By Israel Drazin


Thirteen divine attributes

A central part of many Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur synagogue services is the recital of the thirteen divine attributes mentioned in Exodus 34:6 and 7, which Jews repeats often each day.[1] The Jewish Publication Society translates these verses describing God’s mercy: “The Lord, the Lord, God, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will not clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.” The list raises many questions, one of which is: since it is not a prayer, why recite the attributes so frequently during the High Holiday season?[2]

Rabbi Yohanan[3] understood that God wrapped himself in a tallit, a prayer shawl, acted as a leader of the public prayer service, and showed Moses how to conduct the service of saying the attributes. He told Moses, “Any time Israel acts improperly let them say these words before me and I will forgive them.” Rabbi Yehuda emphasized[4] that the recital never fails; when recited, they always remove improper behaviors. This Talmudic statement adds problems. Should we believe that God physically appeared to Moses? Does God wear a tallit? Do rabbis expect us to believe that the recital of these words magically eradicates improper behaviors, without fail?

A simple explanation is that the Talmudic statements are sermonic metaphoric hyperbole. God certainly doesn’t make special appearances on earth. God is either transcendental or always present, everywhere. God is not physical and doesn’t dress up and make stage appearances. The rabbis are narrating a parable to teach that we should correct our mistakes and improve our behavior daily; and the New Year is a good time to remind us to do so. We recite the attributes of mercy to prompt us to realize that the world is good and generally rewards good deeds, and the recitals can lead to insights that change and improve behavior.


Divine reward and punishment

            Another central idea of the high holidays is the belief in divine reward and punishment. Like most notions held today by many Jews, as well as Christians and Muslims, this idea is a relatively recent accretions into Judaism, thoughts that are not in the Bible but taken from pagan cultures, such as the belief that people have souls, the need to have faith, and concepts that have become central to the synagogue services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, such as divine punishment in heaven or hell for good or bad deeds here on earth.

In his excellent very informative book,[5] Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau makes this clear.

According to the Bible, the reward for doing mitzvot is granted in this world: “that you may fare well and live long.”[6]The Mishna likewise states “Whoever performs one mitzva is rewarded, and his days are prolonged, and he inherits the land.[7] The idea of reward and punishment in another world appears as early as the time of Hillel, a hundred years before the destruction of the Temple.[8] “If he has acquired words of Torah, he has acquired the World to Come.”[9]

In a footnote, Lau adds that Rabbi Abraham Heschel argues[10] “the World to Come was developed in the beit midrash (school) of Rabbi Akiva[11] and does not appear in the sources associated with (his colleague) Rabbi Yishmael.”[12]

However we date the origin, what is certain is that the teaching of otherworldly punishment and reward is a late accretion and its source is most likely Greek culture, for the early years of the first millennium was a period when many Romans who taught Greek thought lived in Israel.[13]


God keeping books and weighing human deeds in a scale

            The concept that God records human deeds in books and that he weighs human deeds on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in scales to see whether the good or bad deeds outweigh the other, notions recorded in holiday prayers, are taken from Mesopotamian pagans. A little thought will reveal that they demean God. They depict God anthropomorphically, as a forgetful being who needs to aid memory by recordings in books, and is not smart enough to tell at a glance whether a person is essentially good or bad. However, like most ideas in the prayer book, if these notions are understood metaphorically, they teach us to take note of our acts and measure our behaviors and decide to live a proper life.





[1] Some Jews start reciting the attributes a month before Rosh Hashanah.

[2] Among the many other questions are: There doesn’t seem to be thirteen statements here, why did tradition say there are thirteen, what is the significance of thirteen, is the repetition of “Lord” two distinct attributes or does the first “Lord” indicate that God is saying these attributes, isn’t the theology that God punishes children for their parent’s misdeeds cruel and contrary to what Jews think is proper?

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 17b.

[4] On the same page.

[5] The Sages, volume three, page 302.

[6] Deuteronomy 33:7.

[7] Mishna Kiddushin 1:10.

[8] About 30 BCE.

[9] Mishna Avot 2:7.

[10] In Heavenly Torah.

[11] Who died in 135 CE.

[12] Akiva felt that every word, even every letter of the Torah text must be mined to discover teachings that are not explicit in the Torah text, while Yishmael insisted that we read Torah as we read other books because “the Torah speaks in human language.”

[13] They came in the mid-first century BCE when Pompey entered Judea.