Of Loyalty, Duty, and Love: An Exploration of the Meaning of Chesed

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by R. Alec Goldstein

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty

According to my bond, no more nor less.

– Cordelia, King Lear, Act 1, scene 1.

The Rabbis question the canonicity of several biblical books, including Ezekiel, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Yet it is surprising that there should be a question about welcoming the book of Ruth into the canon, but that seems to be what happened. The Midrash says, “Rabbi Zeira said: This scroll does not teach about ritual purity or impurity, nor what is prohibited and permitted. Then why was it written? To teach you the good reward for those who bestow chesed” (Ruth Rabbah 2:20).

This source begs the question: What is the precise definition of chesed? While the answer might seem obvious, translators have struggled mightily with this word. As N.H. Snaith points out, the word chesed was so difficult to render that one translator devised a neologism, “lovingkindness,” to capture the meaning.1 Yet even this translation is insufficient, as other translators have used words like love, goodness, mercy, favor, grace, kindness, and many others. While these translations orbit around an idea of beneficence, in the nineteenth century, a new mode of interpretation emerged: understanding chesed as having a primary meaning of “loyalty.” Therefore it is worthy to consider these two possible meanings: (1) loyalty, emerging from the tribalism of the ancient Near East and the covenantal bonds that tie God to Israel, or (2) love, eventually finding life in the Christian idea of charis and agape, but clearly rooted in Judaism—an idea that it refers to a boundless and unlimited love that men extend to each other, and typifies the ultimate benevolence that God shows to man, and man—in poor mimicry—also extends to Him. It appears to me that the medieval commentaries gravitated around the second meaning, while there are only and cryptic sources that convey the first meaning. It seems that the meaning of chesed as “loyalty” did not find voice until the nineteenth century, but is also worthy of consideration.

In understanding the thirteen attributes of mercy, Rashi offers an interpretation of ve-rav chesed ve-emet. Rashi understands chesed as “those who need chesed because they do not have merits,” while he understands emet as “rewarding with good those who perform His will.” In other words, for Rashi, chesed refers to goodness extended even to the unworthy, while emet refers to God’s reciprocating the goodness performed by man. Similarly, Maimonides says that chesed refers to “excess,”2 especially an excess of goodness. Specifically, Maimonides says that chesed refers to two qualities: “first, we show kindness to those who have no claim whatever upon us; second, we are kind to those to whom it is due, in a greater measure than is due to them” (Guide 3:53).

The Malbim applies this interpretation to the phrase olam chesed yibbaneh (Ps. 89:3), a phrase which is difficult to translate, but one acceptable translation is “the world will be built on chesed.” The Malbim writes, “The beginning of creating the world is purely from the trait of chesed; rather after [and] by means of His chesed He created the world, and founded and established the laws of nature in the six days of creation; then the trait of emunah was established, meaning that sustaining the created beings after they were already created because of His chesed, and similarly sustaining the laws of nature after he founded them with His chesed is from the perspective of emunah and the trait of emet.” In other words, for the Malbim, when God created the world, it was with chesed because He did not owe anything, but once there were people, and their merits had to be repaid, that was with the trait of emunah and emet. The Malbim seems to make the strongest case that chesed means unmerited love, rather than loyalty.

However, there are some other cases that are not as clear. The prophet Hosea explains that God has a complaint against the world because there is no chesed, or emet, or da’at Elokim in the land (Hos. 4:1). R. David Kimchi, as he usually does, translates chesed as yitron tovah, “additional goodness,” so for him, God is wroth with the nation for not showing love to one another. Alternatively, James Luther Mays, a twentieth-century author in his commentary on Hosea, writes, “Chesed denotes the attitude and activity which founds and maintains a relation; the relation can be one given by birth or the social order, or created by arrangement. A man shows chesed when he is concerned and responsive to do in a given relation what another can rightfully expect according to the norms of that relationship. In Hosea the sphere of chesed is the covenant” with God.3 It seems to me that both readings are valid, since both flaws strike at the heart of human interaction: According to Radak, God is angry because people are incapable of showing goodness to one another, and according to Mays, God is angry because the people are not even meeting their baseline obligations to each other.

Radak generally translates chesed as yitron tovah, but there are some places that he is forced to move away from that understanding. At 2 Sam. 9:3, David asks, “Is there anyone left from the house of Saul with whom I can do the chesed of the Lord?” Here, Radak comments that chesed Elokim means ba-avor shevuat Elokim she-haitah beinehem. In other words, chesed here clearly is not charis or agape, it is not excessive and unmerited devotion, but loyalty because of the covenant that was already in place. There was a preexisting obligation which David sought to honor, and he referred to that condition and mental orientation as chesed.

