Vayechi: Shameful Kindness? The Wonders of the Holy Tongue for P’



Act towards me with kindness and truth (חסד ואמת), and do not bury me in Egypt (Gen. 47:29).


Rashi explains that חסד ואמת in this verse refers to חסד done without any anticipation of reward. Writes Rashi: חסד done with the deceased is חסד של אמת – the truest form of חסד, as one does not anticipate any payment of reward [from a dead person.]


The qualifying term אמת implies that that there may be other types of חסד as well, perhaps less noble in nature. Furthermore, we find additional modifying terms coupled with חסד, a phenomenon unique to חסד amongst words associated with loving-kindness. That is, the roots גמל and טוב linked to חסד, as in חסדים טובים or גמילת חסד. In contrast, the terms רחמים/רחום (mercy/compassion) and חנון/חנינה (grace/gracious) never appear to need further qualification.  All this serves to lead one to wonder why חסד alone seems to often require accompaniment.


Additionally, Rashi’s extended description of compensation as “payment of reward” (תשלום גמול) requires explanation. As these two words are virtually synonymous, it would have sufficed to write “without any anticipation of payment” or “without any anticipation of reward” – what does the reiteration add?


The root חסד appears in Scripture with two contrasting denotations. Normally, it is used to describe attributes and actions of a lofty nature and one who is magnanimous at heart. Thus we find G-d] described as רב חסד (forbearing and benevolent – Ex. 34:6.). Blessed is Hashem, the G-d of my master Abraham, whose kindness (חסד) did not desert him (Gen. 24:27; see also Deut. 7:9). On the other hand, the word חסד has a negative meaning, as Radak mentions in his Sefer Hashorashim: The verse, חֶסֶד הוא (Lev. 20:17) refers to an act of a disgraceful nature [of consorting with one’s sister]. The word is also found in verb form in the following verse: פן יְחַסֶדְךָ שמע (Proverbs 25:10), where it means shaming and embarrassing.


Some commentators explain that the word חסד denotes extreme dedication, an attribute which can be used for good or for the opposite. Thus, Ibn Ezra, explaining the verse in Leviticus cited, writes that the meaning of חסד הוא is excessive (“additional”) promiscuity. Similarly, Radak (entry חסד) writes: These two meanings of the word חסד have the same feature. Just as the attribute of חסד means augmenting goodness and increasing benevolence, so too, it can refer to increasing promiscuity and an extra degree of ignobility.[1]


Ramban (Lev. ibid.) suggests that the word חסד can sometimes refer to the conferral of kindness and sometimes to its cessation (similar to the oft-cited opposite meanings of the roots שרש and  דשן, as follows, in Ramban’s own words): “In my opinion, the verse פן יְחַסֶדְךָ שמע (Prov. 25:10) means the listener will abstain from bestowing kindness (since the speaker did not show kindness to his friend who confided his secret). This is similar to the double meanings of דשן (Ex. 27:3) [which ordinarily refers to adding ashes/fat/oil (e.g. Ps. 23:5), but in this instance means the removal of ashes] and תשרש (Job 31:12) [to root out, but whose common usage is to implant or take root (e.g. Is. 27:6).] I find it hard to accept that the word חסד in the Hebrew language should have such disparate connotations, and we always find the Scriptures praising and extolling the attribute of חסד – kindness.”


The author of the Hakesav Vehakabaklah (on the verse in Lev. [ibid.]) offers a different solution to the contrasting meanings of the word חסד. While חסד is deemed charitable from the perspective of the giver, it is also dishonorable from the standpoint of the receiver. In his words: “Rashi explains חֶסֶד הוא as disgraceful, per the Targum. Ramban counters that it seems foreign that it should have such disparate denotations, as we always find the Scriptures praising the attribute ofחסד . But this is not a valid claim. The praise is due to the giver of kindness, who benefits others without any thought of compensation. However, from the standpoint of the receiver, it is shameful for him to receive such kindness, as a pauper receiving a handout. The Sages described the embarrassment of one receiving a free gift as follows: one who eats from others, is embarrassed to look his benefactor in the face.[2] This would explain the opposite meanings of חסד.”[3]


Yet, since G-d is praised as being generous and benevolent, the Ramban’s question still stands. Does it make sense that G-d should show kindness, when it will cause the receivers feelings of shame?


We can now begin to explain the term גמילת חסדים – the bestowing of חסד, as brought in the Talmud[4] (Berachos 60b): Who bestows good kindness (הגומל חסדים טובים) to His nation Israel. Similarly, On three things the world stands… on the bestowal of kindness (Avos 1:1). The root גמל itself (bestowing/giving[5]) coupled here with חסד has a similar character, itself bearing disparate meanings: 1. On the one hand we find יגמלני ה’ כצדקי (Psalms 18:21) G-d will recompense me according to my righteousness (see also Psalms 119:17).  2. On the other hand, we find the opposite of giving, as in ויגדל הילד ויגמל (Gen. 21:8, see also I Samuel 1:22) The child grew and was weaned. In this instance, the word גמל (in the passive Niph’al form) denotes abstaining or the cessation of receiving – the opposite of receiving!


Perhaps this can be best understood through a comparison to a well-known Rambam (Laws of Tithes for the Poor, 10:7-14) who lists eight levels of charity, the highest of which is assisting a fellow Jew –if only through a loan– in order to help him stand on his own. In other words, helping one to be weaned from the need to take[6] is the premier level of giving.


