כ״ה באייר ה׳תשע״ד (May 25, 2014)

Rosh HaShana 17a-b: The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy

Most of today’s daf deals with issues of teshuva (repentance) and kappara (forgiveness). We find Rabbi Yohanan introducing the 13 attributes of mercy presented by God to Moshe on Mount Sinai following the sin of the Golden Calf (see Shemot 34:6) as a formula taught by God that guarantees forgiveness. According to Rabbi Yohanan, God played the role of the hazzan – the prayer leader – covering Himself with a tallit and reciting the verse acknowledging God’s mercy and compassion.

The Ritva accepts a simple understanding of this incident, explaining that God “role-played” so that Moshe would understand what needed to be done. Rabbenu Hananel suggests that there was an angel who played this role for Moshe. Rav Hai Ga’on goes so far as to say that the recitation of the 13 middot (attributes) creates a protecting angel, which is what Moshe saw. The Maharsha moves in a different direction, suggesting that being covered in a tallit hints to the power of God’s creative force, and that the act of forgiving sins stems from a return to the pristine state of existence prior to creation.

The Gemara explains the first (or, perhaps, the first two) attributes, beginning with the double expression of God’s manifestation – HaShem, HaShem. The statement of God’s name twice is understood to refer to the eternalness of God, who exists both before the sin and after the sinner repents. The Rosh raises an obvious question – what need is there for an attribute of mercy before the act of sin? He answers that this is a reference to a thought of sinning. Even before a sinful act takes place, there is already forgiveness in place for the contemplation of that act. An alternative approach is to recognize that God does not judge a person based on his or her future misdeeds, but rather on one’s present situation in life. The Maharsha, again, suggests that “before the sin” does not refer to the act of any individual, but rather to God’s role in creating the world with His attribute of mercy. Just as God acted out of mercy in creating the world, so He acts even after sin is introduced to the world.

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