YOM KIPPUR: The 13 Attributes
Over time and even among Sephardim, the Jewish world has adopted practices that viewed objectively are hard to explain. But because they’re mentioned in the Talmud or attributed to some of our great teachers, we accept them on the basis that our own understanding isn’t deep enough to comprehend the secrets hidden beneath their ancient practice. This is the case with some of our Yom Kippur traditions.
Rabbi Yohanan in TB Rosh Hashana (17b) explains that after the Sin of the Golden Calf, the Almighty promised Moshe that any time Bnei Yisrael calls out using the 13 Attributes of Compassion (Yud Gimmel Midot HaRahamim), G-d will forgive our sins and we will not go away empty handed. Perhaps for that reason, in the Sephardi prayers for Kippur, we will recite this verse from the Torah 26 times between Kol Nidrei and the end of Neilah.
There are numerous articles explaining each attribute and if we do nothing else before Kippur it would be a worthwhile investment to read at least one interpretation and perhaps keep one with us during Tefillah. A favourite of mine is Rabbi David Fohrman from Aleph Beta who addresses the question, ‘What makes these words so effective? Are they some magical formula which causes our sins simply to evaporate?’
A deeper look at the words of the Talmudic piece reveals that it’s not enough just to chant them (Yomeru Lefanai). We have to Ya’asu Lefanai (perform them before G-d). What is the difference between reciting and performing? Beyond merely reading the words we must strive to emulate G-d.
Another noteworthy observation is that of the 13 Attributes, the first 2 are a repetition of the 4-letter name of G-d. Some might argue that there are really only 11 attributes. The number 13 itself is curious as we know that in Gematria it equals both the words Ahavah (Love) and Ehad (Oneness), while the number 26 equals the 4-letter name of G-d. Effectively one could say these 13 Attributes are really the revelation of G-d’s essence to Moshe in words – whereas the revelation of G-d’s presence experienced on Sinai was initially through the sound of the Shofar.
But the Gemara goes on to explain that the double appearance of the Divine name associated with compassion (Rahamim) is to show us that the Almighty is unchanged both from before we’ve sinned and afterwards. Though we’ve sinned and harmed the purity of our relationship with the Almighty, G-d remains unaffected. Only we are the ones who’ve lost out.
Restoring our relationship requires the ‘performance’ of the attributes – not just muttering them aloud. The power of the 13 Midot is in awakening within us a realisation of ‘Who G-d Is’ – a merciful Creator and Parent – and how much we’ve lost through the foolish behaviour which forced a separation between ourselves and the Divine.
Using this formula well, while fasting for 25 hours, enables us to reach a spiritual state of mind where we can once again stand before the Master of the Universe with awe and piety, realising that the true desire of our soul is to be reunited with its Heavenly Source. This awareness is followed by the Vidui (Confessional Prayers) where we sincerely apologise for our wrong-doings and hope to heal the rupture, rehabilitating ourselves before G-d.
On a separate more sobering note, Jewish Women’s Aid runs regular training sessions for Rabbanim and Community Leaders. They’ve been working in the UK for 30 years to assist women victims of domestic abuse and violence. Their data shows that 1 in 4 women in the UK will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. It is easy to dismiss these figures and say that it doesn’t happen in the Jewish community. But sadly it does.
As we prepare to stand privately before the Almighty during these Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) to offer an account of how we spent our time this past year, let’s also resolve that in the coming year we will end all forms of domestic abuse in our homes and in our communities.
Tizku LeShanim Rabot,
Rabbi Jeff Berger