Thirteen Times Two Equals One

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Oddly, a Hebrew phrase familiar to the Jewishly-educated is routinely used to refer to two entirely different and seemingly unrelated things.

The phrase is “Yud Gimmel Middos” – literally, “13 Measures” – and one of its usages was prominent over the days from before Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur.  In that context, the phrase refers to the verses from Shemos (34:6-7) that begin with G-d’s name stated twice (with a pause signaled between them, representing, the Talmud says, one’s different relationship to G-d “before he has sinned and after he has sinned and repented”) and comprising in all a list of thirteen aspects (or, as commonly rendered, “attributes”) of His mercy.  The verses form the centerpiece of the Selichos supplications recited throughout the High Holidays season and are prominent in the Yom Kippur services, including its concluding prayer Ne’ila.

According to Jewish tradition, the formula was taught to Moshe by G-d Himself after our ancestors’ sin of venerating the golden calf.  Acceding to Moshe’s plea that He forgive the people their sin, Hashem then tells Moshe that, in the Talmud’s words, “when trouble comes upon the Jews because of their iniquities, let them stand together before Me and recite” the Attributes of Mercy.  (Commentaries stress the need to do more than merely recite the verses, the need to emulate the Divine patience and understanding they embody.)

The “13 Middos” of mercy thus reflect Hashem’s compassion and love.

The other “13 Middos” refers to a list recited daily before the actual start of the first portion of morning prayers, at the conclusion of what is popularly referred to as the “Karbonos” portion of the traditional liturgy.   This list, cited in Rabbi Yishmael’s name in the Sifri, a Midrash of halachic material, enumerates the “hermeneutical” rules by which Jewish laws are derived from the Torah’s verses.  Some of that methodology, more completely known as the “13 Middos Through Which the Torah is Interpreted,” is logical, some of it not obviously so; all of it comprises a sacred part of the Oral Law itself.

That both the expressions of Hashem’s mercy and the hermeneutical principles number thirteen, and that both are described as “middos” is intriguing.  And it may be meaningful too.

Everyone who has ever thought of G-d, certainly in the context of Judaism, has probably paused at the fact that, at least from human perspective, the Creator seems to present two different “faces.”  On the one hand, He is the Merciful, the life-Giver, the Forgiver of sins and Bestower of blessings.  And, on the other, He is the Lawgiver, instilling the laws of nature in the universe, and charging humanity with the foundational “Noachide” laws – and the Jews, with the laws of the Torah.

Christianity seized on that seeming dichotomy, choosing to emphasize G-d as Merciful and, to one or another degree, to “downgrade” G-d as Lawgiver.  Circumcision and most other Jewish laws were abandoned by the early Church and, later, Thomas Aquinas expressly judged the Torah’s “ceremonial and judicial” laws to be no longer binding.

But even some Jews who would never think to affirm Christian theology have subtly come to effectively accept that bifurcation, laying claim to Hashem’s love but regarding His law, with all its complexity and detail, as off-putting and passé.

However difficult the idea may be for them to internalize, though, the same G-d is the Source of both love and demand.  The opening words of a prayer recited throughout the Days of Repentance say it clearly: Hashem is “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”) – both a merciful Parent and a demanding Sovereign.

Perhaps that is the subtle implication of the strange fact of the two “13 Middos” – that the Source of mercy and patience is the very same Source of law and obligation.  Indeed, that Divine mercy and Divine law are inseparable facets of the same Unity.  The demands of Divine law are born of Divine love; they reflect G-d’s concern for our own ultimate wellbeing.

It’s a thought worth thinking as, after Yom Kippur, we emerge from days of focus on the Divine as forgiving Father immediately and seamlessly into days of preparing for Sukkos, paying heed, as commanded, to the myriad technical and exacting laws of the “four species” and the sukkah – laws based, of course, on the 13 hermeneutical principles of Rabbi Yishmael.

© 2009 Rabbi Avi Shafran