God’s Thirteen Attributes

God’s Thirteen Attributes

Several times during the course of the year, before taking the Torah out of the Ark during the Shachrit service, the congregation sings with gusto, Adonay, Adonay, El Ruchum v’Chanun ………, the Thirteen Attributes of God.

Chief Rabbi Hertz’s commentary on them, as found in his Chumash, which I have abbreviated, is: -

  1. God of mercy (before a man commits a sin);
  2. God of mercy (after a man commits a sin);
  3. Almighty Lord of the universe, Ruler of Nature, and Mankind;
  4. Full of affectionate sympathy for the suffering and miseries of human frailty;
  5. Assisting, helping and consoling the afflicted and raising up the oppressed;
  6. Long suffering and slow to anger;
  7. Abundant in goodness i.e. granting His gifts beyond the deserts of man;
  8. True to Himself and speaking the Truth in love;
  9. Remembering the good deeds of the ancestors for a thousand generations;
  10. Bearing with indulgence the failings of Man; and also
  11. Man’s evil deeds springing from malice and rebellion against God; and also
  12. Man’s shortcomings due to heedlessness and error;
  13. He will not allow the guilty to pass unpunished but visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him.


Maimonides is very unhappy about describing God with such literal positive attributes even though this is how they are described in the Torah. (See his ‘Guide’ chapters 53-60) They are described in this manner, he says, because ‘The Torah speaks in the language of Man’ and should not be taken literally. He gives two reasons for rejecting such positive attributes. The first is that it compromises His Unity i.e. all of the said attributes are an intrinsic part of His essence and not an ‘extra’ as they are with Man. The second reason is that by describing Him in terms used to describe Man, reduces Him to the Finiteness of Man.

His solution was to suggest that we describe His Attributes in negative terms. In this way every seemingly positive statement about God would say only what he is not. So, for example, he suggests that instead of saying that ‘God is wise’ we should say that ‘God is not ignorant’. Instead of saying ‘God is Merciful’ we should say ‘God is not unmerciful’.

Although we can express simple statements of the Attributes such as ‘God is wise’ and ‘God is merciful’ in the negative, to express some of the other Attributes in like manner would involve convoluted statements. And how could we express the thirteenth Attribute in negative terms?

To my mind this approach misses the point. For to say that ‘God is not ignorant’ does not necessarily mean that He is wise. To say that ‘God is not unmerciful’ does not necessarily mean that He is merciful. We are all aware that persons can be described as being just ordinary, neither ignorant nor wise.

The ‘Attributes’, stated in positive terms, imply that there are interactions between God and Man, that God is a Personal God. In fact Maimonides, by suggesting using negative terms, is consistent in implying that there is no such interaction. If we compare what he writes about the ‘Attributes’ with what he writes elsewhere we may reasonably assume that he does not believe in a Personal God and that is why he wishes to express the ‘Attributes’ in the negative. The philosophers define ‘a Personal God’ as a God who predetermines the things that happen to a person, or what he does, during his lifetime.

In his book ‘The Eight Chapters’ Maimonides writes, among other writings of a similar nature, “People often think that a man is compelled to perform certain actions which are, in fact, voluntary, for instance, marrying a certain woman or seizing a certain sum of money illegally. This is incorrect, he writes, because God does not preordain the performance of either a Commandment or a Transgression.” He continues, “If Man’s Actions were done under compulsion (a providential act) the Commandments and Prohibitions of the Law would be nullified and they would all be absolutely in vain since Man would have no choice in what he does.” Maimonides restricts God’s actions to matters of nature and acts which do not involve Man as an intermediary. I understand Maimonides’ statements to mean that he does not consider God to be a Personal God as defined above.
In his book ‘To Heal a Fractured World’ the modern philosopher Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks states, without qualification, that God does not intervene in Mans’ Freewill acts. Rabbi Sacks recognises the inequalities in the world, poverty, illness, homelessness, starvation, unemployment and so forth. How could he not? But he continues ‘There is nothing inevitable or divinely willed about social and economic inequality. Judaism rejects the almost universal belief, in antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, that hierarchy and divisions of class are written into the structure of society. What human beings have created, human beings can rectify.’ Indeed, he argues, the Laws of the Torah put an obligation, and the responsibility, on us, not on God, to rectify them’. His statements, too, do not describe a personal God.

Looking back on events as they unfolded, one sees many personal tragedies and natural disasters. The personal tragedies include the unhappiness of parents losing a child from natural causes, the loneliness and incapacity of elderly widows and widowers, and the suffering and disabilities that arise from ageing. The natural disasters include Earthquakes, floods, landslides, volcanoes erupting, droughts, all of them killing, injuring or in some manner harming many, many thousands. Most of these events are not in the hands of Man and might well not be recognised by the sufferers, or by many, as confirmation of ‘God’s Attributes’ expressed positively.

One also sees man-made disasters such as international wars, civil wars, persecution, ethnic cleansing and ethnic murder, killing hundreds of thousands and making the lives of millions intolerable. All of these are wholly in the hands of Man and are not, according to the philosophers quoted above, preordained by God. Again, these disasters are not easily recognisable as a part of God’s positive Attributes.

Bearing in mind the Jewish philosophers’ definition of a ‘Personal God’, natural disasters, personal tragedies and also Man’s inhumanity to Man and since they agree that many, if not most, of Man’s problems are man-made, and therefore incumbent on Man, not God, to resolve them, it appears that Maimonides suggestion is valid, for it is difficult to relate ‘God’s Attributes’, expressed positively, to everyday reality.

According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, other great Jewish philosophers including Saadiah, Joseph ibn Zaddik, Judah Halevi and Ibn Daud also held Maimonides’ view, with minor variations. The problem is, if such great Jewish personalities can alter the straightforward meaning of statements in the Torah what else can be changed? It was Maimonides’ bold and rational interpretations which were probably the reason for the burning of his books after his death.

June 2006.