Tzedaka and Chesed

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            In a previous shiur, we began to discuss intersocial relations by concentrating on the concept of arvut - mutual responsibility.  Today we shall address the broader topic more directly.  Let us examine the entire complex of mitzvot relating to helping each other, known as "gemilut chasadim" - the performance of chesed.  "Chesed" is usually translated, somewhat awkwardly, as acts of lovingkindness.  It is truly an astonishing fact that one of the simplest Hebrew words, which appears countless times in the Bible as part of the everyday speech of regular humans, finds no simple translation into the lingua franca of the western world.

            It is not hard to draw up a list of common situations where we think a moral individual will be called into action.  If someone is sick, one should succor him, visit him, cheer him up.  If someone is needy, lacking in basic necessities, one should help provide them.  If someone is sad, perhaps because he has suffered a personal loss, one should comfort him.  Categorically, those are the basic areas where one can need help - in body, in material goods, in spirit.  Indeed, we find halakhic imperatives in all these areas - "bikur cholim" (visiting, and helping, the sick), tzedaka (charity), "nichum aveilim" (comforting the mourner), as well as burial (seen as a chesed toward the deceased), helping young couples marry ("hakhnasat kalla"), and taking in guests ("hakhnasat orchim").

            Now I can see a frown appearing on some of your virtual faces.  Is the generosity and love of the human heart to be subject to the same halakhic formalization as the laws of Shabbat?  Are the dictates of law and obligation going to reduce what should be the overflowing goodness of spirit to a matter of fulfilling one's duty, according to the sections and subsections of the Code of Jewish Law?  Is there not a contradiction between the very idea of chesed, of lovingkindness, and law, obligation, and duty?  Is this not an area where Halakha should have retreated, so as not to overwhelm the very virtue it is trying to promote?

            In this particular case, there is a special approach within halakha, one that is composed of several different, even contradictory strands.

A. Love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19,18)

            Let us first examine how the Rambam cites the obligations we have just listed.

"There is a positive commandment of rabbinic origin to visit the sick, comfort the mourner, to take out the deceased, to bring in the bride (in other words, to attend a funeral and aid in arranging a wedding - I translated the Hebrew literally so that you could enjoy the juxtaposition of the two verbs used, one going out, one going in), to escort guests, and to take care of all matters at a funeral - to carry the coffin, to walk before him, to eulogize, to dig, and to bury - and also to gladden a bride and groom and provide for them all their needs.  These are the acts of "chesed" done personally (as opposed to through monetary donation) which have no limit.  Even though all these mitzvot are of rabbinic origin, they are included in (the commandment of) "You shall love your fellow as yourself" - everything you wish others to do for you, you should do for your brother in Torah and mitzvot." (Hilkhot Avel 14:1)

            A word of explanation is required here.  The distinction between mitzvot of biblical origin and those of rabbinic origin is very important in Halakha, not so much because the latter are not as obligatory as the former (there exist, under unusual circumstances, possible distinctions in the extent to which the two categories are obligatory) as because it indicates for us the classification and ultimately the meaning of halakhic imperatives.  Now, in most cases, rabbinic enactments are designed to expand or protect the borders of biblical law.  But in this case, the Rambam does not say that something new is rabbinically ordained that was non-obligatory under biblical law.  He states that each of these rabbinic commandments is simultaneously included within the biblical precept.  What does this mean?  Are they of rabbinic origin or biblical?

            The answer lies in the different nature of this biblical precept - You shall LOVE your fellow as yourself - and the rabbinic commandments - GO visit the sick, dig a grave, dance at a wedding.  This difference is precisely what lay at the root of the questions implicit in the virtual frown I discerned above.  The Torah does not directly command you to visit the sick, in the sense that it commands you to blow a shofar on Rosh HaShana, or eat matza on Passover.  The Torah directs you to an attitude, with actions as an anticipated result. As the Rambam defines it - that which you want others to do to you is what you should do for others.  It is purposely left open, undefined.  It is based on an inward, internal, personal, understanding of one's relationship with others - in fact, it requires you to first understand yourself (that which you want others to do unto you) in order to define how you should relate to others.

            The Sages, WITHOUT CHANGING THE BASIC NATURE of this essentially non-ritual mitzva, impose over it a legal formal definition of actions which are the ways in which one fulfills the biblical command.  Their intent is not to widen the scope of the original mitzva, to obligate us in things from which we would be otherwise exempt, but to give even this mitzva a legal form, to bring us to think of it not only as a movement of our hearts, a surge of brotherly love, but as an OBLIGATION, a responsibility.  The fact is that what is not formulated as a requirement and a responsibility all too often remains an emotion, saved for special occasions when we wish to "indulge" in finer feelings.  The result of this codification of love is that - without eliminating the inner basis - a halakhic Jew wakes up and, just as he knows he must pray today, wash before eating, learn Torah, and wear tefillin, so too he MUST engage in acts of chesed, as an obligation, or else he will have been negligent.

