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.