The 13 Attributes of God

Following the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses managed to convince God to cancel the punishment God had decreed for the Jewish people (Ex. 32:9-14), but not Divine forgiveness (vv 30-35).

What is the difference between cancelling the punishment but not offering Divine forgiveness?

Why does Divine forgiveness matter?

Moses utilizes his special relationship with God (“The Lord would speak to Moses panim el panim, face to face”, Ex. 33:11), asking to see God’s Presence (kevodecha) (v 18). God offers to pass God's “goodness” before Moses, though not God's face, since “no human can see Me and live” (v. 20).

The Lord descended in a cloud, “stood with him there” and proclaimed both God's name (Ex 34:5) and the “attributes”. Right there, on the spot, Moses challenges God “to deliver,” to act in accordance with the mercy and forgiveness He has attributed to Himself.

What are the 13 attributes of God and what is the context?

(ו) וַיַּעֲבֹ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה ׀ עַל־פָּנָיו֮ וַיִּקְרָא֒ יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ (ז) נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃
(6) The LORD passed before him and proclaimed: “The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, (7) extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

שלש עשרי מידות

יי ׀ יי אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙...וְסָלַחְתָּ֛ לַעֲוֹנֵ֥נוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵ֖נוּ וּנְחַלְתָּֽנוּ׃

The Thirteen Attributes of God in the Machzor:

YHVH, YHVH, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, bearing iniquity, transgression and sin, and acquitting.... Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!

What is the difference between the Torah citation of the 13 Attributes verses the version we use during the High Holy Days in our machzor?

Why do you think the authors of the machzor truncated the citation from the Torah?

Unpacking the 13 Attributes (one version):

  1. YHVH - I am God before people sin
  2. YHVH - I am God after people sin if they repent
  3. El - (All-powerful) God
  4. Rahum - Compassionate
  5. VeHanun - Gracious
  6. Erekh Apayim - Slow to anger
  7. Verav Hesed - Abounding in lovingkindness
  8. Ve’emet - And in truth
  9. Notzer hesed La’alafim - Maintaining lovingkindness for 1,000 generations
  10. Nosei avon - Forgiving premeditated sins
  11. Va’fesha - sins committed in rebellion
  12. Va’hata’ah - sins made by mistake
  13. Venakeh - acquitting the penitent.

(R. Tam, RH 17b, adapted by Max Arzt, Justice and Mercy)

What is the purpose of the 13 Attributes?

When else are the 13 Attributes of God invoked in our Tanakh?

In the book of Numbers, the spies return to the people with a report that causes the Israelites to express disbelief in God’s ability to lead them into the land. God, in fury, threatens to wipe out the people of Israel. Standing between the jilted God and the “stiff-necked” people, Moses recites some of the attributes as a plea for forgiveness.

(יט) סְלַֽח־נָ֗א לַעֲוֺ֛ן הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה כְּגֹ֣דֶל חַסְדֶּ֑ךָ וְכַאֲשֶׁ֤ר נָשָׂ֙אתָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם וְעַד־הֵֽנָּה׃ (כ) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה סָלַ֖חְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶֽךָ׃

(19) Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.” (20) And the LORD said, “I pardon, as you have asked.

(יג) וְקִרְע֤וּ לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַל־בִּגְדֵיכֶ֔ם וְשׁ֖וּבוּ אֶל־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־חַנּ֤וּן וְרַחוּם֙ ה֔וּא אֶ֤רֶךְ אַפַּ֙יִם֙ וְרַב־חֶ֔סֶד וְנִחָ֖ם עַל־הָרָעָֽה׃
(13) Rend your hearts Rather than your garments, And turn back to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in kindness, And renouncing punishment.

(ח) חַנּ֣וּן וְרַח֣וּם יְהוָ֑ה אֶ֥רֶךְ אַ֝פַּ֗יִם וּגְדָל־חָֽסֶד׃


(8) The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.

Interestingly enough, in one instance these special attributes cause great anger and distress. Jonah is furious at God for being kind and merciful and accepting the tshuva (repentance) of the citizens of Ninveh (Text 3 and Questions). In great irony, Jonah’s harsh words against God echo the very words that describe God’s forgiveness to the Jewish people at the time of the Golden Calf. Jonah does not explain his wrath, but it does pose the issue of the place of tshuva and forgiveness in a world where accountability and responsibility for one’s actions are important means for maintaining social order.

(ב) וַיִּתְפַּלֵּ֨ל אֶל־יְהוָ֜ה וַיֹּאמַ֗ר אָנָּ֤ה יְהוָה֙ הֲלוֹא־זֶ֣ה דְבָרִ֗י עַד־הֱיוֹתִי֙ עַל־אַדְמָתִ֔י עַל־כֵּ֥ן קִדַּ֖מְתִּי לִבְרֹ֣חַ תַּרְשִׁ֑ישָׁה כִּ֣י יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּ֤י אַתָּה֙ אֵֽל־חַנּ֣וּן וְרַח֔וּם אֶ֤רֶךְ אַפַּ֙יִם֙ וְרַב־חֶ֔סֶד וְנִחָ֖ם עַל־הָרָעָֽה׃
(2) He prayed to the LORD, saying, “O LORD! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.

Why does God need to be reminded of the 13 attributes? Is it a magic formula?

יאמרו לפני כסדר הזה לא נאמר אלא יעשו לפני, שלא באמירה בלבד תלוי הדבר אלא בעשייה, אם עושה אדם מידותיו כמידויו של הקב"ה, עוונותיו נמחלין לו.

...It does not say, "They shall say in accordance to this order before me." Rather [it says], "They shall do (ya'asu) [in accordance with this order] before me." For this matter does not depend solely on saying, but on doing (assiyah). If a person does (or makes) his midot (inner attributes/character/virtues) like the midot of the Holy One, the person's sins are forgiven. -- Alshich in Itturei Torah, pg. 268

...והא תניא שבעה דברים נבראו קודם שנברא העולם ואלו הן תורה ותשובה וגן עדן וגיהנם וכסא הכבוד ובית המקדש ושמו של משיח ...תשובה דכתיב בטרם הרים ילדו וכתיב תשב אנוש עד דכא ותאמר שובו בני אדם

Seven phenomena were created before the world was created, and they are: Torah, and repentance, and the Garden of Eden, and Gehennom (purgatory), and the Throne of Glory, nd the Temple, and the name of Messiah...Repentance was created before the world was created, as it is written: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God,” and it is written immediately afterward: You return man to dust; You decreed, 'Return you mortals!' (Psalms 90:2–3).

  • What does it mean that 7 phenomena were created "before the world was created"?
  • Why is teshuva (repentance) on that list, and what does that teach us about the human condition?

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein (adapted)

We cannot actually picture goodness. It is not a being; it is a force, like electricity. Nobody ever actually saw electricity, but we can see and feel what electricity does. If we have an electric heater and connect it, we get heat. We get to know what electricity is by what it does. In the same way, we get to know what God is by what God makes us do: when people are, so to speak, connected with God, they do good things. We call those people godly people, and their acts, godly acts. Whenever this force is active, we say that God has exercised influence and power.