The Thirteen Attributes and the Thirteen Breaches
By: Rav Mordechai Greenberg
The Greek Empire oppressed the Jews and “demanded that they [the Jews] write on the horn of an ox that they have no portion in the God of Israel”.
If the Greeks’ intention was to force the Jews to deny God though, it should have sufficed for the Jews to declare that they had no portion in God. Why did the Greeks insist that the Jews specifically denounce the God of Israel?
In a completely different context, in the prayer services for the Yamim Noraim, we find a similar anomaly. We say: “Let everything that has been made know that You are its Maker…and let everything with a life’s breath in its nostrils proclaim: God, the God of Israel, is King”. If our goal is for the nations of the world to recognize God, why do we specify “the God of Israel”? In this context, it would be far more logical to refer to God as the God the entire world!
In Moshe’s prayer in the aftermath of chet ha’egel we find a similar formulation. Moshe begs God: “and I and Your people will be made distinct from every people on the face of the earth” (Shemot 33:16), which Chazal explain as an appeal to God to prevent the resting of His Divine presence on a different nation. Why does Moshe seem to display a begrudging attitude towards the other nations of the world? Later, when Eldad and Meidad prophesy in the camp of Israel, Yehoshua will announce “My lord Moshe, incarcerate them!” to which Moshe will graciously respond: “Are you being zealous for my sake? Would that the entire people of God become prophets, if God would but instill His spirit upon them!”
What is novel and unique about Judaism’s approach to faith? Judaism is hardly the only monotheistic religion in the world!
In Judaism, belief in God is not merely an ideology, an intellectual, philosophical credo. Nor is belief tantamount to spiritual ecstasy, or a specific set of religious rites and practices.
Sifri comments on the pasuk: “to love the Lord your God, walking in all His ways, and holding fast to Him” (Devarim 11:22):
These are the attributes of God, as it is said: “The Lord, the Lord, compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Shemot 34:6-7). And it is said: “But everyone who invokes the name of the Lord shall escape” (Yoel 3:5). But how is it possible for a man to be called in the name of the Lord? Rather, just as God is called compassionate and gracious, you should be compassionate and gracious, just as God is called beneficent, as it is written: “God is beneficent in all His ways” (Tehilim 145:17), you should be beneficent, just as God is righteous, you should be righteous. That is why it is written: “But everyone who invokes the name of the Lord shall escape” (Yoel 3:5).
Sifri comments on the pasuk “God, your Lord, shall you follow” (Devarim 13:5):
Is it possible to follow the Divine presence? Isn’t it [the Divine presence] a fire that consumes!? Rather, follow His attributes, just as He clothes the unclothed, you should clothe the unclothed, just as He visits the sick, you should visit the sick etc.
Yeshayahu prophesies: “So you are My witness declares the Lord, and I am God” (Yeshayahu 43:12). Chazal explain this to mean: “If you bear witness, then I am God. But if you do not bear witness, then it is as if I am not God. And how do the Jewish people bear witness to the existence of God? By living lives that illustrate the Divine attributes. As it is written: ‘This is my God, and I will enshrine Him (anveihu)’ (Shemot 15:2). [The Hebrew word ‘and I will enshrine him’ (anveihu), is comprised of the Hebrew words ‘I’ (ani) ‘and He’ (v’hu).] ‘I and He’, Abba Shaul said, ‘just as He is compassionate and gracious, you should be compassionate and gracious’”.
In the final passage of his seminal work Moreh Nevuchim the Rambam cites a pasuk from Yirmiyahu:
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but only in this should one glory: In his understanding and knowledge of Me. For I the Lord act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; For in these I delight —declares the Lord (Yirmiyahu 9:22, 23).
The Rambam goes on to explain:
This pasuk gives expression to the ultimate purpose. The prophet does not content himself with explaining that the knowledge of God is the highest kind of perfection; for if this only had been his intention, he would have said, "But only in this should one glory: In his understanding and knowledge of Me", and would have stopped there; or he would have said, "In his understanding and knowledge of Me that I am One”, or, "that I have not any likeness", or, "that there is none like me", or a similar phrase. He says however, that man can only glory in the knowledge of God and in the knowledge of His ways and attributes, which are His actions, as we have shown in expounding the passage, "Show me now thy ways, so that I might know You and continue in Your favor" (Shemot 33:13). We are thus told in this passage that the Divine acts which ought to be known, and ought to serve as a guide for our actions, are loving-kindness, judgment and righteousness. Another very important lesson is taught by the additional phrase, "in the earth". It implies a fundamental principle of the Torah; it rejects the theory of those who boldly assert that God's providence does not extend below the sphere of the moon, and that the earth with its contents is abandoned, that "the Lord hath forsaken the earth" (Yechezkel 9:9). In conclusion, the prophet says, "For in these I delight - declares the Lord," i.e., My object [in saying this] is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness on the earth. In a similar manner we have shown that the object of the enumeration of God's thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. The object of the above passage is therefore to declare that the perfection in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired--as far as this is possible for man--the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. And this person will then be determined always to seek to live a life of loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God. We have explained this many times in this treatise (Moreh Nevuchim 3, 54).
