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The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah 17b says:

ויעבור ה' על פניו ויקרא א"ר יוחנן אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו מלמד שנתעטף הקב"ה כשליח צבור והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה אמר לו כל זמן שישראל חוטאין יעשו לפני כסדר הזה ואני מוחל להם

[The verse states:] “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed” (Exodus 34:6). Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Were it not [explicitly] written in the verse, it would be impossible to say this, [as it would be insulting to God’s honor. The verse] teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrapped Himself [in a prayer shawl] like a prayer leader and showed Moses [the structure of the] order of [the] prayer. He said to him: Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them act before Me in accordance with this order. [Let the prayer leader wrap himself in a prayer shawl and publicly recite the thirteen attributes of mercy,] and I will forgive them. (Sefaria translation, with commentary by R. Adin Steinsaltz)

Assuming this is an allegory, what are the explanations of Chazal and the commentators on the reference to Hashem wrapping Himself in a tallit?

  • Ritvah: מלמד שנתעטף הקב״ה. פי׳ שנראה כן למשה במראה הנבואה (ומפרש) [ומפרשי] דבנן דלישנא דויעבור דרשי׳ כש״ץ העובר לפני התיבה: – sam Sep 4 '19 at 14:59
  • @sam, I mention your comment in the comment chain on Mordechai ben Yosef's answer. judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/107132/hashem-in-a-tallit/… – Micha Berger Sep 6 '19 at 14:23
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According to the Benei Yehoyada, "יעשו לפני כסדר הזה -- let them act before Me in accordance with this order" is not about prayer. (Contrary to the included explanation by Rav Edin Steinzaltz shlit"a.) Rather, Hashem Himself listed 13 aspects of His Compassion and told us that if we ever sin, emulating them -- actually being compassionate according to the example He sets us -- would guarantee our forgiveness.

Continuing this, I blogged a possible explanation of what being wrapped in the tallis may represent.

Rabbi Simlai is the one in the gemara (Makkos 23b) who tells us that there are 613 mitzvos, and then shows how various prophets simplified the big picture by grouping them under fewer and fewer principles. Among the summaries of all of halakhah that he lists is a famous quote from Mikhah (6:8):

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה֞׳ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹקֶֽיךָ׃

Man, He told you what is good and what Hashem expects of you: only (1) to do justice, (2) the love of kindness, and (3) and to walk modestly with your G-d.

Rabbi Simlai continues by explaining each of these clauses. The first two are more obvious — justice and lovingkindess. The third —

זה הוצאת המת והכנסת כלה והלא דברים קל וחומר ומה דברים שאין דרכן לעשותן בצנעא אמרה תורה והצנע לכת דברים שדרכן לעשותן בצנעא על אחת כמה וכמה

this is taking the dead out [for taharah and burial] and bringing the bride in [to her wedding].

And aren’t these things a qal vachomer (a fortiori): If things [like helping someone with burial or with making a wedding] which are not normally done in privacy, the Torah tells us “go modestly”, all the more so things which are normally done in privacy should!

Emulating Hashem has to be done with modesty. Even when called into the spotlight to serve the community, the And that too is modeled by Hashem in the original allegory. When He details to Moshe the middos we are to emulate. He shows Himself “wrapped in a tallis, like a shaliach tzibbur.”

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  • I expect, that because this is my own chiddush, it will get some down-votes. I think it's emes, though, so I'm sharing. – Micha Berger Sep 6 '19 at 14:17
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Rabbeinu Chananel provided the following interpretation/explanation:

צוה למלאך להתעטף כש”ץ היורד לפני התיבה והראהו למשה ואמר ליה כל זה שישראל חוטאים לפני. עשה לפני כסדר הזה ואני מוחל להם.

Translation: He commanded to an angel to cover himself like a prayer leader who descends before the prayer stand and showed Moses and said to him: all this is for if Israel sins before Me. Do according to this order [of prayer] and I will forgive them.

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  • This eliminates the anthropomorphic problem, but doesn't explain what the atifah in a tallis adds to the statement. – Micha Berger Sep 6 '19 at 14:18
  • BTW, the anthropomorphism is only a problem according to the model of nevu'ah in which the navi is seeing things that are really occurring in "higher olamos". Such as the Rambam's model, in which every time someone sees an angel, it's via nevu'ah. However, in the Ramban's model, and jusdging from Sam's comment on the question, the Ritva's, nevu'ah is a message from Hashem. Hashem isn't in a tallis, He conveyed a message via the metaphor of seeing a person-life figure representing Hashem in the metaphor, in this case wearing a tallis. – Micha Berger Sep 6 '19 at 14:22
  • @MichaBerger I agree with you. – Turk Hill Sep 7 '19 at 1:39
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There have been many answers to this question but to answer your question fully we must first define our terms. Midrashim are parables to teach moral behavior. One should not dismiss them because they are still true, in a sense. They teach proper behavior. But they are not meant to be taken literally. Thus G-d is not sitting in a throne or a tallit wearing a kippah, deep in Torah study.

The tallit (in this allegory) represents humility. As though HaShem humbly studies Torah. Since G-d does not “sit” because G-d has no body and is one, we are forced to interpret this verse as a metaphor.

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