Earlier we discussed how Rashi understood chesed and emet. He said that chesed referred to God’s actions that man did not merit, and emet referred to God’s actions that man did earn. It is worth mentioning that Nahmanides offers a different interpretation, and it is in an unexpected place. On the verse “I am unworthy of all the chasadim and the emet which You have done with Your servant” (Gen. 32:11), Nahmanides gives a separate interpretation: chesed refers to the unmerited kindnesses that are of short duration, while emet refers to unmerited kindnesses that are of longer duration. This is a novel interpretation, but it seems the logic is as follows: in the thirteen attributes of mercy, there is no reason to invoke what mankind has actually merited; to do so would be somewhat illogical: we are not pleading our case but begging for mercy. Hence God shows two types of undeserved reward: those of short duration and those of longer duration, and those are typified by two separate words: chesed and emet. Similarly Jacob perceived himself as unworthy, both of the short-term salvations and the long-term redemptions.

Until now, it seems that for Rashi, Malbim, and Nahmanides, chesed and emet are complimentary terms: for Rashi and Malbim, emet is earned reward and chesed is unearned reward, while for Nahmanides, they are both unearned, but chesed is short-term and emet (related to emunah, which implies “duration”) refers to long-term kindnesses. However, we can also understand the pair chesed-emet as related. Indeed, this is what Ibn Ezra says. Abraham’s servant, homiletically identified as Eliezer, says, “And now, if you have chesed and emet.” Ibn Ezra, as expected, translates chesed as davar she-eino chiyyuv, “something that is not required,” but goes on to explain that ve-emet means le-kayyem devar ha-chesed, “to fulfill the matter of chesed.” Thus for Ibn Ezra, the two are related. Nelson Glueck, in his definitive qork on chesed, explains that the words chesed ve-emet “are to be regarded as a hendiadys, in which ’emeth has the value of an explanatory adjective.”4 A hendiadys is when two nouns are used in complimentary and explanatory fashion, such as “sound and fury” instead of “furious sound.”

If we understand chesed ve-emet as a hendiadys, that means that each one relies to a certain extent on the other. If one trait is removed, the other risks abuse. There is a difficult verse: Tzedakah teromem goy, ve-chesed le’ummim chattat, “Righteousness lifts up a nation, but chesed is sin for a people” (Prov. 14:34, this is just one of many ways to translate this verse). Assuming this translation is the correct one, why should chesed be a sin? Nahmanides, in his “Discourse on the words of Koheleth,” probably has the correct interpretation that failure to practice chesed is a sin. Alternatively, Rashi says that other nations show chesed by stealing from one person and giving to another person. While Rashi singles out the difference between Jews and non-Jews in this regard, I do not think such a distinction must be rigidly maintained. Rather, we can extrapolate that theft is theft, even if the motivation is chesed. If chesed is devoid of emet, problems can arise. Regardless of by whom and for whom, even good intentions can lead to sinful.

Before we turn from the medieval period, there is one more commentary worth quoting. The prophet Jeremiah uses the beautiful phrase zakharti lakh chesed ne’urayikh ahavat kelulotayikh, “I have remembered the chesed of your youth, your love as a bride” (Jer. 2:2). R. Yosef Kara, who learned with Rashi, writes, “You have forgotten the chesed that I did for you in your youth that I redeemed you from the bondage of Egypt, and led you in the wilderness, and satisfied your needs in the wilderness for forty years.” It seems that there is a precursor of the idea of loyalty in this comment: God mentions the chesed that He did for us in the wilderness, and we are expected to reciprocate.

So while there are stray sources that point to the meaning of chesed as “loyalty” in the middle ages, that idea does not gain full force until the late nineteenth century.  Samuel R. Driver, in his commentary on Deuteronomy, writes that chesed “is wider and more comprehensive than ‘mercy’; ‘mercy’ is properly the quality by which a person renounces, out of motives of benevolence or compassion, his legitimate rights against one, for instance, who has offended or injured him; but [chesed] is a quality exercised mutually amongst equals; it is the kindliness of feeling, consideration, and courtesy, which adds a grace and softness to the relations subsisting between members of the same society” (p. 102). Similarly, W. Robertson Smith, the founder of modern comparative religion, explains that chesed is “dutiful love, as it shows itself in acts of kindliness and loyal affection.”5 He continues, “In primitive society, where every stranger is an enemy, the whole conception of duties of humanity is framed within the narrow circle of the family or the tribe; relations of love are either identical with those of kinship or are conceived as resting on a covenant.”

We have already cited Glueck, who sees three separate components of the word: as human conduct in the secular realm, as human conduct in the religious realm, and as Divine conduct. He writes, following Smith, “In ancient Israel it appears that conduct based on relationship involving rights and duties of a family or tribal community was called chesed….[O]nly those who stood in a relation of rights and duties to one another received and practiced chesed. This is borne out by the interpretation of chesed as mutuality or reciprocal conduct.”6 Sources from this era could be multiplied almost endlessly, and there are many biblical verses that would support such a reading.7

And there is definitely a case to be made that tribal loyalty is superior to charis and agape. As the parable has it, the shoemaker’s daughter goes barefoot. In a world where each person tends to one’s closest relatives and friends, the odds of people going hungry plummets, and the need for agape and charis dwindles, though certainly does not disappear completely.