Rambam explains earlier in Moreh Nevuchim that Moshe’s request of God: “Show me now thy ways, so that I might know You" (Shemot 33:13) gives expression to something incredible:
Consider how many excellent ideas find expression in these words. We learn from them that God is known by His attributes, for Moses believed that he knew Him, when he was shown the way of God. The words "That I might continue in Your favor", imply that he who knows God finds grace in His eyes. It is not only an individual who fasts and prays who finds grace in His eyes. Even further, the one who knows Him is desirable and close to God, while an individual who does not know God is the object of His wrath and displeasure. The pleasure and the displeasure of God, closeness to Him and withdrawal from Him, are proportional to the amount of man's knowledge or ignorance concerning the Creator (Moreh Nevuhim 1, 54:1).
Rambam goes on to specify that “Show me thy ways” is a reference to what Chazal call the thirteen attributes, or character traits.
Rambam concludes by saying:
For the chief aim of man should be to make himself, as far as possible, similar to God: that is to say, to make his acts similar to the acts of God; "He is gracious, so be you also gracious: He is merciful, so be you also merciful" (Moreh Nevuchim 1, 54:4).
Along these lines, in an earlier shiur, we made note of the midrash that comments that God, wrapped in a tallit as the shaliach tzibbur, told Moshe that when the Jewish people recite the thirteen attributes, they will be forgiven. And yet, every year we say the thirteen attributes, and we are not saved!
Clearly, God’s intent was that Am Yisrael should not merely recite the thirteen attributes, but also “do them”, namely live their lives in accordance with the value system advocated by the thirteen attributes.
This is the way for us to bear witness that God is in charge of the world. “So you are My witness” is the job with which Am Yisrael was entrusted. God tells Avraham: “And all of the families of the world shall bless themselves by you” (Bereishit 12:3), and Rashi explains, “a person will say to his son ‘be like Avraham’”.
Chazal explain that the pasuk “Love the Lord, your God” is not meant to teach us to love God, but rather to make God beloved in the eyes of others, just like Avraham Avinu. Avraham excelled at this, as demonstrated by the reference to “the souls that they had made in Charan” who joined him on his journey to the land of Canaan. The Gemara makes a similar statement:
Abaye said: As it was taught in a baraita that it is stated: “And you shall love the Lord your God” (Devarim 6:5), which means that you shall make the name of Heaven beloved. How should one do so? One should do so in that he should read Torah, and learn Mishna, and serve Torah scholars, and he should be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, woe to the people who have not studied Torah. So-and-so, who taught him Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds. The verse states about him and others like him: “You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Yeshayahu 49:3). But one who reads Torah, and learns Mishna, and serves Torah scholars, but his business practices are not done faithfully, and he does not speak pleasantly with other people, what do people say about him? Woe to so-and-so who studied Torah, woe to his father who taught him Torah, woe to his teacher who taught him Torah. So-and-so who studied Torah, see how destructive are his deeds, and how ugly are his ways. About him and others like him the verse states that the gentiles will say: “Men said of them: These are the people of the Lord, yet they had to leave His land” (Yechezkel 36:20). Through their sins and subsequent exile, such people have desecrated the name of God (Yoma 86).
When an important person commits a transgression and trouble befalls him, the Torah calls it a chilul Hashem. Everyone says what benefit (do his good deeds) give him; look at the pious individuals and the scholars, evil befalls them, as it is stated: "And they desecrated My holy name", and how did they desecrate it, when the gentiles who were exiled among them say of them, "see, these are of the nation of God, and He is unable to save them", it is thus found that the name of Heaven is desecrated and His honor is diminished (Rashi, commentary to Yoma 86).
The Midrash tells the following story:
Shimon ben Shetach once bought took a donkey from an Ishmaelite. His students found a gem hanging on the neck of the donkey. They said to him: “Rebbe, God has given you the blessing of wealth”. Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach said to them: “I purchased a donkey; I did not purchase a precious stone”. He went and returned the stone to the Ishmaelite. The man said to him: “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shetach. The way that a person deals with his fellow man demonstrates his faith in God”. They explained there: Shimon ben Shetach walked in the ways of God, and from him you can learn about his faith in God (Devarim Rabba, ch. 3).
