Have Mercy: Seeking closeness in a time of social distancing Selichot without a minyan
A time of repair
The Torah relates that before forgiving Israel for the Sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe calls out to God what is known as the י”ג מידות הרחמים, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, ““The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…” (Shmot 34, 6-7 translation from Sefaria).
The Sin of the Golden Calf created a breach in the relationship between G-d and the People of Israel. Moshe breaks the tablets, the physical testament to the peoples’ covenant with G-d. G-d informs the people “I will not go up in their midst,” and the manifestation of His presence, the Shechina, separates from the Camp of Israel. In this time of pain and separation Moshe again ascends Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, this time to pray for forgiveness for the Sin of the Golden Calf and receive a second set of tablets. Rabbinic tradition tells us Moshe’s final ascension of Mount Sinai stretched from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur, when G-d finally informed him “Salachti kidvarecha,” “I have forgiven, according to your words.” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 46)
To this day the Jewish people have the tradition of prayer and repentance on these days. The Geonim were the first to write of the tradition to recite selichot, prayers of repentance, during the asseret yemei teshuva, 10 Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. The Tur and Shulchan Aruch mention the Sephardic custom to recite selichot from the first of Elul, when Moshe ascended Mount Sinai for the last time. Ashkenazic tradition delays the start of selichot to around a week before Rosh Hashana, but throughout Elul they customarily sound the shofar every morning after prayers as a callback to the shofar blasts at Sinai and a reminder to seek repentance and closeness to God.
The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy
The Midrash relates that before Moshe descended from Mount Sinai G-d taught him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy and it paints an astounding picture of G-d leading Moshe in prayer:
“The Lord passed before him and called…” Rabbi Yochanan said: If it wasn’t written it could not be said – this teaches us that the Holy one blessed be He wrapped himself like a shaliach tzibbur (communal prayer leader) and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said, “Whenever Israel sins they should do this order before me and I will forgive them.” (Rosh Hashana 17b)
Tur brings the opinion that this unique prayer may only be recited with a minyan, and Beit Yosef brings this midrash as a source. (OC 565:5) Tur questions whether the Thirteen Attributes have the same status as kaddish and kedusha, which can only be said with a minyan (devarim shebekedusha), since they are not usually included on such lists. Nevertheless, general practice is that they are only said with a minyan.
What does one do when praying without a minyan?
The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are essential elements of the High Holiday service, featuring prominently in selichot and on Yom Kippur. Chazal tell us that G-d informed Moshe that if the people sin and recite this formula in prayer they will not be turned away empty-handed. This year many more join the ranks of those unable to pray with a minyan, many more are left struggling to connect to G-d without the aid of their community around them. Omitting this prayer at a time when we so desperately need mercy compounds this problem.
On a practical level, the Shulchan Aruch notes that while the 13 Attributes may only be recited with a minyan, they may be read as quotes from the Torah by individuals. Therefore, one may learn the proper cantillation (trop) for the 13 Attributes and recite them as if reading them from the Torah. If one does not know the cantillation they can read the complete verses of Shmot 34:6-7.
Virtual prayers may offer a solution as well. As we noted, Tur questioned whether the 13 Attributes were technically considered devarim shebekedusha. Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon raises the possibility that they are not classically considered devarim shebekedusha but rather a prayer that must be said with the community; since they are a covenant formed with the community of Israel they cannot be invoked by individuals. In this case it is possible they may be said when a virtual community is present, such as for selichot over Zoom. Some community rabbis have issued such a ruling. Rav Eliezer Melamed qualifies that they should be read with the cantillation when reading over Zoom.
A Conceptual Solution
We have seen that the 13 Attributes are not considered a prayer when they are recited by individuals, but rather as if one is reading or studying them. But if they are not a prayer then what can their place be within our prayers?
Perhaps, there is a place to see them as an affirmation of G-d’s mercy, as well as a call to prompt our own. The Torah states “This is my G-d, v’anvehu.” Abba Shaul explains that we are meant to emulate
G-d, imitato dei, “Just as He is compassionate and merciful, so too you should be compassionate and merciful.” (Shabbat 133b) Rambam expands upon this, bringing further examples from the 13 Attributes – we should be slow to anger and abundant in kindness. When G-d interacts with us we ask to see these traits. Do we exhibit them ourselves? We are told that G-d judges us “midda k’neged midda” “measure for measure.” If we want to see more mercy and compassion in the world, we must act accordingly and spread these kindnesses. We should find those people who are lonely and draw them near. If we adopt these traits as our own, mend the breaches in our relationship with G-d and with each other, we can achieve closeness in this time of distance.