How Much Love?

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by R. Gil Student

I. The Limits of Love

The Torah obligates us to love each other as ourselves (Lev. 19:18), a formulation that while powerful opens a large loophole. This fundamental principle creates a giving society, a community of chesed. However, there may be a simple way to avoid this obligation, taking some of the shine away from the Golden Rule.

What requirement devolves on a self-loather? Someone who does not love himself can love others equally without increasing communal harmony, without becoming a giving person. Can he treat others with disdain, neglect their needs and their feelings, if he does not mind being treated that way? Taking it to less of an extreme, some people enjoy privacy, particularly when they are under stress. Does a mourner who prefers the company of just his immediate family need to visit others in their time of sorrow? Must a person who desires privacy when sick visit others when they are ill? If we must love others as ourselves, and that is how we wish to be treated, then perhaps we are only required to treat others similarly.

II. Two Approaches

The issue is what it means to love others as yourself. Is it about action or about need? If it is about action, then you are only required to do for others the actions you want them to do for you. This is not a matter of tit-for-tat, exchanging services for your own ultimate benefit. It is about emotional comfort. You do for others what comes naturally to you. Everything else is beyond the obligation.

This position emerges from Hillel’s inverse restatement of this mitzvah: What you dislike, do not do to others (Shabbos 31a). It also seems to be the standard position among Medieval authorities. The Yere’im (no. 224) says it most clearly:

If you ask, how will I know [what is required], am I a prophet? Therefore it says “like yourself,” meaning learn from yourself–what you know, what is in your heart.

The Semag (imperative 9) quotes Hillel’s dictum to define the parameters of this mitzvah, leading R. Elyakim Schlesinger (ad loc., n. 1) to infer agreement. Similarly, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avel 14:1) writes that common acts of chesed, such as visiting the sick and comforting mourners, are rabbinic obligations that fulfill the biblical obligation of loving others as ourselves. How, the commentators ask, can they be both a rabbinic and biblical obligation? R. J. David Bleich (Yekara De-Chaim: Memorial Volume for R. Chaim Ya’akov Goldwicht, p. 86) explains that the Rambam follows the Semag and Yere’im. The biblical obligation would not require someone who does not want comforting and visiting to do it for others. However, in those specific cases, the Sages added a rabbinic obligation. (R. Bleich struggles a bit with the Rambam’s language in Sefer Ha-Mitzvos.)

III. Beyond Yourself

On the other hand, if loving others as yourself means fulfilling their needs like you want your needs fulfilled, then you must do what they want. Regardless of your personal preferences, you must visit a sick person who wants visitors and comfort a mourner who wants comforters. The mitzvah is to attend to their needs as they want, just as you would attend to your own needs as you want.

This expansive view of the mitzvah is advanced by the Semak (no. 8), who in doing so offers a unique explanation of an important midrash. R. Akiva famously stated that loving your neighbor as yourself is a great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai disagrees. He considers a different verse to be the great Torah principle: “For in the image of God He made man” (Gen. 9:6). Many contemporary readers interpret this as a debate between Particularism and Universalism. While both have places in Judaism, according to this interpretation R. Akiva and Ben Azzai disagree over precedence. According to R. Akiva, loving your fellow Jew is most important. According to Ben Azzai, the value of every descendant of Adam, every human being, is most important.

Semak interprets this midrash differently. He sees R. Akiva as saying that you must only love others as yourself, according to what you want. However, Ben Azzai adds that we must honor the divine image implanted in each person by going beyond ourselves. According to the Semak, who apparently follows Ben Azzai, the biblical obligation requires attending to others’ needs.

Semak writes:

To love your friend, as it says, “And you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Included in this is bringing peace to people and to judge another charitably. To love your friend–R. Akiva said: A great principle in Torah [is] “And you shall love your fellow as yourself.” Ben Azzai added: Greater than that [is what] it says, “For in the image of God He made man.” This means that even though he is not concerned for his own honor, he must be concerned for his friend’s honor…

Concluding like Ben Azzai, the Semak teaches us that the Torah requires us to look beyond our own perspectives. While we are not prophets, as the Yere’im colorfully points out, we must still attend to the needs of others, anticipating their desires to the best of our abilities.

(reposted from Oct ’13)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. R’ Wolbe writes (Alei Shur vol II, pg 152) cites the Alter of Slabodka:

    “‘Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha — and you shall love your peers like yourself.’ That you should love your peer the way you love yourself. You do not love yourself because it is a mitzvah, rather, a plain love. And that is how you should love your peer.“

    And then there is Rav Shimon’s take…

    “For His Holiness is greater than ours. His Holiness is only for the created and not for Himself because nothing was ever added to or could ever be added to the Creator through the actions He did or does. Therefore all His Desire could only be to be good to the created, but what He wants from us is not like this. As Rabbi Akiva taught us, “your life comes first.” [Our sages] left us a hint of it when they interpret the scripture “Love your neighbor as yourself” in a negative sense, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your peers.” In terms of obligation, it is fitting for a person to place his own good first.

    “Although at first glance it seems that feelings of love for oneself and feelings of love for others are like competing co-wives one to the other, we have the duty to try to delve into it, to find the means to unite them, since Hashem expects both from us. This means [a person must] explain and accept the truth of the quality of his “I”, for with it the statures of [different] people are differentiated, each according to their level.

    “The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.”

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