Reprinted with permission from Jewish Education News (Spring 2001), published by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.
Very often the term gemilut hasadim is translated as acts of loving-kindness. It is used to describe everything from the work done by synagogue bikur holim committees [that visit the sick] to service projects designed for high school students to lessons on how to treat a homeless person you pass on the street. The words gemilut and hasadim actually communicate some very specific ideas as well.
History of an Idea
In one of the first adult education classes I was teaching on Judaism and service, a woman asked, “What does gemilut mean?” The dictionary meaning of the root g-m-l that is most supported by Talmudic usage is reciprocal acts. Gemilut signals that these are acts done in the context of a relationship with a built-in notion of benefit or compensation in return for the act. This immediately differentiates our tradition from those that emphasize the selflessness of service. The Talmud supports this, stating that the reward for service is in this world, not in the world to come (Shabbat 127a). Service can and should be valuable in some way to the person engaged in it.
Hesed appears in the Torah to communicate God’s kindness and love toward humanity as well as human kindness and love toward each other. Hesed emerges as one of the essential ways humans engage with God to sustain creation. For example, in the story of Sodom and Gemorrah (Genesis 18:17), the 15th century Italian commentator, Seforno, notes that the reason that God decides to engage with Abraham in discussion is based on the hesed that Abraham showed to the angels who visited him just prior to this in the text (Genesis 18:2). Consequently, Lot and his family are rescued by God after Lot has tried to show hesed, in the form of hospitality, to his guests. Human hesed here results in evoking God’s hesed.
The Talmud further establishes hesed as one of the core pillars of human behavior. (“The world rests upon three things, Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim.” Pirkei Avot 1:2) The term gemilut hasadim is distinctly post-biblical and occurs for the first time in the Mishnah. In the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkot 49b, a discussion is related defining hesed by contrasting it with the other fundamental Jewish value of tzedakah. Hesed is laid out as the broader value because it can be done not only with money, but also with one’s person. It can be given to the rich and the poor, the living and the dead. It furthermore states that, “The reward for charity depends entirely upon the extent of the kindness in it.”