Rabbi Nechemya Taylor
Torani Advisor to Torah MiTzion

In preparation for Yamim Noraim, the custom of Sephardic communities is to commence reciting selichot from Rosh Chodesh Elul, and the Ashkenazim from the last week in Elul. This custom originated in the period of the Geonim (750-950 CE) in Babylonia, and was accepted by all the Jewish communities at that time. While each community developed its own special style and nuances, certain sections of the selichot are recited by all Am Yisrael – namely the Viduy: the prayers of confession and the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.

The Gemara, when emphasizing the importance of reciting these thirteen attributes, quotes a statement of Rabbi Yocḥanan:
The pasuk teaches that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, wrapped Himself in a tallit like a Chazan and demonstrated to Moshe the structure of the order of the prayer. He said to him: Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them act before Me in accordance with this order. Let the Chazan wrap himself in a tallit and publicly recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and I will forgive them” (Rosh Hashana 17b).

Rabbi Yochanan teaches us that there are two different types of tefillot. There are tefillot which we say every day. We ask Hashem for health, sustenance, personal and communal redemption and all our basic needs. These prayers emanate from the very essence of the human being and his inner connection between himself and the Almighty. The Torah tells us that even before the Jewish people were commanded on Mount Sinai to keep Mitzvot, man prayed to Hashem. Man does not need to be commanded to pray; it is as natural for him as it is for a baby to cry to his/her parents.

In addition to these tefillot, Rabbi Yochanan teaches us that when Am Yisrael sin they need to be taught by the Almighty Himself what to say. Allegorically, Hashem wraps Himself in a tallit and stands in front of Am Yisrael as a Chazan does in front of his community and teaches them exactly what to say. The idea behind this insight is that sinning creates barriers between man and his Creator, and he needs new directives, assistance and methods on how to break down these fences. 

Until Hashem taught Moshe this method of prayer, man did not know how to relate to Him after sinning. Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, Cain sinned when he killed Abel, man sinned at the time of the flood and at the tower of Babel. There is no mention of repentance in each of these incidents due to the barriers created, and he had no way of approaching Hashem. Teshuva, the ability to undo an error and mend one’s ways is something of an unfair advantage. After all, logic would seem to dictate that if man has erred, he erred, and that is it – there is no way of going back in time and correcting the past. 

One of the first books on Teshuva was written by one of the great scholars of Spain, Rabbeinu Yona from Gerona (d. 1263). He introduces the concept of Teshuva by saying that this was one of the “Acts of Lovingkindness – Chasadim” which Hashem passed down to mankind. In His infinite mercy, He showed Moshe Rabbenu (after the story of the Golden Calf), how to approach Him, like a parent guiding his child how to apologize and mend his willful ways.

These attributes of mercy are in fact different facets of the name of the Almighty. Hashem manifests Himself in many ways and He teaches us to understand their spiritual significance and cry out these Names.

In order to prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we need to find new ways to approach Hashem due to the barriers that we have created during the last year. This is done by using the method that Hashem Himself taught us. We call out these different names that are succinctly summarized in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy and ultimately internalize and emulate them.