The Word Chesed
Last weekend, Hollywood Temple Beth El was home to a beautiful and moving workshop on
Jewish meditation and music, The Tree of Life, led by Gilla Nissan and Yuval Ron. One of the
themes was that of “ Chesed”, which appears as an attribute of the Holy One in Kabbalistic lore.
As with so many Jewish terms, it is a word difficult to translate. Gertrude Stein understood the
problem of definitions, when she stated” A rose is a rose is a rose. This gave rise to a
Jewish version, “A shofar—is a shofar.”
What could be so difficult about Chesed, which we translate as “ Lovingkindness.”
In Jewish parlance we use this for Gemilut Chasadim,acts of lovingkindness, Chasid,
a person imbued with a sense of piety, or, in the case of a bride, always, kalah naah vechasudah
, a bride who is beautiful and graceful.”
Going back to last weeks workshop, the group chanted the song ( from a phrase in Psalms 89:3)
, “Olam Chesed Yibaneh”. The world will be built through Chesed, which is the word for word
translation. However, the Biblical connotation is “ Chesed will be everlasting”. In it’s full context.
It means is that God’s “Chesed” to his people is eternal.
So here is this word Chesed, which we translate as “ Lovingkindness” . But what is that
So , what does it mean?
If you study the history of the English language, you discover that there is no such authentic
Anglo-Saxon, old or middle English term.
There was no such word in English until Miles Coverdale in the 1500’s translated the Bible
into English, and found no English word to match Chesed. He had to invent a compound word
to convey what he understood from the Hebrew. It was intended to refers to God's unending
love for his people Israel.
Here are examples from the Bible.
This is the verse that is said when binding the tefillin around the fingers:
21 וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִ֖י לְעוֹלָ֑ם וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִי֙ בְּצֶ֣דֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּ֔ט וּבְחֶ֖סֶד וּֽבְרַחֲמִֽים׃
22 וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִ֖י בֶּאֱמוּנָ֑ה וְיָדַ֖עַתְּ אֶת־יְהוָֽה׃
I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.(Hosea 2:21)
It is a pillar of the 3rd of the 10 Commandments, describing God as “Show Chesed
to thousands (generations)to those who love me and keep my commands”
וְעֹ֥֤שֶׂה חֶ֖֙סֶד֙ לַאֲלָפִ֑֔ים לְאֹהֲבַ֖י וּלְשֹׁמְרֵ֥י מִצְוֺתָֽי׃ Ex 20
and it is key to the answer to Moses request to know God (Ex 33m at the incident of
the Golden Calf)
Merciful and forgiving, full of Chesed and truth, keeping his Chesed to the thousands
( generations) וַיַּעֲבֹ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה׀ עַל־פָּנָיו֮ וַיִּקְרָא֒ יְהוָ֣ה׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת׃
נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙
(The Rabbis edited it for us, by eliminating the last part- “Lo Yenakeh” will not
acquit those who willfully disobey.)
The upshot- God is God of justice, but his justice is far outweighed by his Chesed.
It’s used in other locations”-‘mercy,' 'goodness,' and 'great kindness' 'favour' and 'kindness' .
Christian texts used “caris”, or “ grace”, from which, Charity. The Greek term is Agape,
which Dr. King used in his thesis and his preachings).
It is not used of kindness in general, haphazard, kindly deeds.
The theological importance of the word Chesed is that it stands more than any othe
r word for the attitude which both parties to a covenant ought to maintain towards each other.
God's loving-kindness is that sure love which will not let Israel go. God will not let go
even of a marriage that has gone sour.
For example, on Rosh Hashanah, we have verses of Zichronot-“Remembrances” of
God’s care for Israel. One of the verses is a quote Jeremiah- I remember the Chesed
of your youth, the love of our nuptials, when you went after me in the wilderness.
הָלֹ֡ךְ וְקָֽרָאתָ֩ בְאָזְנֵ֨י
יְרוּשָׁלִַ֜ם לֵאמֹ֗ר כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה זָכַ֤רְתִּי לָךְ֙ חֶ֣סֶד נְעוּרַ֔יִךְ אַהֲבַ֖ת כְּלוּלֹתָ֑יִךְ לֶכְתֵּ֤ךְ אַחֲרַי֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר בְּאֶ֖רֶץ לֹ֥א זְרוּעָֽה׃-
( ideas influenced by Norman H. Snaith, A Theological Word Book of the Bible
What about Chesed for our Sages?
