The Thirteen Attributes of G-d
Actions Emanating from the Divine Providence - 13 Principles Which All Jews Should Believe (Maimonides' Commentary to the Mishnah [Sanhedrin 10])
The Thirteen Attributes of G-d is referring to the actions emanating from the Divine Providence, and are spoken of in Torah:
Shemot 34:6-7 Hashem, Hashem, E-l, 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...
The repetition of the Name of G-d signifies that G-d is merciful to one about to sin but not yet guilty of sinning, and to the sinner who has repented.
This represents the first two Divine qualities.
The peshat (plain meaning) of the text these attributes are the ones a king practices in his dealings with his people. All of these attributes are subsumed under the heading chesed v'emet (kindness and truth). A king needs to employ these attributes when dealing with his people and his officials, i.e. not to insist on the application of absolute justice, but tempering justice with mercy.
On the other hand, there are situations in which the king has to exert his full authority and employ the harshest measures of justice. This is why Shlomo said "Mercy and truth preserve the king; he upholds his throne by loving kindness" (Mishlei/Prov. 20:28) A judicious application of these two attributes ensures the stability of the king's throne.
Rosh HaShanah 17 states that everyone who properly understands these Thirteen Attributes and invokes them in his prayers meticulously will never experience that his prayers went totally unheard, that the people who invoke them will not return empty-handed from their prayer. The only reason that one's prayer would go unheard would be certain specific sins which are not subject to G-d's forgiveness.
In our times, when we are bereft of the Kohanim (priests), the Holy Temple, the Altar and the sacrifices, all of which were meant to assure us of atonement for our sins, the only thing left for us with which to appeal to G-d are our personal prayers and the invoking of these Thirteen Attributes (nuances) of G-d's Mercy. By knowing of these Thirteen Attributes of Mercy our Sages were able to properly edit our prayers so that they will enjoy maximum effectiveness.
The mention of the tetragram, i.e. Y-H-V-H (Hashem), for the first time is not an attribute but a reference to the very essence of Hashem. The second time this word appears it is used as an attribute, i.e. the invoking of the attribute of Mercy when the sinner has not previously confessed his sin and has repented it. G-d is appealed to as our Father, someone who naturally extends his mercy to his children; just as the father is aware of his children's needs, so G-d, our collective father, is aware of our needs. Such a father will not wait until his son asks for what he needs but will supply it even without being asked to do so. G-d therefore responds to the needs of even the wicked sinner as he too is one of His children. G-d employs this attribute even in His dealings with idolaters as we know from Sanhedrin 39 where G-d is telling the angels to suppress their songs of praise at a time when His creatures are drowning in the sea. He grieves over the need to exact this kind of retribution from them. In fact, G-d's Mercy extends even to the animals as we know from Tehillim/Ps. 36:7 "Man and beast You deliver, O Hashem."
The third attribute is inferred from the word E-l, meaning powerful to act as His wisdom dictates. It is the attribute dealing with forgiveness in response to the sinner's request. This is what is meant in Tehillim 99:8 "You have been a forgiving G-d for them."
The fourth attribute: The term Compassionate (Rachum) denotes that G-d acts like a father to his children, preventing them from falling.
The fifth: He is Gracious (Channun) to assist those who have fallen and cannot rise.
The attributes Rachum and Channun are two attributes applied in response to requests for forgiveness when such forgiveness is granted in connection with the sinner experiencing afflictions and having repented properly. We find that these terms always appear in connection with afflictions such as in Devarim/Deut. 4:31 "For Hashem, your G-d is a merciful G-d He will not abandon you nor destroy you."
The sixth: He is Slow to Anger (erech apayim), patient and hopeful that the sinner will repent. This applies to both the righteous as well as to the habitual sinners. Moshe said to G-d concerning the application of this attribute, "You have to forgive the people on account of Your having told me that this is one of Your attributes, i.e. to hold back with venting Your anger, that even sinners qualify for the application to them of this attribute." Moreover, Moshe added, assuming that the people concerned have already used up this attribute, "You are also rav chesed, abundant in kindness, a fallback position for people who have exhausted their claim against You on the basis of Your being erech apayim."
Moshe reminded G-d that as long as the Torah had not been given, during the first 26 generations of man's existence on earth, that He fed them due to His attribute of rav chesed. If He were to say that the very absence of the Torah was a factor in His applying the attribute of rav chesed, because they did not violate any of its mitzvot (commandments), Moshe said that due to G-d's attribute of chesed, i.e. an attribute of underserved kindness known as "true kindness," He would still have to extend forgiveness to the sinners.
The seventh: Abundant in Kindness (rav chesed), both to the righteous and the wicked.
The eighth: Truth (emet) and faithful to carry out his promise.
The ninth: Preserver of Kindness for Thousands of Generations (notzer chesed la-alafim), placing the merits of the fathers to the credit of the children (zechut avot) - the accumulated and unexpired portion of the merits of the Patriarchs. In the event that G-d were to reply that even this aspect of the attribute of Mercy had already been exhausted by the people (compare Shabbat 55), Moshe would appeal to the nuance described here as nose avon - G-d's attribute of being a forgiver of iniquity, a reference to sins committed knowingly.
The tenth: Forgiver of Iniquity, (nose avon) sins committed with premeditation.
The eleventh: Willful Sin (fesha), sins committed in a spirit of rebellion. The word fesha which follows the attribute of nose avon, refers to sins committed with the express intent of asserting man's independence vis-a-vis legislation perceived as decreed by G-d.
The twelfth: And Error (vechata'ah) - sins committed inadvertently, unwittingly.
The thirteenth: Who Cleanses (venakeh) those who repent. Refers to sins one did not even find out one had committed, sins for which one cannot ask forgiveness as they cannot be spelled out, be confessed. This is what David had in mind when he appealed to G-d "Cleanse me from the guilt I bear for hidden sins, sins unbeknown to me" (Tehillim 19:13)
Nonetheless, if the sins of the people are too numerous and have accumulated, G-d will reverse the attributes of Mercy mentioned here; this is what is meant by Yeshayahu when he said, "They have forsaken Hashem, spurned the Holy One of Yisrael, turned their backs on Him" (Yeshayahu 1:4) G-d asks rhetorically, "I Who have been known as the Compassionate and Gracious G-d have now been forced to reverse My attributes and have appeared to them as the cruel G-d."
These divine qualities are not an attempt to describe the essence of G-d philosophically, but rather to represent Him as the source and fountain of all ethical behavior - attributes by which the Creator runs His universe, and G-d's attributes are to become the standard of man's morality, this is defined as imitation of G-d.
The Kabbalistic approach is that all these Thirteen Attributes derive directly from the emanation Keter, the highest emanation downwards.
- The attribute Hashem, Hashem, represent the emanation Chochmah veBinah
- The attributes E-l Rachum, represent the emanation Gedolah
- The attributes Channun Erech Apayim, represent the emanation Gevurah
- The attributes Rav Chesed veEmet, represent the emanation Tiferet
- The attributes Notzer Chesed laAlafim, represent the emanation Netzach
- The attributes Fesha veChata'ah, represent the emanation Hod
- The attribute venakeh, represent the emanation Yesod
Everyone of the emanations [exclusive of the emanation Malchut which has none) has been allocated two attributes except for the emanation Yesod which has been allocated only one attribute. The Holy Name of Hashem who passed in front of Moshe was the one reciting this list of attributes as they derive from the highest emanation Keter.
(It is well known that when reading these attributes, one is to make a comma between the first and second mention of the tetragram. Anyone who fails to make this separation will have to account for his mistake.)
- Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts - Philip Birnbaum
- Rabbeinu Bachya