Ultimately, it appears that chesed not only has a range of meanings, but has overlapping meanings that are somewhat inexpressible in English. The word chesed does not mean “love” in the sense of charis or agape, since the expectation and bestowal of chesed is not for complete strangers, but for those with whom a preexisting relationship is present. Even in the case of the thirteen attributes of mercy, we as people might have sinned so much as to be undeserving, but there is clearly a relationship there that we are seeking to invoke. This stands in sharp contrast to the idea of charity, which can be extended indiscriminately to all individuals—even strangers; Biblical Hebrew might use the word rachamim (or even tzedakah), but is unlikely to use the word chesed, unless the verse is invoking the sense that all men have a covenant together (see, e.g., Hos. 4:1, above).

Nonetheless, neither does chesed refer merely to contractual or covenantal obligations; as Glueck and others point out, that is expressed in the word berit, “covenant,” but chesed is something higher—some outgrowth of the state of being in a berit. Edward Campbell, in his commentary on Ruth, writes, “chesed is more than the loyalty which one expects if he stands in covenant with another person—it is that extra which both establishes and sustains covenant.”8 The best description I can come up with is the closeness that one feels, and acts on, based on knowing that the relationship and obligation exists, yet one does not act merely for the obligation, but because one feels a closeness because of this person being in the inner circle. If one acts merely because of the contractual duties, that is berit (still a high level, since people break their promises all the time), and if one internalizes the obligations and acts with a sense of goodwill that outgrows from the berit, that is chesed.

This brings us back to the question that we started with: The book of Ruth is all about chesed, but what is chesed all about? Rabbi Zeira says that book is about chesed, but that word appears only three times in the book. Alternatively, the word b-r-k, “bless,” appears five times, and the word g-’-l, “redeem,” appears about twenty-two times! If I were to pick a Leitwort for the book of Ruth, it would more likely have been “redeem.”

Yet the book is clearly about chesed, and the three times it appears in Ruth are (1) at 1:8, where Naomi address Ruth and Orpah; (2) at 2:20, where Naomi addresses Ruth, but the chesed is either imputed to God or Boaz;9 (3) at 3:10, where Boaz says that Ruth’s second chesed is greater than her first.

Yet even though the book is about chesed, and we remain tantalized about its application in the book. When Ruth (and Orpah!) escort Naomi back to the land of Israel in an act of chesed, are they showing charis to their former mother-in-law, or loyal affection? Both readings seem valid. Perhaps they pitied her, and Malbim assumes this is what Naomi thought. Or perhaps the marital bonds had not fully dissolved, and there was residual tribal loyalty, which carried Orpah at least part way to Israel and carried Ruth all the way to conversion. Similarly, Ruth’s agreement to marry Boaz (i.e., her second chesed)—is this an act of charis, rather than eros, for Boaz; or is it a faithful fulfillment of a tribal redemption ceremony? Here, the evidence seems to tilt preponderantly, but not conclusively, towards the latter, especially considering Boaz’s words that there is a closer redeemer who has legal precedence.

And that is one of the remarkable features of the book of Ruth: every aspect is pregnant with ambiguity: when did Ruth convert, did she require yibbum, is Naomi generous or cantankerous, what is the age of Ruth and Boaz? Every verse, every word, seems open to multiple simultaneous interpretations, and the role that chesed plays in the book also assumes an ambiguous character. Ultimately, the, both loyalty and charis are bona fide religious values, and can be properly extrapolated from the story of Ruth.

  1. http://www.bible-researcher.com/chesed.html  

  2. By understanding it this way, Maimonides ties together the standard meaning of chesed with the attestation in chesed hu, the prohibition of having relations with one’s sister (Lev. 20:17). The same approach is taken by R. David Kimchi and R. S.R. Hirsch. However, Jacob Milgrom and other moderns assume the two uses of chesed come from unrelated by cognate words. 

  3. James Luther Mays, Hosea p. 63. 

  4. Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible, p. 72 

  5. The Prophets of Israel, pp. 160-161 

  6. Hesed in the Bible, pp. 38-39. 

  7. See especially the entry in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament

  8. Edward Campbell, Ruth (Anchor Bible), p. 81. 

  9. See Mordechai Cohen’s article, “Hesed: Divine or Human? The Syntactic Ambiguity of Ruth 2:20” Hazon Nahum, ed. Yaakov Elman and Jeffrey S. Gurock, pp. 11-38. 

About Alec Goldstein

Alec Goldstein received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and is the founder of Kodesh Press. He can be reached at [email protected].

One comment

  1. Thank you for including the explanation of the Rambam (footnote #2) addressing the surprising use by the Torah of the term “chesed” in characterizing the incestuous relationship between siblings (Vayikra 20:17). The rendering of the term to mean “excess” releases it from the presumptive, more restrictive, positive nuance to reveal one far more encompassing. Wonderful!

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