In a mysterious and beautiful encounter, beyond the ken of human reason, Scripture tells us that God passed before Moses and proclaimed to him the aspects of divine mercy. Earlier, Moses had pleaded, "Oh let me behold your Presence!."[1]In response, God had placed him in the cleft of a rock and shielded his vision so that the divine light would not consume him.

Hidden in his cave, Moses was permitted to see the Deity only from the back, but he could hear the sound of God's words. Those words have become known as the "Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy." They form the heart of the prayer services for forgiveness, the Selihot, said in the days preceding the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

In Ashkenazi communities Selihot services are held for at least four days before the holiday, in many synagogues beginning at dawn. The first service usually takes place at midnight on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, or if the holiday falls early in the week, on the previous Saturday night. The timing connects the prayers to the traditional date for the beginning of Creation, according to tradition the twenty-fifth of Elul, as a reminder's of God's power and grace in forming the vast universe.

In the Sephardic tradition, Selihot are recited daily, from the first day of Elul until Yom Kippur  the forty-day span corresponding with the period during which Moses remained on Mt. Sinai to receive the second set of Tablets of the Law.

The Selihot service includes various liturgical poems (piyyutim) and groups of penitential prayers. The service introduces the special melodies that will dominate the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, setting the mood for the days ahead. Climaxing each section of prayers and poems, the congregation recites aloud the words Moses heard in the cleft of the rock, the Thirteen Attributes of God:[2]

There are other ways of dividing the passage to arrive at the number 13, but this is the most generally accepted. The terms "the Lord, the Lord" are counted twice because in rabbinic thought the first expression refers to God as showing mercy even before a person sins, knowing that sin will occur at some time. The second signifies God's willingness to forgive the sinner after a transgression and to accept his repentance.

The rabbis also treated the name God, in Hebrew El, as a separate attribute, because they regarded it as a name that denotes particular compassion. As Rashi explains, the Psalmist's cry, Eli Eli ("My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?"),[3] is a call of pain to a God of mercy rather than to one of strict justice; from here we learn that El refers to the consoling aspect of God.

The last phrase in the listing of attributes, "granting pardon," actually appears in Scripture as "he will not grant pardon to the guilty," but the rabbis used only part of the Hebrew phrase to change its meaning and hold out the hope of forgiveness for all who seek it.

The sages picture God as wrapped in a prayer shawl in that mystical moment with Moses, like the reader in a synagogue. "Whenever Israel sins," they imagined God saying, "let them perform this rite before Me, and I will forgive them." Hence the prominence of this listing in the Selihot services before Rosh Hashanah, and later throughout the holiday and the Day of Atonement.

Another dialogue between Moses and God gives emotional power to the Selihot services. In it Moses pleads for God's forgiveness after the ten spies have drained the people of their faith in the Promised Land. "Pardon, I pray, the inquiry of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt," he says humbly, and the reader and congregation repeat the request during their prayers. God answers, "I pardon, as you have asked"[4] and the reader and congregation chant sometimes shout the words with enthusiasm.

Further along in the services, worshipers recite a short group of communal sins, the vidui (confession). "We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen..." it goes, in Hebrew alphabetical order, and with it the community assumes responsibility for the deeds of every member. Later, this and a longer confession will become the staples of the Yom Kippur prayers.

One other part of the Selihot liturgy stands out. It is one of the oldest, dating back to the Mishnah, compiled about 1,800 years ago. It calls up a slew of ancient heroes to act as witnesses to the possibility of salvation. "Who answered our father Abraham on Mount Moriah, May He answer us," it requests. "Who answered his son Isaac when he was bound on the altar, May he answer us," and on through Moses and Aaron and Jonah and Esther, and finally, all the righteous and devout" through all the generations.

For the purposes of this night of penitence, nothing of Jewish history matters but the deeds of God and the ancestors. Recovering those deeds in one's own life, repenting transgression, and resolving to change becomes the tasks ahead.


[1] Exodus 33:11 [Back]
[2] Exodus 34:6-7 [Back]
[3] Psalms 22:1 [Back]
[4] Numbers 14:19-20 [Back]

excerpted From Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Life and Culture Around the World (Farrar Straus Giroux 1996).
Francine Klagsbrun has written more than a dozen books and numerous articles on social, religious, feminist and family issues. She is a columnist for "The Jewish Week" and "Moment" magazines, and lectures extensively throughout the United States.

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