By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
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
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 Rabbi Elya Lopian used to cite a parable to elucidate the meaning of 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 the man 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 meaning rings true for the “love” one has for their spouse. Often a man really loves only himself and fulfills that self-love through the enjoyment he gets from his spouse. That isn’t love at all; it’s just 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 regard to the “love” of a parent for their child. How often have we seen small children wearing expensive designer clothes to be shown off in front of the parents’ friends — something merely for show that brings “oohs” and “ahs” of honor and prestige to the parents? This sadly continues through the years, breeding resentment when children grow up and see right through their parents’ true motives.
True 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, said this means that through the 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, you 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, God 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 God, 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 notion of “falling in love”—which seems to happen as spontaneously as falling into a pit — Jewishly, one does not “fall” in love. Rather, one “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 the need to give them).
In this way love is an eternal state, continually growing and flourishing. Go and love, the Jewish way!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.