The above-mentioned story demonstrates the unique Jewish approach to faith and religion. It is an approach that is characteristic of Am Yisrael and earns us the honor of being called “God’s children”, as it is written “You are children of the Lord, your God” (Devarim 14:1). Rabbi Yehuda qualifies this statement in the Gemara in Kiddushin (36a), and notes “As long as you behave like [His] children”. Rabbi Meir though disagrees and says that whether or not Am Yisrael behaves properly, they are still called the children of God. The Gr”a writes in Hilkhot Ribit that the halakha follows Rabbi Meir. He adds that even Rabbi Meir would agree that describing the Jewish people as the children of God refers specifically to their character traits and personalities; even if it is not always so easy to discern, this is a defining feature of the Jewish people. As the Gemara notes elsewhere: “This nation has three defining characteristics: Compassion, bashfulness and kindness”. (Yevamot 79)
This is the defining characteristic that God detected in the children of Avraham: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right” (Bereishit 18:19). It has been noted on previous occasions that this statement is not subdivided into two distinct units of “the way of the Lord” (bein adam la’makom) and “doing what is just and right” (bein adam la’chaveiro). It rather makes the case that doing what is just and right is actually the way of the Lord.
These are the thirteen attributes, meaning clothing. As Targum explains: “The priest shall dress in linen raiment (mido bad)” – he is clothed in linen. When we act in accordance with these attributes, it is as if we are clothed in them. We become the conduit through which God is revealed in this world. In the words of Rav Kook: “The Jewish nation is clothed in the Godliness that reveals itself to the world”
This is the point of contention between the Jewish people and the other nations of the world, specifically Greece. In truth, all of them believed in God. It is written in Daniel that even Nevuchadnezer called God “The God of gods”, thereby attesting that there is a Creator, who is the First Cause. In spite of their universal belief in God though, they are unwilling to accept that which the Jewish people represent in this world; namely the God who reveals Himself through His thirteen attributes, the Divine attributes which inspire and direct the actions of mankind.
As a case in point, consider the literary work My Glorious Brothers that tells the story of a Roman senator who is sent to the land of Israel to determine if the Jews can be allies of Rome. The senator is resentful and scornful of many Jewish religious practices and rituals that he considers misguided and objectionable, such as the mitzvah of desisting from work on Shabbat, and freeing slaves after six years of slavery. In general, the senator finds it distasteful that Jewish society does not have many slaves. While in Rome each independent citizen has twenty-three slaves, in Judea there is one slave for every twenty-three individuals. The senator describes a trial that he attends, where Shimon the Chashmonai considers the case of a slave-boy that escaped his abusive owner. As opposed to combing the boy’s flesh with an iron comb and hanging him in the city square, Shimon admonishes the slave-owner that he must release the slave on schedule and that he dare not pierce the boy’s ear thereby requiring him to remain a slave until the yovel.
The Roman senator concludes that it is impossible to trust the Jews. There is no chance of a building bridges of confidence and understanding between these two disparate societies. Jewish society’s support for values like man’s inherent right to personal freedom and respect for strangers threaten Rome insofar as it calls into question key values of Western society, such as the entire institution of slavery. Even though the Jews are a relatively small population, content to live in their tiny country, it would be mistaken to ignore the danger that they pose to our society. The world is far too narrow to embrace both Rome and Judea (Nechama Lebowitz, Parshat Shemot, p. 13).
This indeed is the goal of Am Yisrael in this world. We are entrusted with the responsibility of educating the world that God is not only the King of the world, but that “the King of the world is the God of Israel”, which means to say that God is revealed in this world through the Jewish people, their way of life, their attributes, in righteousness and justice.
It follows then that we cannot rest or stop until every living person declares that “the God of Israel is the King”. This is why Moshe beseeched God that “I and Your people will be made distinct from every people on the face of the earth”. This is hardly a stingy or selfish request! It is rather a deep expression of Moshe’s fear that if God’s Divine presence were to rest on a different nation, it would mistakenly imply that God’s Divine presence can rest in the absence of the thirteen attributes, and that God does not desire kindness, justice and righteousness!
