How Do the 13 Middos Work?

Vaya’avor Hashem al panav vayikra (Shemos 34:6)

In the aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe asked Hashem to show him “His glory.” The Torah records that Hashem descended in a cloud and passed before Moshe, who was standing in a cleft in the rock, and proclaimed the 13 Middos (Attributes) of Divine Mercy: Hashem, Hashem, G-d, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations, Who forgives Iniquity, Willful Sin, and Error, and Cleanses.

The 13 Middos appear frequently and play a central role in our prayers, as the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 17b) teaches that they have tremendous significance and power. Rabi Yochanan explains that Hashem so-to-speak wrapped Himself in a tallis like a shaliach tzibbur and taught Moshe that whenever the Jewish people sin, they should proclaim these 13 Attributes and Hashem will forgive their sins.

Rav Yehudah adds that Hashem made a covenant with the 13 Middos, promising that they will always have an effect and will never return empty-handed. Accordingly, we invoke these Attributes at times when we seek Divine Mercy, such as on fast days and during the pivotal 10 Days of Repentance, confident in the Divine guarantee of their potency.

However, the obvious difficulty is that experience has shown that this is not always the case. Many times we recite this passage but do not obtain the outcome we desire. How can this be reconciled with the Gemara’s promise of its efficacy?

The Alshich Hakadosh and Shelah Hakadosh explain that in order to obtain the results we seek, it is not sufficient to merely read the 13 Middos of Mercy. They point out that the Gemara’s wording in its discussion of this topic is, “Ya’asu l’fanai k’seder hazeh,” which does not mean, “They shall recite this order of prayer,” but rather, “They shall perform this order of prayer.” In other words, the Gemara is hinting to us that it is not enough to simply read the words from the siddur. In order to receive Hashem’s promise that the 13 Middos will not return empty-handed, we must act them out by embodying His Attributes of mercy and compassion in our interactions with others.

Harav Yonason Eibeshutz, zt”l, disagrees with this interpretation. He notes that while it is possible to embody Hashem’s Attributes of “rachum v’chanun” (Compassionate and Gracious), it is impossible to emulate the Attribute of K-l, which connotes His Divine, omnipotent status, something that is by definition beyond human capabilities. He brilliantly adds that this is alluded to in the paragraph that precedes our recitation of the 13 Attributes in which we say, “K-l horeisa lanu lomar shelosh esrei” — which literally means that Hashem taught us to recite these 13 Attributes of Mercy.

However, it can also be interpreted as saying that the Attribute of K-l, which is impossible to imitate, horeisa lanu — teaches us that the requirement is not to emulate the 13 Middos, but rather lomar shelosh esrei — to say them. However, this leads us back to our original question: If we are merely instructed to read the 13 Attributes, why don’t we always see the desired results after publicly reciting them?

Harav Yissocher Frand cites a sefer called Imrei Binah that suggests that there is an additional component of the covenant that Hashem made with the 13 Attributes of Mercy. The Gemara says that prior to teaching Moshe the 13 Attributes, Hashem first wrapped Himself in a tallis like a prayer leader. This hints to us that even according to the opinion that it is enough to merely say the words, one must say them like a shaliach tzibbur. In other words, it is insufficient to recite the 13 Middos on behalf of ourselves only; we must invoke them with the welfare of the entire community in mind. When we cry out with all our might pleading with Hashem to tear up any evil decrees against us, instead of only focusing on our own needs, we must endeavor to pray as a Shaliach Tzibbur by magnanimously moving outside ourselves and also focusing on the needs of others.

Rav Frand notes that this is often quite difficult to do. To combat the natural tendency to think only of ourselves, he quotes the sefer Mikdash Mordechai, which points out that the Torah’s narrative of this episode stresses that prior to teaching Moshe the 13 Attributes of Mercy, Hashem first descended in a cloud. This teaches us that when life is going well, it is easy to think about others. However, when a person feels like he is inside of a tumultuous cloud, grappling with his own overwhelming struggles, it is much more challenging to do so. Therefore, Hashem specifically approached Moshe in a cloud to hint that even at such times we are expected to selflessly empathize with others and pray on their behalf, an act that is guaranteed to merit Hashem’s mercy and compassion.

Q: From the time that the Golden Calf was produced until the time that Moshe ground it up (Shemos 32:20), what did the calf do?

A: Rashi explains that Aharon saw that the Golden Calf was alive, as Dovid Hamelech writes in Tehillim (106:20), “They exchanged their glory for the likeness of an ox eating grass,” indicating that the calf grazed prior to its destruction. The Oznayim l’Torah questions why a calf was made instead of one of the other images on Hashem’s Divine chariot: a lion, eagle or man. He notes that the other three all eat meat, and suggests that the Erev Rav specifically chose the ox for its vegetarian, grass-eating nature.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.