GEMILUT ḤASADIM (Heb. גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים; lit., "the bestowal of lovingkindness"), the most comprehensive and fundamental of all Jewish social virtues, which encompasses the whole range of the duties of sympathetic consideration toward one's fellow man. The earliest individual rabbinic statement in the Talmud, the maxim of *Simeon the Just, mentions it as one of the three pillars of Judaism ("Torah, the Temple service, and gemilut ḥasadim) upon which the [continued] existence of the world depends" (Avot 1:2).
The first Mishnah of Pe'ah enumerates it both among the things "which have no fixed measure" and among those that "man enjoys the fruits thereof in this world, while the stock remains for him in the world to come," i.e., its practice affords satisfaction in this world while it is accounted a virtue for him on the Day of Judgment. This, incidentally, is an exception to the general rule that pleasure in this world is at the expense of one's spiritual assets. With regard to the former, the Jerusalem Talmud (Pe'ah 1:1, 15b) differentiates between gemilut ḥasadim expressed in personal service ("with his body") and with one's material goods. It maintains that only the former is unlimited in its scope, whereas the latter is limited by the general rule that one should not "squander" more than a fifth of one's possessions on good works. With regard to the latter, the text of the Mishnah mentions only "honoring one's parents, gemilut ḥasadim, and bringing about peace between man and his fellow." The prayer book version adds, inter alia, "hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick, dowering the bride, attending the dead to the grave." These additions, culled from various beraitot and other passages, are actually redundant since they are merely aspects of the comprehensive virtue of gemilut ḥasadim which embraces them and many other expressions of human sympathy and kindness (cf. Maim., Yad, Evel 14:1).
Gemilut ḥasadim encompasses a wider range of human kindness than does *charity: "Charity can be given only with one's money; gemilut ḥasadim, both by personal service and with money. Charity can be given only to the poor; gemilut ḥasadim, both to rich and poor. Charity can be given only to the living; gemilut ḥasadim, both to the living and the dead" (Suk. 49b). Thus, helping a lame man over a stile is an act of gemilut ḥasadim, though not of charity; a gift given with a scowl to a poor man may be charity; the same amount given with a smile and a word of good cheer raises it to the level of gemilut ḥasadim. Almost humorously the rabbis point out that the only provable example of genuine altruistic gemilut ḥasadim is paying respect to the dead, for in it there is not the unspoken thought that the recipient may one day reciprocate (Tanḥ., Va-Yehi 3; cf. Rashi to Gen. 47:29).
Gemilut ḥasadim is regarded as one of the three outstanding, distinguishing characteristics of the Jew, to the extent that "whosoever denies the duty of gemilut ḥasadim denies the fundamental of Judaism" (Eccles. R. 7:1); he is even suspected of being of non-Jewish descent. Only he who practices it is fit to be a member of the Jewish people (Yev. 79a), for the Jews are not only practicers of gemilut ḥasadim but "the scions of those who practice it" (Ket. 8b). That gemilut ḥasadim is essentially a rabbinic ethical conception, is explicitly stated by Maimonides (loc. cit.).
During the Middle Ages the grand conception of gemilut ḥasadim as embracing every aspect of benevolence and consideration to one's fellow both in attitude and in deed became severely limited to the single aspect of giving loans without interest to those in need. It is not unlikely that this limitation was due to the fact that the main source of economic existence for the Jew was moneylending (to non-Jews), with the result that in lending money without interest he was depriving himself of his essential stock in trade. It is to this connotation of gemilut ḥasadim that the free-loan gemilut ḥasadim societies refer.
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
Burial societies in the communities of Central and Eastern Europe in the 18th century were known as *ḥevra kaddisha or kabranim with the added appellation gemilut ḥasadim. They were also called gomelei ḥesed shel emet (Gen. 47:29). This application came to signify the acts of lovingkindness connected with burial and consolation of the bereaved. The Prague community in 1792 had an association with triple functions: the provision of gemilut ḥasadim, of burial duties, and of sandakim at circumcisions. In Koenigsberg and many other communities the local bikkur ḥolim was also called gemilut ḥasadim. The Hambro Synagogue in London in 1795 had a ladies' auxiliary, ḥevra kaddisha u-gemilut ḥasadim mi-nashim. In the United States ḥesed shel emet societies have specialized in burial of the poor. Such an association, founded in 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri, amassed considerable wealth from its large cemetery holdings and was able to support local, national, and overseas charities from its considerable income.
et, 6 (1954), 149–53; C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (eds.), A Rabbinic Anthology (1938), ch. 16; Rabinowitz, in: Fourth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Papers, 1 (1967), 145–8 (Heb. pt.); J. Marcus, Communal Sick-Care in the German Ghetto (1947); I. Levitats, Jewish Community in Russia (1943); idem, in: Essays… in Honor of S.W. Baron (1959), 337ff.