Yom Kippur Torah Service: Emulating God

By Cantor Cheryl Wunch

There are many different themes that appear throughout our Yom Kippur liturgy.  Obviously, the themes of repentance, returning, and renewal are the ones that most immediately come to mind.  We speak and sing of our sins, our need for forgiveness, and our desire to start again with a clean slate.  The service itself is one filled with majesty, drama, and a sense of spiritual urgency that can often be felt in the air.  While there are many liturgical moments that are unique to the Yom Kippur service, there is one particularly interesting liturgical anomaly that is repeated multiple times throughout the traditional Yom Kippur service, and has also made its way into our Reform Machzor; the Thirteen Attributes of God.  This piece of liturgy is also known as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, or Shalosh Esrei Middot HaRachamim.

The Thirteen Attributes originates in Parshat Ki Tisa, after the debacle with the Golden Calf.  Moses returns to the top of the mountain, and pleads to know God’s nature. God commands Moses to craft the second set of tablets, and then God descends in a cloud, shields Moses’ eyes, and proclaims:  “The Eternal One, the Eternal God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving, and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”  After this statement Moses bows low, and asks God to accompany the Israelites and forgive them of their sins.   The Thirteen Attributes, as it appears in our liturgy, is an abbreviated version of this speech, ending with “granting pardon.”  For those trying to count the thirteen, there are a number of explanations, the most common from the Talmud is as follows:

  1. Adonai – compassion before a person sins;
  2. Adonai – compassion after a person has sinned;
  3. El – almighty;
  4. Rachum – merciful;
  5. Chanun – gracious;
  6. Erech appayim – endlessly patient;
  7. Rav chesed – abounding in lovingkindness;
  8. Emet – and in truth;
  9. Notzer chesed laalafim — showing mercy to thousands;
  10. Noseh avon – forgiving iniquity;
  11. Vafeshah – and transgression;
  12. V’chatah – and sin;
  13. Venakeh – and granting pardon.

What I find strange about this text is that even though it is repeated throughout our service, it is neither a prayer, nor a blessing, nor a request.  It is a revelation, a statement of fact.  So why then, is it so prominent in our prayer service?

To find out why we repeat this text, we must first look at when we repeat this text.  The recitation of the Thirteen Attributes appears most often in the penitential prayers during the Selichot period (the days leading up to Rosh HaShanah), during the 10 Days of Repentance, multiple times on Yom Kippur and on other fast days.  The Thirteen Attributes is also added to the Torah service on Festivals, but not on Shabbat, right before taking the Torah from the Ark.  Some communities begin this practice at the beginning of Elul, as part of their “warm-up” to the Days of Awe.  It is fairly easy to understand why these words are added to the penitential prayers; we are repenting for our sins, and asking for God’s forgiveness, and so reminding ourselves (and maybe reminding God!) how merciful, loving, and forgiving God is can help us to have faith that we will, indeed, be granted pardon.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashana, 17b) even teaches that simply reciting these words will bring about God’s forgiveness.  This statement has been hotly debated by the rabbis, some claiming that it is not the words themselves that are effective, but the understanding of the words and the attempt to emulate these characteristics that brings about God’s compassion.  Regardless of which side you take in this debate, it is clear to see why this text fits into the penitential prayers.

Despite its traditional appearance in the penitential prayers, most Reform Jews, one might argue, are most familiar with this text from its place in the Torah service on the High Holidays.  I find the placement of this text during the Torah service on Yom Kippur to be especially compelling.  On this day, we stand in front of the ark and proclaim these words, even though they have been stated many other times throughout the holiday.  This particular recitation stands out.  It is more majestic.  It is more obvious.  It is more dramatic.  As we stand in front of the ark, readying ourselves to read from the sacred scroll, we are not stating the Thirteen Attributes as an addition to our petitions, but as an emulation of the One who first uttered these words.  Our Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yochanan, taught that God covered the Holy face, like a prayer leader wrapped in a tallit, and taught Moses the order of these words.  In this way, God became the Ultimate Shaliach Tzibbur (messenger of the congregation), and showed us all how to properly lead our people in prayer.  When we stand before the ark and sing or chant the Thirteen Attributes, we are performing this rite just as God taught us to do.  It is a dramatic scene – we stand up at the highest point of the synagogue, like standing on the mountain, and with our faces hidden from the congregation, proclaim aloud the attributes which we all work to emulate.  Only then are we ready to remove the Torah from the ark and begin the pageantry of the Torah reading, as Moses did when he brought the second set of tablets down to the people.   The presentation of the Thirteen Attributes at this point in the service is not done with the humility of penitence, but rather with awe, respect, and a yearning for the ability to strive towards these attributes for ourselves.

One way that many congregations choose to make this moment in our service stand out is by using music to communicate this text.  There are many settings of the Thirteen Attributes that run the gamut from simple and declamatory, such as this setting by Lewandowski (LISTEN), to congregational and participatory, such as this setting by Leon Sher (LISTEN), to florid and awe-inspiring, such as this track by Max Helfman (LISTEN).  Many settings also employ a call-and-response technique, such as this track by Abraham Moshe Bernstein (LISTEN) to include the choir and congregation.   There are even updates on traditional melodies that include English translations, such as this track published by the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder (LISTEN), which help people fully to understand the text.  While each of these musical settings is quite different, the one thing that they have in common is that they cause us to stop and truly consider the words that we are saying.  We are not simply reciting a list, we are working to emulate the Almighty, and become better, more kindhearted people.

For those of you who have a little bit more than 10 minutes free for Torah today, I highly recommend listening to this instrumental composition of the 13 Attributes of Mercy by Gilbert Trout.  What images does it conjure for you?  Do you feel the majesty?  Do you feel the pleading?  Do you feel the desire to emulate, if only for a moment, all of the good that God is and has instilled in us?  Close your eyes and listen… and may we all find the strength to continue to strive to be kinder, more compassionate, more patient and forgiving.

Sources (in order of examples):

Adonai, Adonai. Louis Lewandowski.  From Songs of Repentance, Disc 2. Transcontinental Music Publications. 2001.

Adonai, Adonai. Leon Sher.  From The First Album, Performed by Beged Kefet. 1987.

Adonai, Adonai. Max Helfman.  From The Holy Ark. Union for Reform Judaism 68th Biennial CD. 2005.

Adonai, Adonai. Abraham Moshe Bernstein.  From Festival Delights, Performed by Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi and the Anshe Emet Festival Choir. 1999.

Adonai, Adonai.  From Prayers for Healing and High Holidays.  Performed by Michelle Wolf and Joseph Lukasik.  Published by the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder.

Cheryl Wunch has been the Cantor at Congregation Beth Am in Buffalo Grove, Il since her ordination in 2011. She also serves as the president of the Reform Cantors of Chicago. Her own blog can be found at wunchbreak.wordpress.com

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2 Responses to “Yom Kippur Torah Service: Emulating God”

  1. avatar

    Dear Cantor Wunch,

    Thank you for referring to my “13 Attributes” for cello and piano. It is a somewhat challenging piece, that doesn’t yield its fruits until late in the piece, but I can tell that you really understood what I was trying to convey! Perhaps it’s like prayer, in that it gives back to its listeners only after a little time, effort and sincerety. The initial melody I heard during slichos while at the Bostoner Rebbe’s shul in Brookline, Ma.

    All the best for continued growth and simcha.


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