Penitential Prayers Require Penitential Deeds

With the beginning of the current month of Elul, the last of the Jewish calendar year, Sephardim begin reciting daily penitential prayers known as sliḥot; most Ashkenazim will not begin to say them this year until September 17. The central feature of these prayers, which usher in a period of individual and communal repentance that culminates with Yom Kippur, is the repeated recitation of a passage from Exodus 34, known in the rabbinic tradition as “the thirteen attributes of mercy.” In an analysis of the laws and customs of sliḥot and the significance of these scriptural verses, Jacob J. Schacter writes:

[One] idea I want to underscore with regard to the thirteen attributes is that, for many, their real efficacy lies not in merely reciting them, even with the appropriate feelings of heartfelt sincerity, but in acting in accordance with them. Proper sliḥot also require actions and deeds, not just words or thoughts, however meaningfully and sincerely they may be expressed.

For example, in commenting on the few words that conclude and follow the list of the thirteen attributes in the Torah, [the 11th-century Bible commentator] Rashi writes that God absolves only those who repent and not those who do not repent. Clearly some behavior is necessary; mere verbal declaration is insufficient. Immediately prior to codifying the custom of reciting sliḥot [between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur], Rambam, [a/k/a Moses Maimonides, a 12th-century rabbi and philosopher], writes that the custom is that all Jews give a lot of charity, perform many good deeds, and are occupied with mitzvot during these times. This is the first step. Only after drawing attention to these actions does Rambam go on to mention the recital of sliḥot.

For [a number of other rabbinic commentators], it is not enough to say these words; we must, rather, act in accordance with the thirteen attributes of God outlined here: “Just as He is compassionate and merciful, so too should you be compassionate and merciful.” One must act compassionately and mercifully; simply reciting the words is, indeed, no guarantee. This is reminiscent of the famous passage in the Talmud (Sotah 14a; also Shabbat 133b) obligating one to imitate the traits of God outlined in the thirteen attributes, namely, to act in clothing the naked, visiting the sick, comforting the mourners, and burying the dead. The deep profound personal engagement central to sliḥot includes action as well as the recital of words.

Read more at Tradition

More about: Atonement, High Holidays, Judaism, Prayer


Only Hamas’s Defeat Can Pave the Path to Peace

Opponents of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza often appeal to two related arguments: that Hamas is rooted in a set of ideas and thus cannot be defeated militarily, and that the destruction in Gaza only further radicalizes Palestinians, thus increasing the threat to Israel. Rejecting both lines of thinking, Ghaith al-Omar writes:

What makes Hamas and similar militant organizations effective is not their ideologies but their ability to act on them. For Hamas, the sustained capacity to use violence was key to helping it build political power. Back in the 1990s, Hamas’s popularity was at its lowest point, as most Palestinians believed that liberation could be achieved by peaceful and diplomatic means. Its use of violence derailed that concept, but it established Hamas as a political alternative.

Ever since, the use of force and violence has been an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. . . . Indeed, one lesson from October 7 is that while Hamas maintains its military and violent capabilities, it will remain capable of shaping the political reality. To be defeated, Hamas must be denied that. This can only be done through the use of force.

Any illusions that Palestinian and Israeli societies can now trust one another or even develop a level of coexistence anytime soon should be laid to rest. If it can ever be reached, such an outcome is at best a generational endeavor. . . . Hamas triggered war and still insists that it would do it all again given the chance, so it will be hard-pressed to garner a following from Palestinians in Gaza who suffered so horribly for its decision.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict