Who Knows Thirteen?

Question #1: Sneak Preview

My grandmother told me how she remembers that the first night of selichos people used to go from shul to shul sampling the davening of each of the chazzanim, and deciding which shul they would attend for Rosh Hashanah. Is there any halachic basis for having the chazzan daven also the first night of selichos?

Question #2: Bemotza’ei Menucha – At the end of Shabbos

Why do Ashkenazim begin reciting Selichos on Motza’ei Shabbos or Sunday morning?

Question #3: More or Less?

Levi asks me: “Because of my work schedule, on most days I do not have a lot of time in which to recite selichos. Is it better to recite just a small amount of the selichos in the time that I have, or to race through as much as I can say?”


What is the source for the practice of reciting selichos? Does it have the halachic status of a custom or something that Chazal instituted? In this article, we will address these basic questions.

To begin, let us note that our structured prayers can be classified into three categories:

I. Daily Davening

Our daily tefillos, through which we fulfill our mitzvah to serve Hashem every day, as the Rambam writes: It is a positive mitzvah to pray every day, which fulfills what the Torah states “and you shall serve Hashem your G-d.” The oral mesorah teaches that the service referred to here means prayer (Hilchos Tefillah 1:1).

II. Fasts and Emergencies

Tefillos that we say on fast days and other times of difficulty. These fulfill a different Torah mitzvah, and again I quote the Rambam: There is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to cry out and blow trumpets on every travail that befalls the community (Hilchos Taanis 1:1). One day, I hope to write an article on the topic of trumpets, and why we do not blow them today. The selichos we recite following the repetition of shemoneh esrei (or according to some old minhagim, during the repetition of shemoneh esrei) on most of our fast days, including the Tenth of Teves, Taanis Esther, the Seventeenth of Tamuz, and Behab after Sukkos and Pesach, are all reflective of this mitzvah.

III. Selichos

Even though teshuvah and prayer are always good, during the ten days that are from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur they are exceptionally good and they are immediately accepted (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 2:6). The selichos that I am discussing in this article are the special prayers for teshuvah and forgiveness with which we supplicate during Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

Structure of Selichos

Although there are numerous variant customs, most of Klal Yisrael structures selichos in the following way: We begin with ashrei, followed by a half-kaddish, then recite many introductory verses of Tanach, which in turn lead into some small prayers that culminate with a paragraph that begins with the words Keil Erech Apayim. Keil Erech Apayim directly introduces the focal point of the selichos – the recitation of the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s kindness. After the Jewish people sinned when we worshipped the Eigel Hazahav, the Golden Calf, Hashem taught Moshe to use these thirteen attributes of His kindness to achieve absolution for the Jewish people.

We then read a few verses that refer to Hashem pardoning our iniquities, followed by several poetic supplications, each of which leads into another recital of the thirteen attributes. This is followed by some closing prayers which include the viduy (confession) and tachanun (a prayer customarily said while sitting in a bowed position), all of this closing with the chazzan reciting full kaddish. In all Ashkenazic customs with which I am familiar, there are numerous different poetic supplications, variously called selichos, akeidos, pizmonim, etc., and each day we recite a different series of these prayers. The purpose of these prayers is to introduce and set the mood for the recital of the thirteen attributes.

If we stop to realize, we will notice that our selichos prayer is structurally similar to our daily mincha prayer (without the aleinu and mourner’s kaddish at mincha’s end). However, the most noticeable difference between mincha and selichos is that the shemoneh esrei recited as the primary part of mincha is replaced in selichos by the repeated recital of the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy and the numerous prayers that introduce those recitals.

The Thirteen Midos

Why is the recital of the thirteen midos of Hashem’s mercy so important? Let me quote the Talmudic passage that is the basis for our recital of selichos.

Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘Were it not for the fact that the Torah itself wrote this, it would be impossible to say this. The Torah teaches that Hashem wrapped Himself in a talis like a chazzan and demonstrated to Moshe the order of prayer. Hashem told Moshe: “Whenever the Jews sin, they should perform this order and I will forgive them“‘ (Rosh Hashanah 17b).

Rabbi Yochanan noted that the anthropomorphism of his own statement is rather shocking, and without scriptural proof we would refrain from saying it. Nevertheless, the Torah compelled us to say that Hashem revealed to Moshe a means whereby we can be pardoned for our iniquities. According to the Maharal, Moshe asked Hashem to elucidate, to the extent that a human can comprehend, how Hashem deals with the world in mercy. Hashem did indeed enlighten Moshe, and this enabled him to implore that the Jewish people be forgiven, and taught him how to lead the Jews in their prayers (Chiddushei Agados, Rosh Hashanah 17b s.v. Melameid).