In Rabbinic use, it is used in pairing with gomel-gemilut chasadim.
Gomel. If I can’t translate “Chesed” I also can’t translate” gomel:
The root גמל has three meanings. 1) a camel - 2) "to wean" or "to ripen" –
3) "to pay, reward, recompense".( The prayer of thanks for recovery from illness or danger,
"HaGomel" - הגומל לחייבים טובות - God rewards the guilty with favors) There is the connotation
of “ Completion”, also of “ carrying a load” as a camel carries burdens for us.
From this we get gemilut chasadim גמילות חסדים –
“The world rests upon three things, Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim.” Pirkei Avot 1:2
Torah-God’s teachings and study, Avodah, worship of God ( sacrifice, prayer), and “Gemilut
The Talmud dedicates an entire Sugya(discourse) to the theme of Chsed and Gemilut Chesed
In Talmud Sukkah 49b . Below are some of the original in Talmudic Hebrew and translation.
At the end, I have appended a text on what it means to be Godlike, from Talmud Sotah,14a,
on the burial of Moses.
It references Micah’s- 3 pillars: (6:5)- Justice, Chesed , and Humility- What does God want:
Create justice, do gemilut chasadim, and be modest , don’t boast, about piety.
והיינו דא"ר אלעזר מאי דכתיב (מיכה ו, ח) הגיד לך
אדם מה טוב ומה ה' דורש ממך כי אם עשות משפט ואהבת חסד והצנע לכת עם אלהיך עשות משפט זה הדין ו
אהבת חסד זו גמילות חסדים והצנע לכת עם אלהיך זו הוצאת המת והכנסת כלה לחופה והלא דברים ק"ו ומה
דברים שדרכן לעשותן בפרהסיא אמרה תורה הצנע לכת דברים שדרכן לעשותן בצנעא על אחת כמה וכמה
Zedakah greater than sacrifice. Gemilut Chasadim-greater than Zedakah
א"ר אלעזר גדול העושה צדקה יותר מכל הקרבנות שנאמר
(משלי כא, ג) עשה צדקה ומשפט נבחר לה' מזבח וא"ר אלעזר גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה שנאמר
(הושע י, יב) זרעו לכם לצדקה וקצרו לפי חסד אם אדם זורע ספק אוכל ספק אינו אוכל אדם קוצר ודאי אוכל
Finally, Zedakah is rewarded only on virtue of the “ Chesed” that is behind it
א"ר אלעזר אין צדקה משתלמת אלא לפי חסד שבה שנאמר זרעו לכם לצדקה וקצרו לפי חסד
3 merits of Gemilut Chasadim above Tsedakah- a) involves effort, given to all, rich or poor,
and to all, living and dead.
ת"ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו
צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים
Zedakah and Justuce bring Chesed to the world
וא"ר אלעזר כל העושה צדקה ומשפט כאילו מילא כל העולם כולו חסד שנאמר (תהלים לג, ה) אוהב צדקה
ומשפט חסד ה' מלאה הארץ שמא תאמר כל הבא לקפוץ קופץ ת"ל (תהלים לו, ח) מה יקר חסדך אלהים
(חסד ה' מלאה הארץ) וגו' יכול אף ירא שמים כן ת"ל (תהלים קג, יז) וחסד ה' מעולם ועד עולם על יראיו
There is a Torah with Chesed and a Torah without Chesed
א"ר חמא בר פפא כל אדם שיש עליו חן בידוע שהוא ירא שמים שנא' חסד ה'
מעולם ועד עולם על יראיו וא"ר אלעזר מאי דכתיב (משלי לא, כו) פיה פתחה בחכמה ותורת חסד על לשונה וכי
יש תורה של חסד יש תורה שאינה של חסד אלא תורה לשמה זו היא תורה של חסד שלא לשמה זו היא תורה
שאינה של חסד איכא דאמרי תורה ללמדה זו היא תורה של חסד שלא ללמדה זו היא תורה שאינה של חסד:
Here is a straight translation, courtesy of Sefardic.org
Text of Sukkah 49 b
1)And this is what Rabbi Elazar said: What is the meaning of that which is written
: “It has been told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord does require of you;
only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)? “
To do justly”; this is justice. “To love mercy”; this is acts of kindness. “To walk humbly
with your God”; this is referring to taking the indigent dead out for burial and accompanying
a poor bride to her wedding canopy, both of which must be performed without fanfare.