This was precisely the Greeks’ intention when they demanded of the Jews to “write on the horn of an ox etc.”. Yosef is often referred to as an ox (“Like a firstling ox in his majesty” (Devarim 33:17); “And when pleased they maim oxen” (Bereishit 49:6)). Yosef represents the universal side of Judaism, while Yehuda represents the exclusive, unique aspects of Am Yisrael. This is why Yehuda was sent to Mitzrayim ahead of the rest of the family to establish a beit midrash in the land of Goshen, while Yosef was “sent ahead by God to provide sustenance for you” – a manifestation of his external role as financier and sustainer of the family. For this reason, Yosef was extremely good-looking, curled his hair, and spoke seventy languages. Chazal even note that while Yosef’s name had only three letters of God’s name (based on the way Yosef’s name is written in the pasuk “edut b’Yehosef”), Yehuda’s name has all four letters. Yosef sanctified God’s name privately, while Yehuda sanctified God’s name in public for all to see, “Yehuda became His sanctuary”.
When the Greeks ordered the Jews to write on the horn of an ox, they were essentially demanding of them to adopt Yosef’s approach. We have no share in the God of Israel. Continue to believe in the Creator of the world but behave like the other nations. Be like Yosef who represented that which united Jews with the other nations of the world, and not necessarily the God of Israel.
At the end of Sefer Ahava, Rambam writes that on Chanuka we say Al Hanisim, until the words “and then your children came”. With regards to Purim though, Rambam does not delineate the end of the prayer.
“For thus said the Lord of Hosts: In just a little while longer I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land” (Chagai 2:6).
“I will shake [the heavens] with miracles that will be performed for the Chashmona’im and they will understand that my Divine presence rests in this house” (Rashi, commentary to Chagai 2:6)
The miracles that took place in the mikdash proved that the Divine presence rested specifically among the Jewish people. This is why the Jews are lovingly referred to as children. There is special significance to the formulation “and then your children came”. This is the intention of the Rambam in the halakha mentioned above. The Greeks tried to strip us of our status of “children”. They sought to deny our singular, exclusive connection to God, the God of Israel. They wanted God to exist in universal terms only.
Ramchal address the significance of our status as “children” in Mesilat Yesharim (Chapter 18). Saintliness (chasidut) is not rooted in a chasid’s fulfillment of all of the mitzvot, but rather in his behaving in a manner that reflects the loving relationship that he has with the Creator, like a son who loves his father. Such a person does not wait for his father to ask him to do something for him. Once he understands his father’s desire, the son is responsive to the needs and desires of the father, even in the absence of a specific demand.
This idea resonates with a statement made by the Gemara in Bava Basra:
When you fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, you are called sons; when you do not fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, you are called slaves. (Bava Basra 10a)
A person who “fulfills the will of the Omnipresent” is not defined as a person who merely fulfills the Divine commands, but a person who understands the will of God and tries to fulfill it. This may be the intention of Tosafot in Berakhot (35b). The Gemara initially states that the paragraph of ve’haya im shamo’a is referring to a situation where Am Yisrael fulfills the will of God. The Gemara then quotes the opinion of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that this paragraph describes a situation where Am Yisrael does not fulfill the will of God. Tosafot explain that it refers to a case where even though the people fulfill the will of God, they were not extremely righteous. There are some people who do the will of God by doing what they need to do, and others who go above and beyond. Similarly, Netziv notes in his commentary to Parshat Teruma that the Gemara states that the keruvim faced one another when Am Yisrael did the will of God. He explains further that a king certainly wants anyone who has the capacity to be a warrior to be a warrior. While it is obvious that an individual who is not interested in assuming this role is not a sinner, he is also clearly not fulfilling the ultimate will of the King.
The Greeks could not tolerate that the Jews were called the “children” of God. It unsettled them and disturbed their way of life. They wanted to annul this special distinction. Therefore, the tefila that we recite on Chanuka emphasizes “and then Your children entered Your holy sanctuary”, and the Rambam specifically notes that this formulation should be recited. The Avudraham writes: Many do not recite “and then Your children entered Your holy sanctuary”, and it should be said, because this was the primary miracle.
We say: “For the miracles and for the salvation”, and we end with “and for your people Israel you brought a great victory and salvation (purkan)”. The word purkan is derived from the word pidyon. Of what relevance is pidyon here?
The Gemara in Megilla (11a) states that the pasuk “b’atzaltayim yimach ha’mikareh” (through slothfulness the rafters sink in) implies that when the Jewish people oppose God, they become poor (mach or rash). In the book Yemei Chanuka, Rav Dovid Cohen shlit”a cites an explanation of this Gemara offered by Rav Isaac Chaver: The names Yisrael and Michael both contain the letters aleph-lamed, which is a name of God, and the letter yud, which indicates the elevated status of the Jewish people. When they do not fulfill the will of God, the Jewish people lose this unique status, and the letters of their names that correspond to it. When the letters aleph, lamed, and yud, are removed from Yisrael and Michael, the result is rash and mach.