Some commentators use this concept to explain the modification of חסד with the termגמל  (as in גמילות חסדים) in the sense of גמול (just compensation). Since G-d has given us a system of commandments to live by, the kindnesses Heaven bestows upon a person are actually “remuneration” for fulfillment of these precepts.[7] Ergo, there is no shame in receiving such חסד, which he has properly “earned.”[8]


This would help us understand the seemingly redundant description in Rashi mentioned above. Rashi mentions that one does not anticipate any “payment of reward”, hinting to the dual nature of the word גמל, as: 1. a bestowed reward, and as 2. a compensation for one’s actions. Indeed, the word תשלום (payment) derives from the root שלם (completion), and the word גמל itself is rendered as גמר or חסיל (completion/finishing) in the Targumim.[9] This notion of completion applies to each and every usage of the verb גמל, namely: 1. The repayment (completing) of a debt. 2. The ripening (completion) of a fruit. 3. The weaning (completion of the nursing period) of a child.[10]


Now we can better appreciate why the word חסד needs to be modified by the word גמל. As mentioned, the bestowal of unearned kindness leads to shame and embarrassment on the part of the recipient. On the other hand, the addition of the term גמל (as in גמילת חסדים) serves to nullify this stigma. Similarly, חסד ואמת is kindness done without any ulterior motive, as Rashi explained, unlike other forms of חסד which may come with an unwritten looming “bill,” the payment of which may be implicitly demanded at some future date by a less-than-gallant performer of “חסד”.


As mentioned earlier, the word חסד is also found in Leviticus 20:17, denoting a disgraceful act. It is clear that consorting with one’s sister is done for the sake of selfish pleasure and not to bestow altruistic kindness. This could also help us understand the difference between חסד and  רחמים.[11] As mentioned, the word רחמים is not found accompanied by qualifiers as is חסד. We do not find רחמים טובים or גמילות רחמים used to describe the type of mercy being shown. Why?


The negative/ignoble forms of חסד are perhaps more native to the male persona (certainly in the case of the scandalous חסד הוא).[12] The mother, on the other hand, showers רחמים upon her children; indeed the very word רחמים is derived from רחם – womb. A mother has seemingly unlimited stores of compassion for her children, and naturally cares for and nurtures them without dreaming of compensation. All of her thoughts are centered on her children and their good. In one word – רחמים… no embellishment or additional description is necessary.


Closing prayer: May we always be among those who bestow kindness – true and good kindness – and merit the compensation and reward G-d has in store for us, without ever having to accept gifts from others.


[1] See also Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (Gen. 47:29; Ex. 34:6); Shoresh Yesha (entry חסד).

[2] This quote is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, with a variant reading. See footnote 8.

[3] Perhaps this can also explain the contradictory meanings of the root עזב, which sometimes is used to describe forsaking, and sometimes helping. See עזב תעזב עמו (Ex. 23:5) [and you want to refrain from helping him, instead] you must surely help him. [We find the word עזב referring to support and assistance in the following verses: נתנו עזבוניך (Ez. 27:12) they provided your wares. Rashi explains, עזבוניך means fortifying and assisting, like we find by ויעזבו ירושלם עד החומה (Nech. 3:8) they fortified Jerusalem until the wall and  יעזב חלכה (Ps. 10:14) helpless rely upon You, which Menachem connects to עזב תעזב עמו.] The same way benevolence and kindness done without causing embarrassment is a product of the dual nature of גמל, so too, extending help to one in need can be done without leaving the receiver feeling indebted. This leaves him in a stronger position after being assisted without an implicit feeling of owing the helper.

[4] Based on verses in the Scriptures, see Is. 63:7, Ps. 18:21 and Prov. 11:17.

[5] The term can also mean repaying a favor, or avenging an evil.

[6] See also Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (Gen. 21:8) who explains that the root of גמל denotes maturing or ripening, as a child weaned develops independence and self-sufficiency.

[7] In the words of Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (Lev Eliyahu vol. 1 p. 199) – “The word גומל (bestow) is derived from גמול – reward, as G-d acts with man as if He is required to recompense man for his good deeds, and so a person feels that he is not being shown the bread of kindness. This removes his embarrassment, and is what makes G-d’s חסד so great.”

[8] The Jerusalem Talmud (Orlah 1:3) alludes to the concept of “bread of shame,” as one who eats from his friend’s [portion] is embarrassed to look at him. Explains the Pnei Moshe, he is embarrassed to look him in the face and turns his face the other way. Rabbi Yosef Karo in Maggid Meisharim (Genesis Ohr Layom Shabbat 14 Tevet) explains the dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel (Eiruvin 13b) using this concept. Those who held that it was better for man not to be born are of the opinion that deriving pleasure from the radiance of the Shechinah is worthwhile even at the expense of shame that comes along with receiving benefit without effort. In his words, he would rather endure embarrassment and eat bread without working for it. Whereas, those who held that it was better to be born, reasoned that a man can “pay” for his pleasure by the performance of mitzvot. See also Meshech Chochmah (Gen. 50:10).

[9] [כך תרגומו המיוחס ליונתן את הפסוק “ויגמול שקדים” (ובלשון תר”י “חסיל”)]: במ’ יז:כג – וַיָּצֵץ צִיץ וַיִּגְמֹל שְׁקֵדִים; ת”י – וְאָנֵיץ נִצִין בֵּיהּ בְּלֵילְיָא גְמַר וַעֲבַד לוּזִין; תר”י – וַאֲנֵיץ נִיצִין וְחָסִיל לוּזִין בַּר לוּזַיָא. [וראה ת”א גם לבר’ כא:ח; ת”י לש”א א:כב-כד, ישע’ יא:ח].

[10] See Isaiah (66:6), Jer. (51:6) and Joel (4:4).

[11] Applies to חנון as well, as above.

[12] And the aspect of ulterior motives is perhaps more deeply ingrained in males who have traditionally borne the burden of supporting the family, perforce fostering a norm of quid-pro-quo in various dealings and interactions.

Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg