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Prayer by Ramban, a Jewish 13th-century scholar, unearthed

In time for the Jewish High Holidays, a recently unearthed poetic prayer attributed to the famous 13th century rabbi known as the Ramban (Nachmanides) has been translated into English for the first time, and is now available on the National Library of Israel’s (NLI) website.

Rabbi Moshe son of Nachman (b. 1194 in Catalonia, d. 1270 in Acre), more commonly known as the Ramban or Nachmanides, is one of the intellectual giants of Jewish history, the author of commentaries on the Bible, the Talmud and countless other texts, as well as an array of original works widely studied and cited to this day.

He was also a leading Kabbalist and a persecuted defender of his faith. Forced to leave Catalonia following a religious disputation when he was around 70 years old, the Ramban traveled across the world to the Land of Israel, where he helped rebuild Jewish communities and scholarship decimated by the Crusades, the Mongols and the passage of time. His arrival in Jerusalem marked the beginning of hundreds of years of uninterrupted Jewish settlement in the city and the synagogue he established still stands.

Last year, a prayer attributed to the Ramban was printed for the first time, appearing in Dr. Idan Perez’s “Sidur Catalunya.” The work presents the first-ever printed prayer book of the Catalonian liturgy and ritual used by the Ramban and the once-thriving Jewish communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca, which were ultimately extinguished by the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion over 500 years ago.

Perez completed the monumental project by piecing together manuscripts and other source materials from institutions across the globe. The prayer attributed to the Ramban was found in a manuscript written just after the Expulsion, which was likely used by Catalonian exiles living in Provence. It is now held in Rome’s Casanatense Library, and is available online as part of “Ktiv,” the National Library of Israel-led initiative to open digital access to all of the world’s Hebrew manuscripts.

According to Perez, these types of prayers – referred to as “bakashot,” or “supplications” – were quite common among Iberian Jews of the period. Catalonian communities apparently recited them after the regular daily prayers, while other communities across the peninsula would say their “bakashot” before prayers.

“The text’s content and style, along with the fact that the manuscript’s author prefaced it with the words ‘A Bakasha of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman,’ all seem to indicate that this bakasha was, in fact, written by the Ramban himself,” says Perez, who heads the Rare Books Department at the National Library of Israel.

To the modern Hebrew speaker, the Ramban’s poetic prayer – written some eight centuries ago – is surprisingly clear. The English translation appears below, with a few notes and sources added in parentheses for clarification purposes:

Please, O Lord Who creates without having a creator∙

And Who conceived a thought and power from potential to action, brought forth light which illuminates all of the lights from the beginning until the end, for all of the illuminations∙

The words of G-d are pure words (Psalms 12:7)∙

Please, with Your unseen, refined and pure power, establish my thoughts in Your service, in awe, in trembling and in reverence∙

You have brought to light every mystery∙

Make me wise to know Your commandments, and as a hawk soars over its prey (Job 29:36), allow me to understand and guide me in the path of Your commandments∙

And in the ways of repentance (teshuva) instruct me∙

Because You are a G-d who desires the repentance of the wicked∙

And the spirit of grace flows forth onto those who know and those who do not know, and in the attribute of Your beloved ones from ancient times, bless me with sublime favor, as my absolute light∙

And this is Your favor that You shall do for me∙

And may I not tremble in fear of You (Job 13:21)∙

And raise me up on the balance of grace∙

And guide me in Your truth and fulfill me from its delights∙

And from their great light, enlighten me∙

And like the mountain of Your inheritance (Jerusalem), bring me and plant me∙

And between two cherubs, may Your word come and console me∙

And desire me and receive me∙

And may the foundation of Your world establish my soul and may it be bound up in the bundle of life, the pure soul You have placed within me, and in the great all-encompassing crown, may it be included∙

Include me in Your exalted attribute of goodness, with every blessing and splendor∙

Please, with these crowns, which are ten in number∙

And in them lay the secret to everything∙

May my supplication come before You∙

And may Your ear be inclined to my joy∙

And may my prayer come before the sanctuary of Your holiness∙

And from the good oil of the two olives and the wellspring, pour upon the seven candles of the entirely gold menorah (Zechariah 4:3)∙

And shower upon he who longs for Your kindness and sees Your goodness through spiritual channels from higher wellsprings and lower wellsprings (Joshua 15:19)∙

And You are the one who knows that I do not unburden my plea before You due to my righteousness, but rather by the merit of my forefathers I have based it, and by the greatness of Your mercy and Your humility and the memory of Your thirteen attributes∙

Source: Arutz Sheva


After the grave sin of the golden calf, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai and pleaded with G‑d to forgive the Jewish people. After his supplications were accepted, Moses felt it was an auspicious moment to ask G‑d to give the Jewish people a way to obtain mercy should they fall again in the future.

G‑d agreed with Moses, and told him to wait on a mountain where G‑d would show him His glory. Then G‑d passed before Moses and proclaimed the verses that are known as the 13 Attributes of Mercy (Middot Harachamim):

The L‑rd passed before him and proclaimed: “L‑rd, L‑rd, benevolent G‑d, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, preserving lovingkindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin, and He pardons.

The 13 Attributes of Mercy have been known to bring salvation and forgiveness to the Jewish people throughout the generations. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah states that “a covenant was established regarding the 13 Attributes of Mercy that they will never be returned empty-handed.”

Their importance is underscored by the role they play in our prayer services. Every day when many Jews recite “Tachanun” (a confessional prayer), they say the 13 Attributes of Mercy, invoking G‑d’s mercy in the face our transgressions. Every fast day, which is an opportune time to repent, this prayer is recited. Most telling of all is how often we say it during the Ne’ilah service on Yom Kippur—the holiest moment of the year.

Who knows 13?

The number 13 signifies the infinite.

The number 12 signifies constraint and order: e.g., the 12 zodiac signs and the 12 months in a year. Above order and control, 13 connotes boundlessness and immeasurability. The fact that there are 13 Attributes of Mercy teaches us that when G‑d shows mercy, He does so without limit. No matter how low we fall, He will come to our aid and forgive us.

This is further demonstrated in the word echad (one), which has the numerical value of 13 (ד=4 / ח=8 / א=1). This signifies G‑d’s oneness in the world, how He is beyond any measure and limitation.


A Dispute of Numbers

The kabbalists take the following approach to the words that are counted as an attribute.

The 13 Attributes of Mercy according to Kabbalah:

  1. א-ל / G‑d — mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need;
  2. רַחוּם / rachum — merciful, that humankind may not be distressed;
  3. וְחַנּוּן / ve’chanun — and gracious if humankind is already in distress;
  4. אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם / erech apayim — slow to anger; (once, to the righteous)
  5. אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם / erech apayim — slow to anger; (repeated again for the wicked)
  6. וְרַב-חֶסֶד / ve’rav chesed — and plenteous in kindness;
  7. וֶאֱמֶת / ve’emet — and truth;
  8. נֹצֵר חֶסֶד / notzer chesed — keeping kindness
  9. לָאֲלָפִים / laalafim — unto thousands;
  10. נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן / noseh avon — forgiving iniquity;
  11. וָפֶשַׁע / vafeshah — and transgression;
  12. וְחַטָּאָה / vechata’ah — and sin;
  13. וְנַקֵּה / venakeh — and pardoning.

However, others argue and offer a different approach to the words that count as an attribute. For example, they believe that the first two names of G‑d are attributes themselves. In contrast, the Kabbalistic approach did not include the first two names of G‑d, instead, it regards them as introductory notes – as the source for the thirteen attributes of mercy.

  1. י-ה-ו-ה / Hashem — compassion before a person sins;
  2. י-ה-ו-ה / Hashem — compassion after a person has sinned;
  3. א-ל / G‑d — mighty in compassion, to give all creatures according to their need;8
  4. רַחוּם / rachum — merciful, that humankind may not be distressed;
  5. וְחַנּוּן / ve’chanun — and gracious if humankind is already in distress;
  6. אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם / erech apayim — slow to anger;
  7. וְרַב-חֶסֶד / ve’rav chesed — and plenteous in kindness;
  8. וֶאֱמֶת / ve’emet — and truth;
  9. נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים / notzer chesed laalafim — keeping kindness unto thousands;
  10. נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן / noseh avon — forgiving iniquity;
  11. וָפֶשַׁע / vafeshah — and transgression;
  12. וְחַטָּאָה / VeChata’ah — and sin;
  13. וְנַקֵּה / VeNakeh — and pardoning.

The consensus amongst the Rabbinic authorities leans towards the kabbalistic approach. One of the reasons given for this is because in halachik analysis, when Torah is discussing a matter which has strong ties to Kabbalah, then the kabbalistic approach is the accepted opinion.

The Mystical 13

Kabbalists explain that besides the 13 attributes which G‑d said to Moses, there is another set which was later said to the prophet Micah:

  1. מִי אֵ-ל כָּמוֹךָ / mee E-l kamocha — Who is a G‑d like you (in compassion);
  2. נֹשֵׂא עָו‍ֹן / noseh avon — who bears iniquity;
  3. וְעֹבֵר עַל פֶּשַׁע / ve’over al pesha — and overlooks sin;
  4. לִשְׁאֵרִית נַחֲלָתוֹ / lishi’eirit nachalato — For the remnant of his heritage;
  5. לֹא הֶחֱזִיק לָעַד אַפּוֹ / lo hechzik le’ad apoh — He does not retain his anger forever;
  6. כִּי חָפֵץ חֶסֶד הוּא/ ki chafetz chesed hu — for He desires kindness;
  7. יָשׁוּב יְרַחֲמֵנוּ/ yashuv yerachamanu — He shall again have mercy on us;
  8. יִכְבֹּשׁ עֲו‍ֹנֹתֵינוּ / yichbosh avonoteinu — and suppresses our iniquities;
  9. וְתַשְׁלִיךְ בִּמְצֻלוֹת יָם כָּל חַטֹּאתָם / vetashlich bimtzolet yam kol chatotam — casts our sins into the depths of the sea;
  10. תִּתֵּן אֱמֶת לְיַעֲקֹב / titein emet le’Yaakov — You grant truth to Jacob;
  11. חֶסֶד לְאַבְרָהָם / chesed le’Avraham — kindness to Abraham;
  12. אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ / asher nishba’ata le’avotaynu — which You previously swore to our forefathers;
  13. מִימֵי קֶדֶם / mimei kedem — from the earliest days.

However, the kabbalists explain that these 13 attributes are on a loftier plane than the ones that were given to Moses. The kabbalists refer to the 13 attributes given to Moses as “zeir anpin,” which means “small face,” referring to a small revelation of G‑d. The attributes given to Micah are referred to as “arich anpin,” which means “big face,” referring to a great revelation of G‑d. Kabbalah further refers to the attributes said to Micah as the soul/internal attributes, whereas those given to Moses are body/external attributes.

The reason why the attributes said to Micah are on a grander scale is because they don’t express any aspects of judgment or severity. In contrast, some of the attributes given to Moses, such as “truth,” imply distance and coldness. Truth looks at something for what it is and is unwilling to look past the wrong that was committed.

Source: CHABAD