, the everyday, ongoing miraculous events — both on the national and the personal levels — are easily apparent if one just shuts off the news reports describing the world’s deterioration. With these attributes we, too, can connect to G-d’s abundant goodness.
Therefore, the Rambam and Sefer HaIkkarim agree that every praise of Hashem i.e. connection to Hashem — must come in the context of the Thirteen Attributes that we know. The Shala (Maseches Tamid, Ner Mitzva 107-120) expounds more on this subject and writes that in his opinion, reciting the Shir Hayichud is forbidden because these praises are above and beyond the praises instituted by the Anshei Knesses Hagedola. In his opinion, if one wishes to connect with and praise Hashem, he should recite Tehilim. [Indeed, in many communities this piyut, Shir Hayichud, is recited only on Yom Kippur night, when people are likened to angels, and only in public, in a slow and fully comprehensible manner.]
A similar concept is derived from the conversation Hashem had with Eliyahu Hanavi. The Radvaz explains (chapter 6) that after Eliyahu Hanavi gathered Yisroel at Mount Carmel and proved G-d to them, he escaped Isevel’s wrath to the deserts of Sinai. There, Hashem spoke to him (Melachim I, 19:10):
And he said: “I have been zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the children of Yisroel have forsaken Your covenant. They have torn down Your altars and they have killed Your prophets by the sword, and I have remained alone, and they seek my life to take it. And He said: “Go out and stand in the mountain before the Lord, behold! the Lord passes, and a great and strong wind splitting mountains and shattering boulders before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake-not in the earthquake was the Lord. After the earthquake fire, not in the fire was the Lord, and after the fire a still small sound. And as Eliyahu heard, he wrapped his face in his mantle, and he went out and stood at the entrance to the cave, and behold a voice came to him and said: “What are you doing here, Eliyahu?”
The Radvaz explains that this mountain and cave were the exact spot in which Moshe Rabbenu stood when Hashem revealed the Thirteen Attributes of mercy. This location was intentional — to teach Eliyahu Hanavi that zealotry is not an attribute to be used. But after seeing that Eliyahu could not forgo that attribute, Hashem prepared him for leaving this world and he was taken to the upper worlds. In this physical world the only medium of connecting with G-d is through the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.
Now let us focus on in what way this prayer is to be said and how it effects change.
The Maharal (Be’er Hgola, Be’er Revi’I, chapter 12) writes that in the awe-inspiring revelation described in Parashas Ki Sisa, Hashem explained to Moshe that a human being is not capable of any kind of understanding of the Creator. Only through attaching himself to Hashem’s attributes, or characteristics, can a human being connect to Hashem. Therefore, Hashem showed Moshe how He is wrapped in a tallis, illustrating a complete immersion in prayer without looking either way – literally ‘wrapped up’ in prayer. Hashem taught Moshe Rabbenu that the covenant of the Thirteen Attributes can effect change if one concentrates fully only on connecting himself to these Middos and through them, to His Creator.
The Reshis Chochma (Sha’ar Hanava, chapter 1:14) and the Shala (Ki Savo, Torah Or 2 and more) ask how this covenant is possible – have we not seen many times that the sins were not erased and the terrible decree not annulled? They answer this question through a careful study of the wording of the Gemara in Maseches Rosh Hashana 17b): “Any time Yisroel sins, let them perform this service before Me and I will forgive them”. The Gemara does not use the words “let them say’ but “let them perform” – the covenant is effective only if people are prepared to perform these attributes and behave in accordance with them. The Imrei Bina (Drush 6 for Rosh Hashana) and the Kedushas Levi (Likutim) write that Hashem wrapped himself like a shliach tzibbur to indicate that with the recitation of the Yud Gimmel Middos one obligates himself to pray for the needs of the tzibbur, of Klal Yisroel in general. This prayer for public needs acts upon those G-dly Attributes, and thus, invokes Heavenly mercy. Similarly, it is also recommended to utilize these special moments to beseech Hashem for someone one has grievances against. Through overcoming one’s anger and praying for the good of another, one is actualizing another one of those Attributes (Nose Avon).
Rabbenu Bachye (Kad Hakemach, Kipppurim 2) writes: “The Yud Gimmel Middos in which we find assistance in times of prayer and difficulty are the heritage and legacy of Kehillos Yaakov. Although we don’t know how to appease Him, for the generation does not know the power of the Attributes and does not sense how closely linked they are with the Attributes of Mercy, nevertheless the Attributes themselves will attest for us. For it was promised to Moshe at Sinai, ‘If Yisroel sins, if they perform this service – I will forgive them’…. And in our times, when we have no High priest to atone for our sins nor do we have an altar, sacrifice, or Mikdash in which to pray, we have nothing left but prayer alone and these Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.”