The Gemara summarizes: And are these matters not inferred a fortiori? If, with regard
to matters that tend to be conducted in public, as the multitudes participate in funerals and
weddings, the Torah says: Walk humbly, then in matters that tend to be conducted in private
,e.g., giving charity and studying Torah, all the more so should they be conducted privately.
2) Rabbi Elazar said: One who performs acts of charity is greater than one who sacrifices
all types of offerings, as it is stated: “To perform charity and justice is more acceptable to
the Lord than an offering” (Proverbs 21:3), including all types of offerings. And Rabbi
Elazar said: Acts of kindness, assisting someone in need, are greater than charity,
as it is stated: “Sow to yourselves according to charity, and reap according to kindness”
(Hosea 10:12). This means: If a person sows, it is uncertain whether he will eat or whether
he will not eat, since much can go wrong before the seed becomes food. However, if a
person reaps, he certainly eats. In this verse, charity is likened to sowing, while acts of
kindness are likened to reaping.
3) And Rabbi Elazar said: The reward for charity is paid from Heaven only in accordance
with the kindness and generosity included therein and in accordance with the effort and the
consideration that went into the giving. It is not merely in accordance with the sum of money,
as it is stated: “Sow to yourselves according to charity, and reap according to kindness.”
4) The Sages taught that acts of kindness are superior to charity in three respects: Charity
can be performed only with one’s money, while acts of kindness can be performed both with
his person and with his money. Charity is given to the poor, while acts of kindness are
performed both for the poor and for the rich. Charity is given to the living, while acts of
kindness are performed both for the living and for the dead.
5) And Rabbi Elazar said: Anyone who performs charity and justice is considered as
though he filled the whole world in its entirety with kindness, as it is stated: “He loves
charity and justice; the earth is full of the kindness of the Lord” (Psalms 33:5). Lest you
say that anyone who comes to leap and perform an act of kindness may simply leap
and do so without scrutiny, the verse states: “How precious is your kindness, O God”
(Psalms 36:8). It is a precious and rare occurrence to perform an act of kindness properly. . .
6) Rabbi Ḥama bar Pappa said: With regard to any person who has grace about him,
it is certain that he is God-fearing, as it is stated: “But the kindness of the Lord is from
everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear Him.” When one sees that a certain individua
l is endowed with grace and kindness, one can be certain that he is a God-fearing person.
And Rabbi Elazar said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “She opens her mouth
with wisdom, and a Torah of kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26)? The Gemara asks:
Is there, then, a Torah of kindness and a Torah that is not of kindness? Rather, it is Torah studied
for its own sake that is a Torah of kindness, as one studies it wholeheartedly; and it is Torah
studied not for its own sake but for some ulterior motive that is a Torah that is not of kindness.
Some say that it is Torah studied in order to teach it to others that is a Torah of kindness;
it is Torah studied with the intent of not teaching it to others that is a Torah that is not of kindness.
Finally,how do we become Godlike..?( Sotah 14a on the death of Moses)
And Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says: What is the meaning of that which is written:
“After the Lord your God shall you walk, and Him shall you fear, and His commandments
shall you keep, and unto His voice shall you hearken, and Him shall you serve, and unto
Him shall you cleave” (Deuteronomy 13:5)? But is it actually possible for a person to follow
the Divine Presence? But hasn’t it already been stated: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire
, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24), and one cannot approach fire.
He explains: Rather,the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One,
Blessed be He. He provides several examples. Just as He clothes the naked, “The Lord
God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21),
so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick,
as it is written about Abraham following his circumcision: “And the Lord appeared unto him
by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy
One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners, “ after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac
his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be
He, buried the dead, as it is written: “And he ( Moses) was buried in the valley in the land of Moab”
(Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.
On this, the Rabbi Simlai taught The Torah opens with an act of Chesed, and concludes with an
act of Chesed!
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