Source for Selichos

This, then, is the basis for selichos. Indeed, it is not a takanah, but a custom; yet who would not avail himself of the opportunity to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur! To quote the Leket Yosher: Someone who goes to daven on the High Holidays and did not say selichos in preparation can be compared to an individual who desires to approach the king with an urgent request, and manages to acquire the key to the king’s inner sanctum, but fails to arrange how he will enter the outer office. All his efforts are therefore completely in vain, because he failed to prepare himself adequately. This can be compared to someone moving to an unsettled area who installs a modern kitchen, expecting to be able to turn on the tap and produce water when there are no connecting water pipes!

More or Less

Since we understand how important it is to say selichos with feeling, it is obvious that one with limited time to recite selichos, should say a smaller amount and understand what he is saying rather than rush through what he says (see Tur Orach Chayim Chapter 1).

Praying Truthfully

We should bear in mind that many of the selichos state that we are arising while it is still dark and similar expressions, all of which reflects the custom of earlier generations of reciting selichos either at halachic midnight (chatzos) or very early in the morning well before sunrise. Someone reciting selichos anytime after sunrise should be careful to modify these passages so that he is not pleading a lie before Hashem (Aruch Hashulchan).

Who Should be the Chazzan?

The above-quoted Leket Yosher concludes: It is therefore logical that the individual leading the selichos should be someone who will lead the services on Yomim Nora’im. In other words, since selichos are the introduction to our Yomim Nora’im supplications, the same chazzan that the community desires to plead on its behalf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should be called upon to lead their selichos entreaties.

By the way, other authorities mention another reason why the chazzan who will be leading services on Yomim Nora’im should also be chazzan for selichos, particularly if the chazzan is paid for his services. The halacha forbids paying someone for performing work on Shabbos or Yom Tov, even if it is work that is otherwise permitted, such as babysitting, being a kashrus mashgiach or a chazzan. This forbidden payment for Shabbos work is called schar Shabbos, literally, Shabbos wages. So how do I find a babysitter for Shabbos when I need to attend a simcha, if I cannot pay him or her?

The way to avoid the prohibition of schar Shabbos is to hire someone for an entire job that also includes weekday work, without calculating how much is being paid for Shabbos or Yom Tov. Making the payment into one big package is called havlaah (literally, “absorbed”) and is permitted provided no computation is made for specific Shabbos or Yom Tov work, and the wages are not paid on a calculated hourly basis (since this also means that one is paying for the hours worked on Shabbos or Yom Tov).

Now we have a curious problem. It is a practice of at least a thousand years to hire chazzanim. How does one pay a chazzan to perform his job on Shabbos and Yom Tov, when there is a prohibition of schar Shabbos if one pays him for Shabbos work? The answer is that one also hires the chazzan to perform some weekday activity, such as giving bar mitzvah lessons, teaching in the congregation Hebrew school, or running the shul’s youth activities.

None of these solutions resolve the schar Shabbos concern regarding a chazzan who is hired to daven only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To avoid the schar Shabbos problem, the custom developed for the chazzan to lead one of the selichos, and thereby he is paid a “package deal” remuneration that includes some weekday work (Elef Hamagein 585:24; Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah 28 note 145).

What if the chazzan is traveling from a distance for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and it is not worthwhile to pay his transportation for a third trip for selichos? In this instance, there is a simple solution to the schar Shabbos predicament, since the chazzan is also being paid for his travel time, and this itself becomes the havlaah.

Note that a halachic difference results between the two approaches I have presented why the chazzan also leads selichos. According to the Leket Yosher’s approach, the chazzan should preferably daven every one of the selichos days, whereas according to the schar Shabbos reason, it is adequate if he davens any one of the selichos days. According to both approaches I have mentioned, there is no particular reason why a chazzan should daven specifically the first night of selichos.

Why begin Motza’ei Shabbos?

Indeed, why do Ashkenazim begin selichos on Motza’ei Shabbos?

We always begin reciting selichos on Sunday because it is close to Shabbos, and everyone learns Torah on Shabbos since he does not deal with his financial matters and therefore has time to learn Torah… and since people are happy and joyous because of the mitzvah of learning Torah that they were able to do on Shabbos, and also because of the Shabbos pleasures that they celebrated, and we say that the shechinah rests when one is happy because of performing a mitzvah, therefore it is good to pray then (Leket Yosher).

Others explain the reason we begin selichos on Motza’ei Shabbos is because the beginning of the week represents the beginning of creation, and we are performing teshuvah for man who is the goal of all creation (Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 581:3).

At least Four

Ashkenazic custom is that, when Rosh Hashanah begins on Monday or Tuesday, we begin selichos the week before, to make sure that we recite selichos for at least four days before Rosh Hashanah. One reason mentioned for this practice is because, originally, people fasted on the days of selichos, and they wanted to fast a total of ten days. Since there are four days during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah that one may not fast – Shabbos, the two days of Rosh Hashanah and Erev Yom Kippur – we recite selichos for at least four days before Rosh Hashanah (Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 581:3).

