5770 - #34




There is a well-known statement in T.B. Yevamot 79b, with actual halachic significance, that declares that there are three signs of members of the Jewish People – that they are rachmanim, merciful, bayshanim, bashful, and gomlei chassadim, doers of acts of kindness. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 19:17, as such, declares that one can question the Jewish identity of one who does not demonstrate these three character traits but rather their opposite.1 The language of T.Y. Kiddushin 4:1, though, in presenting this very same lesson is somewhat different.2 The Yerushalmi states that Dovid Hamelech declared that there are three fine gifts (matanot tovot) that God gave the Jewish nation – that they are rachmanim, bayshanim,  and gomlei chassadim -- also acknowledging these character traits as a litmus test of Jewish identity. This is a most interesting use of words – fine gifts. It is God’s gift to the Jewish People that they are merciful, bashful and givers. We usually think of the person who receives mercy as the lucky one who received a gift. The Yerushalmi, however, is informing us that the one who really receives a gift is the one who was given the character trait of being merciful, i.e. the one who gives the mercy. This is a concept that demands further consideration.

            One possible way of understanding why the acquisition of these traits are a gift from God could be based on the words of Torah Temima, Devarim 7:12, note 19 commenting on the verse from which the Yerushalmi derives that the Jewish People were given the gift of the trait of kindness. The problem is, though, that the verse does not seem to reflect this in any way; it actually seems to be referring to the chesed, kindness, God applies in relation to the Jewish nation. The verse is discussing the nation as recipients of God’s kindness, not recipients of the trait of kindness. To thus explain how the Yerushalmi came to its conclusion, the Torah Temima applies the words of T.B. Sotah 8b which states that God relates to a person pursuant to the traits that the person himself/herself demonstrates. If the verse is informing us that God relates to the Jewish People with chesed, it must be that the Jewish nation itself demonstrates such chesed. This national gift of this trait of kindness, in turn as a catalyst for God’s Kindness, must also be seen as a gift from God and it is to this that the Yerushalmi is referring. For God to declare that he will relate to the nation with chesed, it must be that the members of this nation are ba’alei chesed, individuals filled with kindness, and this must be because God has placed this midah, this character trait, within our being. If this is so, God has truly given us a fine gift in installing within the nature of Jewish identity the character trait of kindness which, therefore, brings forth God’s Kindness.3 A similar connection can also be developed regarding the other traits of mercy and bashfulness.

             Another somewhat similar understanding of why these traits are referred to as fine gifts could perhaps also be developed from an analysis of Bereishit 18:19, the verse from which the gemara in Yevamot learns that the Jewish nation is blessed with the character trait of chesed. There is a problem, there, in that the verse does not actually refer to chesed but rather simply describes Avraham Avinu as one who will command his children to guard the derech Hashem, the way of God, to do tzedakah and mishpat, justice. How does this verse, as such, show that a sign of Jewish identity is chesed?4  One possibility may be through the word tzedakah  referring to a certain level of chesed.5 Another possibility may be the phrase derech Hashem and its possible connection to Devarim 28:9 which commands us to walk in God’s ways, specifically incorporating certain caring character traits.6 Yet how can this verse in Bereishit be understood as referring to an inherent character trait found in Jews when it describes God as recognizing Avraham for directing his children to act in a certain way? If the trait is inherent, why would there be a need for Avraham to direct his children to develop such a value? The terms tzedakah and mishpat, though, may be refined proper manifestations of a broad trait such as chesed and the verse may be informing us that God recognized that Avraham would properly direct his children to manifest their broad, character trait of chesed correctly in the forms of tzedakah and mishpat. It is because that nation had these inherent character traits that we know that the education of an Avraham to properly actualize them will be successful. This may be the exact point of the Yerushalmi. God has given us these fine gifts of character traits that will make it more possible for us to observe the Torah and properly fulfill the mitzvot thereby achieving schar, reward.

            Could these interpretations, though, be the correct understanding of the Yerushalmi? Is this gemara describing these inherent character traits found in the Jewish nation as ‘fine gifts’ simply because they fulfill a functional purpose in ensuring a more positive response to the nation from God? It is, rather, these very traits themselves that seem to be understood as being the gifts. These variant Talmudic statements imply, as we first suspected, that it is indeed a gift to possess the traits of mercy, bashfulness and kindness notwithstanding that the possession of such traits may have positive consequences. The very possession of such traits is the gift notwithstanding their additional benefit. Our question thus still remains: why?

            The problem is that we often define benefit or good in terms of externals, how beneficial the world around us is to our existence. When we, though, describe God as good, we are not referring to externals but to His Essence. This is not only in regard to what we may term the moral definition of good but also to the beneficial definition. Although it is difficult to apply these words to God, when we say that God is good we are also saying, in human terms, that it is ultimately, internally beneficial to be that Being. The focus is on who we are, internally and essentially who we are,7 not how who we are will positively affect the externals that affect us. Within this perspective, it is good to be merciful, not because of the consequences of being merciful but because it is internally beneficial to be such a person. These three character traits are truly fine gifts for they, within are being, are internally beneficial, reflecting the Divine.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See, also, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 12:24. On whether it is the absence of all three traits or simply the absence of one that raises the question of one’s Jewish identity, see Eitz Yosef, Yevamot 79b.

2 See, also, T.Y. Sanhedrin 6:7 which, perhaps interestingly, presents these character traits in a different order.

3 In regard to these traits being, by nature, inherent in a Jew. see Korban HaEida, T.Y. Kiddushin 4:1. See, though, Maharsha, T.B. Yevamot 79a. The idea that Jews are inherently distinctive and, as such, receive beneficial treatment from God, always raises the issues of determinism and particularism versus universalism. These topics, however, are beyond the parameters of this Insight.

4 Maharal, Chiddushei Aggadot, Yevamot 79a presents a simple explanation that ties these three traits to our three forefathers.

5 See Torah Temima, Bereishit 18:19, note 43

6 See Chinuch, Mitzvah 611.

7 Further on this topic, see Maharal, Derech HaChaim, Avot 4:1.

(c) Nishma, 2010





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