Compassion in the Jewish Tradition
Compassion is one of Judaism’s highest values. God is referred to in synagogue services as Ha–rachaman (the compassionate one) and as Av harachamim (Father of compassion). Since Judaism teaches that human beings, uniquely created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), are to emulate God’s positive attributes, we should also be compassionate.
The Talmud states that Jews are to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors) and that one who is not compassionate cannot truly be of the seed of Abraham, our father (Bezah 32b). It also states that Heaven grants compassion to those who are compassionate to others, and withholds it from those who are not (Shabbat 151b).
The Baruch Sheh’amar prayer, recited daily in the morning (Shacharit) services, states that, “Blessed is the One (God) Who has compassion on the earth; blessed is the One Who has compassion on the creatures [animals and people].” Hence, in emulating God, we should also exhibit concern and compassion toward the earth’s environment and all of God’s creatures.
The important ashrei psalm, recited three times daily, states that “God is good to all, and His compassion is over all His works.” According to Rabbi Dovid Sears, author of A Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, this verse is “the touchstone of the rabbinic attitude toward animal welfare.
Referring to the Talmudic teaching that we are to emulate God’s ways, Rabbi Sears states, “Therefore, compassion for all creatures, including animals, is not only God’s business; it is a virtue that we too must emulate. Moreover, compassion must not be viewed as an isolated phenomenon, one of a number of religious duties in the Judaic conception of the Divine service. It is central to our entire approach to life.”
In the spirit of the above teachings, the Chofetz Chaim, a sage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writes: “The existence of the entire world depends on this virtue [our capacity to imitate God’s compassion and other positive attributes] … Hence, whoever follows in this path will bear the Divine image on his person; while whoever refrains from exercising this virtue and questions himself, ‘why should I do good to others?’ removes himself completely from God, the Blessed One.” (“Loving Kindness” by the Chafetz Chaim, chapter 2)
We are not only to have compassion for Jews, but for all who are in need: “Have we not one Father? Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10) We are instructed to feel empathy for strangers, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)
The birkat ha-mazon (the grace recited after meals) speaks of God compassionately feeding the entire world.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted sage and biblical commentator of the 19th century, writes very eloquently about the importance of compassion: “Compassion is the feeling of empathy which the pain of one being of itself awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned are they to re-echo the note of suffering which, like a voice from heaven, penetrates the heart, bringing to all creatures a proof of their kinship in the universal God. And as for the human being, whose function it is to show respect and love for God’s universe and all its creatures, his heart has been created so tender that it feels with the whole organic world … so that if nothing else, the very nature of his heart must teach him that he is required above everything else to feel himself the brother of all beings, and to recognize the claim of all beings to his love and beneficence.” (Horeb, chapter 17, section 125)
He continues: “Do not suppress this compassion, this sympathy especially with the sufferings of your fellowman. It is the warning voice of duty, which points out to you your brother in every sufferer, and your own sufferings in his, and awakens the love which tells you that you belong to him and his sufferings with all the powers that you have. Do not suppress it! … See in it the admonition of God that you are to have no joy so long as a brother suffers by your side.” (Ibid., Section 126)
Another example of the importance of compassion in the Jewish tradition is its prominent location in God’s statement to Moses as God passed before him and proclaimed: “Hashem, Hashem, God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and abundant in loving-kindness and truth.” (Exodus 34:6)
The Jewish stress on compassion finds expression in many groups and activities found in Jewish communities: a Bikur Cholim Society to provide medical expenses for the sick, and to visit them and bring them comfort and cheer; a Malbish Arumim Society to provide clothing for the poor; a Hachnasat Kalah Society to provide for needy brides; a Bet Yetomin Society to aid orphans; a Talmud Torah Organization to support a free school for poor children; a Gemilat Chesed Society to lend money at no interest to those in need; an Ozer Dalim Society to dispense charity to the poor; a Hachnasat Orchim Society to provide shelter for homeless travelers; a Chevrah Kaddishah Society to attend to the proper burial of the dead; and Essen Teg Institutions to provide food and shelter for poor students who attend schools in the community.
Judaism also stresses compassion for animals. Among the many laws in the Torah which mandate kindness to animals are the following: a farmer is commanded not to muzzle his ox when he threshes corn (Deuteronomy 25:4) and not to plow with an ox and a donkey together (Deuteronomy 22:10), since the weaker animal would not be able to keep up with the stronger one; animals must be allowed to rest on the Sabbath Day (Exodus 20:10, 23:12), a teaching so important that it is part of the Ten Commandments; one must feed his or her animals before sitting down to a meal. These concepts are summarized in the Hebrew phrase tsa’ar ba’alei chayim — the mandate not to cause “sorrow to any living creature.”
The Psalmist pictures God as “satisfying the desire of every living creature (Psalm 145:16) and “providing food for the beasts and birds” (Psalm 147:9). Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is epitomized by the statement in Proverbs “The righteous person regards the life of his or her animal” (Proverb 12:10). In Judaism, one who does not treat animals with compassion cannot be considered a righteous individual.
Rabbi Hirsch, states that the Hebrew word rachamim (compassion) is derived from the Hebrew word rechem – womb (Commentary to Genesis 43:14). Hence, just as a mother has compassion for the life of all the children of her womb, we should have compassion for all of God’s creations.
If more Jews become aware of the many beautiful Jewish teachings on compassion and strived to put them into practice, it would have great potential to help revitalize Judaism and move our imperiled planet toward a more just, humane, and environmentally sustainable path and toward that time when “no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God’s holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:9)