The Beit Halevi comments that the promise given to Yaakov in Parshat Vayigash, “Do not fear descending to Egypt… I will descend with you and I will bring you back up” (46:3-4), is the greatest promise ever given to Am Yisrael; God guarantees that He will reveal Himself to the world only through the Jewish people. This is also his interpretation of the Yerushalmi, which states that God inserted His name (aleph-lamed) into the name Yisrael. This can be compared to a king who had a key to a palace and attached a chain to it so it would not get lost. So too, God inserted His name into that of Am Yisrael so that they would not get lost. This is also the meaning of the pasuk in Yehoshua (7:9): “The Canaanites will hear and surround us and cut off our name from land, and what will you do for Your great name,” which is bound up with ours.
The Maharal (Netzach Yisrael ch. 10) explains that beyond the goal of preserving Am Yisrael when they were in exile among the non-Jewish nations, this holds true even when they are not in exile. They will always remain unique, as the verse states, “for the portion of God is His nation.” When Am Yisrael fulfills the will of God, they become attached to Him, and His name is intermingled with theirs.
This idea is also expressed in a derasha of Chazal on the verse: “Oy mi yichyeh mi’sumo El”. Rabbi Yochanan says: Woe to the nation that will be present when God redeems His children. Who places his garment between a male lion and a female lion when they are mating?! The meaning of this derasha is that when God places His name aleph-lamed (sumo El) in the name Yisrael, who will dare interfere? When Am Yisrael is in exile the name of God is hidden, but when He redeems them, His name again becomes known through them. This is the pidyon of his children, and it is similar to the mating of male and female lions.
The Ramban (Bereishit 49:10) writes that the Chashmona’im were exceptionally pious “chasidim.” We previously explained that this title indicates the capacity to fulfill the will of God. Therefore, the Chashmona’im are called “children”, and it is they who caused Am Yisrael to be reunited with the name of God. This comprises redemption for both Am Yisrael and the name of God, both of whom were in exile from each other and were reunited.
Chazal similarly state in Tanna D’vei Eliyahu (ch. 10): Anyone who performs justice and charity and saves lives it is as though he redeems the Holy One, blessed is He, and the Jewish people from the nations of the world. About him the verse states: “He has redeemed (padah) my soul in peace” (Tehillim 55:19). At that time the Holy One, blessed is He, says: Who redeemed (padah) Me and My Divine presence and the Jewish people from among the nations of the world? One who performs charity and justice.
This is the attribute of the Jewish people about whom it is said “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right” (Bereishit 18:19).
Charity and justice are the means through which we “redeem” God. When the Jews were triumphant against the Greeks and they acted as “chasidim” who sought to do the will of God, God allowed His name to be rejoined with theirs. This constituted redemption for both Am Yisrael and God. The Al Hanisim prayer therefore emphasizes the concept of redemption (pidyon) – both for Am Yisrael and for God. “For Yourself You made a great and holy name in Your world”. The Chanuka miracles restored God’s great name. The eight days of Chanuka were consequently established “to express thanks and praise to Your great name”.
In the poem that we sing after candle lighting, we say: “Greeks gathered against me … They breached the walls of my towers”. In Masekhet Midot we learn that the kings of Greece breached thirteen breaches in the soreg of the mikdash. In response to this, the Rabbis established thirteen prostrations. Bowing down to God is the ultimate symbol of self-negation and gratitude. The Greeks wanted to obliterate the singular holiness of Am Yisrael – namely the thirteen attributes of compassion. Yet the Jews responded by closing up the breaches in the wall and prostrating themselves before God to demonstrate their self-negation in the face of the thirteen attributes.
In this way, the conclusion of the above-mentioned poem can be explained: “And from the one remnant of the flasks (kankanim), a miracle was wrought for the roses”. The final words of the thirteen attributes are “v’nakeh lo yinakeh”. When you remove the words kan and kan from this phrase, you are left with the name of God, the foundation of the attribute of compassion, God’s great name. The Chanuka miracle happened with the remnant of the flasks (kankanim). This is what “For Yourself You made a great and holy name in Your world” and “to express thanks and praise to Your great name” refer to.
Along these lines, some explain the opinion of the Ar”i that one should use the formulation of “to kindle the Chanuka candle (l’hadlik ner Chanuka)” as opposed to “to kindle the candles of Chanuka (l’hadlik ner shel Chanuka)” in order that there should be exactly thirteen words in the blessing, as opposed to fourteen.
Shiur ID: 8844