The Jewish Definition of Love

Dear Rabbi Fried,

Some of us have been discussing the meaning of love, which, it seems, is a pretty elusive concept. Could you give us a Jewish definition of love?

Megan and Mark

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Dear Megan and Mark,

Our culture, Hollywood and the media, have so twisted the meaning of love to the point that, from a Jewish perspective, it’s hardly recognizable. 

The renowned sage Rabbi Elya Lopian used to cite a parable to elucidate what we’ve become accustomed to consider love. A man sits at the dinner table, eager to enjoy his wife’s delicious cooking. She brings in the steaming, tantalizing fish and places a nice piece on his plate. Smiling, he exclaims, “Fish! I love fish!” as he sinks his fork and knife into his portion. The rabbi asked, what does he mean when he says “he loves fish?” If he really loved fish, he would throw the catch back into the water! What he really means is, he loves himself, and fish is enjoyable, so he loves himself through the fish!!

The rabbi went on to say that in far too many cases the same rings true for the “love” one has for their spouse. Often a man loves really only himself and fulfills that self-love through the enjoyment he gets from his spouse. That isn’t love at all, rather using the other person for his own self-indulgence. Eventually, all that remains is resentment and worse. 

Sadly, this is often the case even with regards to the “love” of a parent to their child. How often have we seen small children to be shown off in front of the parent’s’ friends, their behavior taught to be merely a show to bring the parents the “oos and aws” of honor and prestige? This, sadly, continues as the child grows, breeding resentment in the child who sees right through his or her parent’s true motives.

Love comes from focusing on the special qualities of the other individual and bonding with their uniqueness. More deeply, the word “love” in Hebrew is “ahava.”  We learn two lessons from this Hebrew word. Firstly, it comes from the root “hav,” which means “to give.” Rabbi Dessler, the great Jewish philosopher, explains this means that by giving of yourself to someone, you attain love for him or her. The more you give of yourself to the other, the more of “you” is in them, hence love your neighbor “as yourself.” 

Further, the numerical value of “ahava” is 13, the same as the numerical value of “echad,” or “one.” Through the love of another the two become as one. Hence, G-d tells the first man that he and Eve will become “as one flesh,” the paradigm for every marriage. Also, in relation to our connection to G-d we learn the same message from the Shema. We say that God is “echad” (one). The next word is “v’ahavta,” “and you should love (God)…” The Oneness goes together with love, which ties us up into His Oneness in the most profound love relationship. 

Unlike the western phrase “to fall in love,” which seems to happen as spontaneously as “falling into a pit”; Jewishly one does not “fall” in love, rather builds love by focusing on the other person’s uniqueness as well as their deepest needs. The love of a spouse, child or friend is nurtured day by day with the “little things,” giving of oneself to meet the needs of the other (focusing on what they need, not what the giver feels they need to give them!). 

In this way love is a continually growing and flourishing. This is love the Jewish way!

Sincerely,

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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