            There is real tension between these two foci of chesed, which is why this is not simply a case of two parallel aspects, but rather an underlying principle and an additional focus of rabbinic origin.  It is also true of course that there is a danger in the mitzva of chesed becoming a ritualistic rote performance, sort of like the way one drops a coin in the charity box on the counter in the meat store without even paying attention to what it is going for.  There is a difference, must be a difference, between the way I do that which I HAVE TO do, and the way I care for my fellow man.  But it is also insufficient to leave care for our fellow to the overflow of feeling aroused when a sensitive soul views a pitiful sight.  I think that the real problem is not only that such fine feelings will in all likelihood not be as prevalent as the acceptance of daily obligations.  There is also a real difference in quality between responsibility and love, and by dividing the obligation between the two, the Halakha is attempting to grant us an opportunity to reconcile the tension in our own experience.

            The reason for this is a principle formulated by the great philosophers of the Middle Ages.  We naturally tend to think that a person is first of all kind, merciful, generous, and second of all, as a result and expression of those character traits, he performs acts which reflect them.  R. Chasdai Crescas (14th century Spain) explained that human character is formed in the opposite way. "It is in the nature of deeds that they instill character traits to the soul, and even more so can they strengthen those that are already there."  In order to be merciful, one must first act in a merciful manner, dragging, as it were, one's character up to follow that which one has forced one's body to do.  By formulating concrete actions of chesed, the Sages give us the routine - and I don't think routine is by definition a negative thing - which will force us to have that which remains the raison d'etre of chesed - a loving relationship with my fellow man and an acceptance of responsibility for his welfare.

            The difference can be seen in any community founded on Torah.  Someone loses a close relative, a loved one - the halakha does not leave us wondering what should be done, nor leaves him to wait for who will think of what to do.  His house fills with people fulfilling the mitzva of "nichum aveilim," the comfort of the mourner.  Does this exempt us of having to also think of what is specifically needed by the individual in pain? - Not at all!  On the contrary, it forces each of his visitors to look around, to think how best to fulfill "You shall love your fellow as yourself" even as he fulfills "nichum aveilim."  It creates a set, standard ritual which serves as a FRAMEWORK for the inner surge of emotion, love and pity.  Without this framework, both on the individual and even more so on the community level, there is often no fixed basis for the more amorphous emotions to take shape, and surely no basis for them to develop and grow deeper and more profound.

            There is an educational aspect as well.  My children have come with me to the homes of mourners, to perform "nichum aveilim."  They could not have done that on their own - and I suspect that outside of the Torah community, few of the children have.  In this way, they learn not only to walk into the homes of mourners, but they learn to feel that they should comfort, to feel what it is they have to comfort.  But I do not wish to suggest that this is true only for children.  The principle of R. Chasdai Crescas declares that we are all children, growing up all our lives.  The halakha creates the educational environment - one where there is institutionalized societies and rituals for visiting the sick, for organizing support, for free-loans, for comforting the mourner; and the result is that every member of the community knows, at least to some extent, that sensitivity and care for others is an integral and daily part of what makes him a fully responsible human being.

            In fact, I think that at times even "you shall love your fellow as yourself" becomes meaningful only when measured against what I do, repeatedly, as a routine act of chesed.  I shall give one example.  Thank God, I have not personally experienced mourning.  If I had to decide, without halakhically-molded experience, how to act towards others on the basis of how I would want them to act towards me in such a situation, I am not sure I would know enough, feel enough, to know how to begin to answer.  But having been to countless homes of mourning, having mourned with others and participated in their grief because that was a mitzva (a mitzva not only to visit them, but to do so out of chesed), I have learnt, developed, been sensitized somewhat, so now I think I have an inkling of "what I would have others do unto me;" so that I can now begin to also do unto them in a similar fashion.  The cycle repeats itself - from others I have learnt about myself, so that I can now know about others.

B. Imitatio Dei (the imitation of God)

            There is another completely independent source for the obligation of chesed.  In the code of the Rambam, in fact, it is found on the entirely opposite end of the book (in the Book of Mada, the first part of the Rambam's code).  This is based on a passage in the Talmud (Sota 14a):

R. Chama b. R. Chanina said: What is the meaning of the verse, "You shall walk after HaShem your God" (Deut. 13,5).  Is it possible for one to walk after the Presence?  Is it not written, "HaShem your God is a devouring fire" (Deut. 4,24)?  Rather, it means, follow in His ways:

Just as He clothes the naked, as is written, "HaShem God made for Adam and his wife coats of skins and clothed them" (Gen. 4:21) - so you too clothe the naked;

God visited the sick, as is written, "God appeared to him in Alonei Mamreh" (Gen. 18:1) - so you too visit the sick;

God comforted the mourner, as is written, "After the death of Avraham, God blessed his son Yitzchak" (Gen. 25:11) - so you too comfort the mourner;

God buried the dead, as is written, "He buried him in the valley (Deut. 34:6) - so you too bury the dead.