The Levush rules (581) that Kaddish Tiskabal should be recited after Selichos. This Kaddish is usually recited only after a tefilla that contains the Amidah prayer. But the Yud Gimel Middos in the Selichos is called “Seder Tefilla” similar to the Amidah. And indeed, the entire Selichos services are arranged like the standard prayer service. It begins with Ashrei and half-kaddish, followed by verses of praise describing the greatness of G-d — corresponding to the first three brachos of the Amidah. The Thirteen Attributes correspond with the middle and last parts of the Amidah, and we then conclude with Tachanun and Kaddish Tiskabal.
The Birkei Yosef (Orech Chayim 581:14) writes that it is forbidden to mention these Middos of Rachamim without proper intention. He adds in is work More B’etzba (87): “With answering the 13 middos one should be careful to say them properly with full intention because they contain many secrets that are at the apex of the universe.”
Division of Attributes
There are many methods of dividing the two psukim into Thirteen Attributes. Here we will present the two main methods — that of Rabbenu Tam, and that of the Ari Hakadosh based upon the Zohar. The Rishonim also explain the middos in various ways. The explanation presented here represents the most widely accepted explanation.
According to Rabbenu Tam (Rosh Hashana 17b) the division is as follows:
- י-ה-ו-ה / Hashem — G-d’s compassion before a person sins despite it being pre-known that the person will sin.
- י-ה-ו-ה / Hashem — G-d’s compassion after sin and repentance, as if he never sinned at all.
- א-ל / G‑d — G-d is mighty in compassion, has the ability to provide for the needs of all creatures at any time and an does so on a steadfast basis [such as producing food for the world’s creatures]. Some say: mighty in overcoming anger and showing compassion to sinners.
- רַחוּם / rachum— G-d is merciful so humankind may not be distressed. Even if one sinned and did not repent he needs mercy so troubles should not befall him.
- וְחַנּוּן / ve’chanun— and graciously saves mankind from distress as a free gift, despite mankind not being worthy of it.
- אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם / erech apayim— G-d waits for the sinner to repent, weather he is a tzaddik or not. Punishment does not come immediately to allow repentance.
- וְרַב-חֶסֶד / ve’rav chesed— whoever is in need of zechuyos Hashem tilts the scales towards chessed.
- וֶאֱמֶת / ve’emet — Hashem will faithfully repay those who do His Will.
- נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים / notzer chesed laalafim— keeping Zchus Avos for two thousand generations
- נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן / noseh avon— Hashem forgives sins performed out of temptation;
- וָפֶשַׁע / vafeshah— and transgression done just to incite Him;
- וְחַטָּאָה / VeChata’ah— and forgives sins done unintentionally – b’shogeg; sins one did as a result of carelessness and he does not know to repent for them.
- וְנַקֵּה / VeNakeh— and pardoning. Hashem cleans the penitent completely from all sin so there remains no mark.
It is important here to add that the Ramban (Shemos 34: 6-7) adds an additional division here: the first three Attributes are Names of Hashem and the other ten are descriptions of the actions in which G-d’s Attributes are apparent to the world – rachum, vechanun, etc.
According to the Ari Hakadosh and the Gra (Shir Hashirim 4:13) as based upon the Zohar (Idira Raba, Naso 131b), the attributes are as following:
- א-ל / G‑d — G-d is mighty in compassion to fill all creatures’ needs;
- רַחוּם / rachum — G-d is merciful so humankind may not be distressed;
- וְחַנּוּן / ve’chanun — and gracious if humankind is already in distress;
- אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם / erech apayim — G-d is slow to anger; (once, to the righteous)
- אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם / erech apayim — G-d is slow to anger; (repeated again for the wicked)
- וְרַב-חֶסֶד / ve’rav chesed — and overflowing in kindness;
- וֶאֱמֶת / ve’emet — and truth;
- נֹצֵר חֶסֶד / notzer chesed — keeping kindness – G-d remembers the kindness of the Avos
- לָאֲלָפִים / laalafim —for two thousand generations, while the sins are visited upon only for four, hence: the positive attribute is 500 times more potent than Midas HaDin.
- נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן / noseh avon — forgiving iniquity;
- וָפֶשַׁע / vafeshah — and transgression;
- וְחַטָּאָה / vechata’ah — and sin;
- וְנַקֵּה / venakeh — and pardoning.
The first chapter of Tomer Devora (authored by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero) expounds on these Attributes and explains how to bring them into our life.
