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COMPASSION , norm governing the relationship between human beings and also regulating their behavior toward animals.

In the Bible

The biblical noun raḥamim and the verb raḥam, riḥam, frequently used to denote this behavior, are derived from the same root as is the noun reḥem ("womb"), hence some scholars have proposed that its original meaning was "brotherhood," "brotherly feeling" of those born from the same womb. Other terms, including ḥesed ("lovingkindness"), are also used, though in many instances this notion is not expressed explicitly and must be understood through the description of certain forms of conduct. For the writers of the Bible, the concept indicated an essential relation between God and Israel, rooted in the covenant: "He being full of compassion, forgives iniquity and does not destroy" (Ps. 78:38; see Ex. 33:19; Deut. 8:18; Isa. 9:16, etc.). It was made manifest by the preservation of Israel from destruction at the hands of its enemies and by divine intervention on its behalf: "In Your love You lead the people You redeemed" (Ex. 15:13; see Deut. 30:3; i Kings 8:23, etc.).

The human response to the disclosure of divine compassion is to be found in man's behavior toward his fellows: "Learn to do well; seek justice; relieve the oppressed; judge the fatherless; plead for the widow" (Isa. 1:17; see Micah 6:8; Jer. 21:12). "He that is gracious unto the poor, lends unto the Lord" (Prov. 19:17). "You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan" (Ex. 22:21). Nor is the stranger excluded from this obligation: "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him" (ibid. 22:20). Animals, too, are recognized as the objects of such solicitude: "When you see the ass of your enemy prostrate under its load and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him" (Ex. 23:5; see Deut. 22:4). "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing" (Deut. 25:4).

In Rabbinic Literature

Rabbinic Judaism enlarged and deepened the biblical concept, recognizing it as an indispensable characteristic of the Jew (Yev. 79a): "Whoever is merciful to his fellowmen is certainly of the children of Abraham" (Beẓah 32b). The Jews were popularly called raḥamanim benei raḥamanim – "compassionate scions of compassionate forbears." The rabbis conceived of the practice of compassion as an imitatio dei, for the ways of God in which man was commanded to walk (Deut. 8:6) were those set out in Exodus 34:6–7: "The Lord! The Lord! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, rich in steadfast kindness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin." These verses were understood to sum up and explain the divine attribute of compassion, and to set the norm for human conduct: "Just as God is called compassionate and gracious, so you must be compassionate and gracious, giving gifts freely" (Sif. Deut. 49). Maimonides declared that arrogant, cruel, misanthropic, and unloving persons were to be suspected of not being true Jews (Yad, Issurei Bi'ah, 19:17). The clear tendency of the Bible requiring compassion in dealing with animals was summarized in the talmudic phrase, "[relieving] the suffering of an animal is a biblical law" (ẓa'ar ba'alei ḥayyim de-oraita, bm 32b). According to a Midrash (Ex. R. 2:3) both Moses and David were chosen to lead Israel because of their kindness to animals. The ḥasidic teacher R. *Moses Leib of Sasov epitomized the concept in his statement, "to know the needs of men and to bear the burden of their sorrow – that is the true love of man."


K. Kohler, Jewish Theology (1928), 126–33; S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1936), 201–2; S.H. Dresner, Prayer, Humility and Compassion (1957), 181–239.

[Lou H. Silberman]

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