Thirteen Attributes of Mercy

The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy or Shelosh-'Esreh Middot enumerated in Exodus 34:6-7 are the attributes with which, according to Jewish tradition, God governs the world. According to the explanation of Maimonides these attributes must not be regarded as qualities inherent in God, but merely as the method of His activity, by which the divine governance appears to the human observer to be controlled. [Moreh Nebukim, i. 52, which is confirmed by the Sifre (Deut. 49 [ed. Friedmann, p. 85] )] In the Sifre, however, these attributes are not called "middot," which may mean "quality" as well as "rule" and "measure", but "derakim" (ways), since they are the ways of God which Moses prayed to know and which God proclaimed to him.


The number thirteen is adopted from Talmudic and rabbinic tradition. There are divergent opinions as to with which word they begin and with which they conclude. According to some the thirteen attributes begin with the first "Adonai," in verse 6, and end with the word "ve-nakeh" in verse 7. [Tobiah ben Eliezer, Midrash Leḳaḥ Ṭob ad loc., ed. Buber, Wilna, 1884; R. Jacob Tam, in Tos. R. H. 17b, catchword "Shelosh-'Esreh Middot"; Abraham ibn Ezra in his commentary, ad loc.; Asher b. Jehiel; and Kalonymus, "Meshoret Mosheh," ed. Goldenthal, p. 14, Leipsic, 1845] The single attributes are contained in the verses as follows:

#"Adonai" — compassion before man sins;
#"Adonai" — compassion after man has sinned;
#"El" — mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need;
#"Rachum" — merciful, that mankind may not be distressed;
#"Chanun" — gracious if mankind is already in distress;
#"Erech appayim" — slow to anger;
#"Rav chesed" — plenteous in mercy;
#"Emet" — truth;
#"Notzer chesed laalafim" — keeping mercy unto thousands;
#"Noseh avon" — forgiving iniquity;
#"Noseh peshah" — forgiving transgression;
#"Noseh chatah" — forgiving sin;
#"Venakeh" — and pardoning.

According to others the thirteen attributes begin only with the second "Adonai," since the first one is the subject of "va-yikra" (and He proclaimed). [R. Nissim (quoted in Tos. R. H., l.c.), Isaac Alfasi, and others] To secure the number thirteen, some count "noẓer ḥesed la-alafim" as two (Nissim in Tos. l.c.), while others divide "erek appayim" into two, since forbearance is shown both to the good and to the wicked (comp. the gloss on Tosafot, l.c. and Ibn Ezra, l.c.), and still others end the thirteenth middah with "lo yenaḳeh" (he does not pardon; Maimonides, "Pe'er ha-Dor," p. 19b), Lemberg, 1859), this being considered a good quality, since through punishment man is moved to repentance, after which he is pardoned and pure (comp. Yoma 86a; Aaron b. Elijah, l.c.; and "'Ez ha-Ḥayyim," ch. xcii.). Others term "we-naḳeh lo yenaḳeh" a single middah, the thirteenth being, in their opinion, "poḳed 'awon abot 'al-banim" (visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children), "this being regarded as compassionate since the transgressor is not punished immediately" (Maimonides, l.c.; Aaron b. Ḥayyim, l.c.; comp. also "Da'at Zeḳenim").

Liturgical usage

The general usage is that the various recitations of the thirteen middot begin with the first "Adonai" and conclude with "ve-nakeh."

They must not be recited by only one person in prayer, but by an entire congregation, which must consist of at least ten persons, a minyan. [Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim; 565:5]

*They are recited on every holy day, except on Shabbat, when the Torah scroll is taken from the Ark.
*It is also customary that on the fast-days on which Ex. xxxii. 11-14 and xxxiv. 1-10 are read, the reader stops at the word "Vayikra" in order that the congregation may recite the thirteen attributes, after which he continues his reading.
*The thirteen attributes are very frequently recited in penitential prayers as in the case in the seliḥah of the eve of the New Year, which is repeated at the morning service on the Day of Atonement, and which begins with the words "Shelosh 'esreh middot," and in the pizmon of Amittai b. Shephatiah for the fifth day of repentance, which is recited also at the evening service on the Day of Atonement, and in which the attribute of compassion is particularly invoked.
*On fast-days as well as during the week before the New Year (the so-called seliḥot days), and on the days between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, called the days of repentance, many penitential prayers are recited in addition to the usual daily prayers. After every such petition the thirteen middot are recited with their introductory prayer, the well-known "El Melech yoshev", which runs as follows: "Almighty King, sittest on the throne of mercy, showing forth Thy compassion, and forgiving the sins of Thy people by ever taking away their former guilt, ofttimes granting pardon unto sinners and forgiveness to the transgressors, making manifest Thy goodness both to body and to soul, nor punishing them according to their iniquity; Almighty One, as Thou hast taught us to recite the thirteen [middot] , so remember now the thirteenfold covenant, as Thou didst in former days proclaim it to the modest one [Moses] , even as it is written . . ." (then follow the verses Ex. xxxiv. 5-7a and 9b).



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