There seem to be various opinions regarding the possibility of reciting the Yud Gimmel Middos without a minyan:
Many Rishonim (Rav Natan Gaon [mentioned in Seder Rav Amram Gan part 2, Hilchos Ta’anis 59 and in the Tur 545]; the Ri Migash ; the Rashba [Part 1: 211]; Or Zarua [part 2: 116]) agree this prayer should not be recited without a minyan. This is because the Gemara describes Hashem wrapped like a shliach tzibbur, indicating recitation of these psukim should be carried out solely with a minyan and a shliach tzibbur. One who, nevertheless, finds himself saying Selichos without a minyan, may recite these psukim as one learns Torah, not as a means of prayer for invoking mercy.
There are other Rishonim (Tur 565, Rabbenu Yona [mentioned in the Abudraham, Tefilas Hata’anis], Trumas Hadeshen 8, Darkei Moshe 565) who rule that there is no issur involved in reciting this prayer alone. Nevertheless, the Taz explains that they too, mean that there is no issur in reading the psukim as one does when learning Torah, and not in a manner of prayer and asking for mercy. So, there is no machlokes on the matter, and reciting the thirteen Attributes of Mercy as a prayer without a minyan is not a possibility.
Practically, the Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chayim 565:5) rules that the Yud Gimmel Middos may not be recited without a minyan, but they may be read as one would read from the Torah. The Magen Avraham (5) and the Mishna Brura (12) add that in this case the psukim must be recited with the correct te’amim and trop. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein adds (Igros Moshe, Yore Deah, part 3, chapter 21) that one who is not used to learning Torah with the trop can recite the Yud Gimmel Middos with the regular tune he uses when learning Torah.
When saying the Yud Gimmel Middos in Selichos, the Attributes end in the middle of a passuk. As a prayer, stopping in the middle of a passuk is possible, but one who is reciting these middos as Torah study must complete the passuk, i.e. continue “He visits the iniquity of parents on children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generations.” Therefore, the Achronim write (ben Ish hai – Torah Lishma 44, Siddur Hayavetz; Igros Moshe) that one who is reciting these verses without a minyan should complete the passuk as he would when reading from the Torah. [See the Ben Ish Chai (Rav Pealim, part 1, Oech Chayim 11) for an explanation why some people end the recitation with Venake.]
Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (Haelef Lecha Shlomo, Orech Chayim 44) and Tehila L’David (66:7) writes that although it is davar shebekdusha, one must not stop to answer the Yud Gimmel Middos in the middle of Krias Shema and its brachos, since there is no obligation for the congregation to answer — the Gemara writes that the main obligation rests upon the shliach tzibbur who recites it before the tzibbur, not their answering. Similarly, the Igros Moshe writes (Orech Chayim part 3, 89) that one who davened already is not obligated to answer when the tzibbur recites the Yud Gimmel Middos, but it is accepted to do so (when not in the middle of prayer). This is because the effect becomes greater wen more people answer. Therefore, one who is learning should stop and answer the Yud Gimmel Middos with the tzibbur in order to bring them merit. However, one who is teaching Torah to others should not stop to answer.
I started with everyone, and then got held up. Can I continue saying the Yud Gimmel Middos, or am I now considered as a single person davening alone? This question was answered by the Ben Ish Chai and the Shevet Halevi. The Ben Ish Chai answered (Tisa, Shana alef:4) that if one began reciting with tzibbur or began the viduy and didn’t realize that the tzibbur is already up to the Yud Gimmel Middos and they continued and finished the recitation, he is still considered part of the tzibbur, and as long as he began with the tzibbur he can continue alone. The Shevet Halevi though, writes (Part 7, chapter 12:1) that if he was in the middle of the viduy and the tzibbur is already up to the Yud Gimmel Middos he should stop and recite the 13 Middos along with the tzibbur.
Both the Magen Avraham (565:5) and the Mishna Brura (ibid, 12) write that a tzibbur should not recite the Yud Gimmel Middos after dark before midnight since it is not an eis ratzon – auspicious time. The night of Yom Kippur is an exception to this rule — on that night, even before chatzos, is a time of Rachamim and an eis ratzon. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein records a question (Igros Moshe, Orech Chayim part 2, 105) asked about a city in which it was dangerous to go out in the streets after midnight. He answers that although the power of the Yud Gimel Middos is only after midnight, they should not cancel the Selichos because those prayers alone have the power to arouse people to teshuva even without the power of the Yud Gimmel Middos.
The Yud Gimel Middos are Attributes of Hashem through which we can connect to Him and liken ourselves to our Creator. These Attributes allow us to grasp an idea of His goodness and wholeness therefore we are permitted to praise Hashem with these Attributes, and only with them. The Middos are recited with a tzibbur, at a time of eis ratzon (after midnight or on Yom Kippur) specifically with understanding and deep intention and desire to liken ourselves to our Creator in these Attributes, being a merkava laShechina – allowing the Shechina’s appearance in the material world, and thus, promising the world’s continued existence and then they will indeed be, a covenant that does not go unanswered.