            The Torah states (Lev. 19:2), "You shall be holy, for holy am I, your God."  The midrash comments, "It is fitting for the retinue of the king to imitate the king."  How is this done? - by acting in the moral manner of God, by imitating His ethical ways in relation to the world.  Here one does not help others out of human solidarity ("love your fellow AS YOURSELF"), or because of a sense of obligation, but because it is the way of holiness; it is the ultimate fulfillment of human nature because it transcends human nature and assumes the divine.  Travel in God's footsteps! - How? - Do as He does.  Take care of others, as He cares for the entire world.

            Why is ethics the way to imitate God?  Why is not music a means of divine imitation, or building great monuments, or thinking deep thoughts?  Why is the "chasid" (usually translated as "pious," and institutionally a sect in Judaism, but the word means one who engages in chesed) "divine" and not the great actress, thinker, or artist?  Remember when we spoke of Shabbat, I indeed claimed that creating all week is to be like God, who creates.  Why then do the Sages not say that we should walk in His ways - how? - by creating?  Why is clothing the naked the way to become like God?

            The answer I think is simple.  All values and virtues are godly and divine, but they are also human.  If I adopt them in order to enlarge my own self-worth, to magnify myself, then I divorce them from God, from the objective reality of value, and am left with only a pallid idolatrous reflection of value.  All values are by definition potentially selfish, because they serve me by making me greater. Chesed, even when pursued by man eager to enrich himself, remains chesed, remains other-oriented.  I give to others; the self-enrichment is incidental.  (Of course, this can be perverted, and there are those who give to others only to enrich themselves, to feel good, or to feel the center of attention.  Andre Malraux, an author not read often these days, has a wonderfully terrifying novel about altruism as egocentric despotism, which I heartily recommend - The Nest of Vipers).  One who tries to be like God is burnt up in the flame of what is totally alien to him, or he perverts it into something that is not God.  One who seeks to help others, to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, is directed outward.  By giving, he receives.  The Talmud does not restrict the gift of giving to natural human potential.  He receives the gift of true human potential - "and you shall be as God, knowing good and evil"  (Gen. 3,5 - this sentence is the bait the serpent holds out before Eve to convince her to eat of the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden).  Adam and Eve tried to achieve the serpent's seductive goal by EATING, by taking, and so they failed.  God had charged them to take care of the garden and protect it, to worry about others.  Had they followed that path, they would indeed have been like God.  If chesed is the framework, then indeed all other values become part of "be holy, for holy am I, HaShem your God."

Some random halakhic conclusions:


1.  If someone in need stretches out his hand for charity, it is forbidden to "clench your fist."

2.  Even if no one asks, one is obligated to give something to charity.

4.  It is a common custom to give some amount to charity every day before prayer - not to ask for oneself before doing something for someone else.

5. It is forbidden to pass by a lost object if it can be returned to its owner.  One must care for the object and publicize a call for the owner to come get it.


1.  One who is sick should be visited, both for psychological reasons (to cheer him) and for practical reasons - to see if he needs any help.

2.  A mourner should be visited, not necessarily to say anything in particular, but basically just to give him the presence of life, of other fellow human beings.

3.  A Jewish community is obligated to establish organized methods of providing help for the needy in a manner that eliminates the shame of asking for help, and in a manner that involves personal participation.  The traditional "societies" are today called "committees" - and they should exist in any society, including university societies, to ensure that the sick, depressed, and needy are taken care of.


1.  Taking in guests is not another version of charity; that is, it is not intended only to provide food or lodging for someone who otherwise would be sleeping on a park bench.  It is meant as an expression of sharing - one who is out of his own private framework should be taken in to a home.

2.  Celebrations - weddings, etc. - obligate especially in sharing with others.  When we celebrate our own good fortune, there is all the greater need to redirect ourselves out to others.

3.  The Rav zt"l, my teacher Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, repeated over and over again that the community of fellowship receives its highest expression in the giving of teacher to pupil and the sharing of mind.  There are many values, but all find their divine nature in being given to others, and this is true even - no, this is true especially! - in intellectual spiritual gifts.  To give knowledge, understanding, enlightenment, to share together in those gifts, is the highest act of chesed and imitatio dei - just as He gave us His Torah as a free gift, so too you give to others.


            Shabbat Shalom - and oh yes - maybe you should invite someone to share your Shabbat table this week.