The Jewish Value of Chesed

In 1535, when Miles Coverdale was working on the first ever translation of the Hebrew Bible, he struggled to find a word in the English language which would accurately convey the meaning of ‘chesed’. Realising the distinctive nature of this concept, he coined a new English word, ‘loving-kindness’. In this class, we explore this concept, talk about the Jewish emphasis on empathy and how the belief in humanity’s bearing the image of God makes a difference to the way we behave and how we treat people.

  1. Talmud, Sukkah 49b
Our masters taught: loving-kindness (Chesed) is greater than charity (tzedakah) in three ways. Charity is done with one’s money, while loving-kindness may be done with one’s money or with one’s person. Charity is done only to the poor, while loving-kindness may be given both to the poor and to the rich. Charity is given only to the living, while loving-kindness may be done to the living or the dead.


  1. Exodus 22:20
You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
  1. Exodus 23:9
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
  1. Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, Giving to Organizations that Help People in Need: Differences Across Denominational Identities, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion
Controlling for family characteristics that affect giving, giving to basic necessity organizations does not vary across Christian denominations and non-affiliated families in any notable way. However, Jewish families are both more likely to give and, when they do give, give larger amounts… In contrast to the statements from Christian denominations, the literature on Jewish philanthropy uses appeals to be generous that align well with the effective frames from the social science literature. Jewish philanthropy makes use of empathic other-oriented induction by connecting the needs of people who are poor to the Jewish history of enslavement in Egypt.

Human Beings Are Special

  1. Mishnah Avot 3:14
Rabbi Akiva used to say: “Beloved is the human being, for he was created in the image of God.
  1. Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, The Path of Bestowing Loving-Kindness, ch.5
When someone sets out on the way and others see him off, they in effect give honour to the Divine image in which he was created. If people fail to do so, it is as if they have shed his blood, for when one is robbed of the honour due to his Divine image – this is true bloodshed.

Being Godly

  1. Avot D’Rebbi Natan
Once, as R Yochanan was walking out of Jerusalem, R Joshua followed him. Seeing the Temple in ruins, he cried, ‘Woe to us that this place is in ruins, the place where atonement was made for Israel’s iniquities.’ R Yochanan said to him: ‘My son, do not grieve, for we have another means of atonement which is no less effective. What is it? It is deeds of loving-kindness about which Scripture says, ‘I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifice’ (Hos. 6:6)
  1. Sotah 14
R Hama ben R Chanina further said: What does the text mean by saying: ‘You shall walk after the Lord your God? Is it, then possible, for a human being to walk after the Divine Presence? Has it not been said ‘For the Lord your God is a devouring fire?’ [The meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He clothes the naked, for it is written: ‘And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin and clothed them’, so should you also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, as it is written: ‘And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre’, so should you also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, as it is written: ‘And it came to pass after the death of Avraham that God blessed Yitzchak his son’, so should you also comfort mourners. The Holy One, blessed be He, buried the dead, as it is written: ‘And He buried him in the valley’, so should you bury the dead.
  1. Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, Tomer Devorah
One should emulate God in the sense that just as He is Father to everything in Creation, so should one see himself as father to all creatures – especially fellow Jews – and should always desire compassion and blessing for the entire world.
  1. Micha 6:8
He has told you, O man, what is good! What does Hashem your God ask of you, that you do justice, love loving-kindness, and walk humbly with Hashem your God.
  1. Orchot Chayim
Our Sages of blessed memory have stated further that the trait of generosity resides in habit, for one is not called generous until one becomes accustomed to giving, in every time and season, according to one’s ability. For one who gives to a deserving person 1,000 gold pieces at once is not as generous as one who gives 1,000 gold pieces one by one, each gold piece to an appropriate recipient. For one who gives 1,000 gold pieces at once is seized with a fit of generosity that afterwards departs.