Life without amiable companionship was unthinkable to the sages of the Talmud. According to one rabbinic story, when the legendary miracle-worker Honi the Circle-Maker woke from seventy years of sleep, he faced despair because he was shunned by a new generation of scholars who neither recognized nor attended to him. In his suffering, Honi prayed for death to release him from loneliness, prompting an unnamed sage to utter, “Either friendship or death” (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 23a).
The benefits of friendship are appreciated by Jewish tradition. Ecclesiastes wrote, “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up” (4:9-10).
Friendship is clearly more than a social connection in the Jewish context. Friends offer each other help, loyalty, protection, support, unselfish love, and moral guidance. Judaism defines friendship as one of the primary relationships in life, a tie at times exceeding that which bonds blood relatives.
One of the most famous friendships of the Bible, that between David and Jonathan, was sealed by a vow promising eternal amity between their children (I Samuel 20:42). Jonathan saved David from the murderous intentions of his father, King Saul, despite the fact that David was a threat to his own inheritance of the kingship. Similarly, the Moabite Ruth literally left her people behind in choosing to accompany Naomi (her Israelite mother-in-law) to the land of Israel.
The rabbis of the talmudic and medieval periods had a very specific idea of what a friendship is. The friendships they describe are single sex and single faith–that is, between two Jewish men. (They did, however, include “friendship” (re’ut) as one of the components of marital joy in the wedding liturgy.) At the center of this model is a shared pursuit of holiness, primarily through the study of Torah. One is not even to part from one’s friend without exchanging words of Torah (BT Berakhot 31a).
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