On Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur (the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement), and on the festivals throughout the year, traditional Jewish liturgy includes the Thirteen Attributes of the Divine. Exodus 34:6-7 is the first to mention these thirteen attributes, or thirteen names really, for God. This Rosh haShanah, as part of my work as a creative liturgist, I offered a new meditation on these thirteen attributes, dedicated to the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence.
In the biblical story, Moses asks God to show him God’s face, and God’s response is that Moses cannot see God’s face but “I will make all My goodness pass before you.” God hides Moses in the cleft of a rock, passes by the cleft, and recites the following: YHWH, YHWH, compassionate and gracious, patient, abundant in kindness and truth, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving mistakes, and cleansing…” The liturgy actually cuts off the rest of the text, which is harsher, in favor of retaining the loving divine attributes. At the new year, when the liturgy invites us to reflect, consider our actions, and acknowledge the brevity of our lives, Jews recite the text as a prayer to invoke God’s mercy.
Thirteen is a somewhat uncommon sacred number in Jewish tradition (seven, ten, and twelve are more common), but it’s a frequent sacred number in my practice. In my spiritual tradition, at the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, we place at the core of our work thirteen netivot, or paths, of sacred action. We also call them the “archetypes,” the “priestess paths,” or “the paths of Shekhinah.” Each of these paths—maiden, midwife, prophetess, mother, wise woman, shrinekeeper, lover, weaver, etc.– comes from an ancient way in which women embodied the sacred. As a community, we use these paths as a guide for how to serve the sacred and one another, and we also understand them as faces of Goddess.
As the High Holidays approaches, I began to think about whether the thirteen Divine attributes of the book of Exodus and the thirteen priestess paths of the Kohenet community might work together. I wanted a new way to think about the thirteen attributes. Grammatically speaking, the attributes are male. I wanted a way, not just to change the grammar, but to invite them to teach us something new. And I wanted a moment of renewal and inspiration in a world that calls for so much work and care.
This Rosh haShanah, on the banks of the Hudson River, I led a creative ritual to celebrate tashlich—a folk ritual in which Jews symbolically cast their sins into the water as a prayer that they be removed from our lives. It was a beautiful day and the river shone in the fading light. After the ceremony, we sat in prayer for a while, beneath the shade of three cherry trees. I asked the people in the circle to help me recite the two sets of sacred thirteen together. I asked each person to recite one line of the reading, and to try to embody in their words and gestures the meaning of that line for them.
Adonai (YHWH): The Maiden — I am Being.
Adonai (YHWH): The Midwife — I bring the world into Being.
El (God): The Prophetess — I am the bridge between worlds.
Rachum (Compassionate): The Mother — I am the loving Source.
VeChanun (Gracious): The Wise Woman — I initiate all who seek me.
Erech Apayim (Patient): The Shrinekeeper — I tend the sacred fire over centuries.
VeRav Chesed (Great in Kindness): The Queen/Guardian — I protect the storehouse and offer its abundance.
VeEmet (and Truth): The Mourning Woman — I acknowledge the truth of loss.
Notzer Chesed La’Alafim (Giver of Kindness to Thousands): The Shamaness — I heal the bond with the ancestors and with the spirits of all life.
Nosei Avon (Pardoner of Transgression): The Seeker — I set all upon the path, even when they are lost.
Vafesha (and Guilt): The Lover — I honor all love, even when love has faults.
Vechata’ah (and Mistakes): The Fool — I accept with laughter the imperfections of all creatures.
Venakeh (and Cleansing): The Weaver — I am the Fountain of Life, making all things one.
As we recited the attributes in this new way, we saw them come alive in one another. The Fool laughed heartily. The Maiden shouted exuberantly. The Shrinekeeper patiently kindled many lights. The Mother looked at each one of us, individually, with great love. As darkness began to fall, we had new inspiration for walking a path of love and goodness in the world: the divine attributes embodied in the faces all around us. We ate our festive meal with camaraderie and celebration, praying for the new year to bring healing, and for each of us to find ways to repair the world.
The number thirteen is sacred around the world, as the number of months/moon cycles in the year. Many Native American traditions have thirteen months in the year; so did the Celts. Some contemporary Goddess traditions understand thirteen as the number of the Goddess. Some say the number thirteen became unlucky in Western culture because of fear of the sacred feminine. This year, I have a new reason to celebrate the number thirteen. Wishing everyone a thirteen months in which we work toward a vision of a just and sustainable society, and a greater appreciation for the holy cosmos we inhabit.
Shanah tovah, a good year to all.
For more information about the thirteen priestess paths in the Kohenet tradition, visit www.kohenet.com or read The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, by Jill Hammer and Taya Shere.
Thanks to Congregation Romemu for sponsoring Tashlich by the Hudson, and to the friends of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute for their support of this and other ritual spaces.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org). She is the author of essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of seven books including Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Taya Shere, 2015), and the new volume of poetry The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016).