A Word about Attributes

We mentioned above that the main “prayer” of the selichos is mentioning the thirteen merciful attributes of Hashem. What exactly are the thirteen attributes? For that matter, can we attribute personality characteristics to Hashem?

Humans are not capable of understanding who Hashem is. The Torah requires that we understand that Hashem does not have moods (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:11). When we describe Hashem’s different attributes, we are explaining Hashem in a way that we as human beings will be able to comprehend Him, since we cannot comprehend Him in any other way (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:9). Thus, providing thirteen different attributes of Hashem’s mercy is simply a human way for us to appreciate more specifically and in a greater way what Hashem does and has done for us, and what is our responsibility to fulfill the mitzvah of being like Hashem, which I will explain shortly.

To quote Rabbeinu Bachyei: Although we no longer know how to beseech nor do we properly understand the power of the thirteen attributes and how they connect to Hashem’s mercy, we still know that the attributes of mercy plead on our behalf, since this is what Hashem promised. Today when we are without a kohein gadol to atone for our sins and without a mizbei’ach on which to offer korbanos and no Beis Hamikdash in which to pray, we have left only our prayers and these thirteen attributes (Kad Hakemach, Kippurim 2).

Who Knows Thirteen?

To quote the Haggadah, I know thirteen! Thirteen are the attributes.

What are the thirteen midos?

The Torah says: Hashem, Hashem, who is a merciful and gracious G-d, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. He preserves kindness for thousands of generations by forgiving sins whether they are intentional, rebellious or negligent; and He exonerates (Shemos 34:6-7).

There are many opinions among the halachic authorities exactly how to calculate the thirteen merciful attributes of Hashem. The most commonly quoted approach is that of Rabbeinu Tam, who includes each of the names of Hashem at the beginning of the verse as a separate attribute.

What do I do?

At this point, I want to return to the above-quoted Talmudic source of the selichos, and note a curious and very important point.

Hashem told Moshe: “Whenever the Jews sin, they should perform this order and I will forgive them.” The Hebrew word that I have translated as should perform this order is yaasu, which means that the Jews must do something, definitely more than just reading the words. If all that is required is to read these words, the Gemara should have said simply: They should read these words. Obviously, action, which always speaks louder than words, is required to fulfill these instructions and accomplish automatic atonement.

What did the Gemara mean?

Emulate Hashem

To answer this question, we need to realize that one of the most important of the 613 mitzvos is the commandment to emulate Hashem. To quote the Gemara: Just as Hashem is gracious and merciful, so you should become gracious and merciful (Shabbos 133b). When Hashem told Moshe: Whenever the Jews perform this order, I will forgive them He meant that when we act towards one another with the same qualities of rachamim that Hashem does, He forgives us. Reciting the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy is the first step towards making ourselves merciful people who emulate Hashem’s ways. Yaasu means learning to internalize these attributes by doing them, and thereby making ourselves G-dly people. “Doing” the thirteen attributes means not only understanding the absolutely incredible amount of tolerance that Hashem manifests, but also includes realizing how accepting we must be of people who annoy and harm us!

This sounds great in theory. What does it mean in practice?

Here are several examples, all taken from the sefer Tomer Devorah, to help us comprehend what our job is:

1. Whenever someone does something wrong, Hashem is always at that very moment providing all the needs of the offender. This is a tremendous amount of forbearance that Hashem demonstrates. Our mitzvah is to train ourselves to be this accepting of those who annoy and wrong us.

2. We should appreciate the extent to which Hashem considers the Jews to be His people, and identify with the needs of each Jew on a corresponding level.

3. Hashem waits with infinite patience for the sinner to do teshuvah, always being confident in this person’s ability to repent and change, and continues to provide the sinner with all his needs. Similarly, we should not stand on ceremony to wait for someone who wronged us to apologize.

4. Hashem emphasizes the kindnesses that a person does, and continues to shower the person with good, while in the interim overlooking the sins a person has performed. Similarly, when I know that someone wronged me, but at the same time I have received chesed from him or her, I should ignore that they wronged me – after all they also have helped me. The Tomer Devorah emphasizes specifically the chesed that one receives from one’s spouse, which should, without question, supplant any criticisms one has of him or her.

5. When a person does teshuva after sinning, Hashem loves him more than He loved him before he sinned. As the Gemara states: In a place where baalei teshuvah stand, full tzadikim are unable to stand. The parallel responsibility incumbent on a person to someone who wronged him is that when he sees that the person wants to makes amends, he should befriend and accept him at a greater level than he had previously.


We see that the recital of the thirteen attributes serves not only to teach how we should appreciate all that Hashem does for us but also as a model to teach how we should constantly treat our fellowman.