Chesed: A Reciprocal Covenant
Rabbinic Chesed vs. Biblical Chesed
Gemilut chasadim, generally translated as “acts of loving kindness,” is known in rabbinic tradition as one of the three pillars upon which the world stands (m. Avot 1:2) and is one of three acts that should be considered “boundless” (m. Peah 1:1), meaning that a person can never do too much of it. In this rubric, chesed is a good deed that is not obligatory but should be done—in effect, behavior beyond the letter of the law. Chesed is one-sided giving, a type of charity that has elements of mercy and goodness.
Thus, the rabbis comment on the story in which Jacob asks Joseph not to bury him in Egypt (Gen. 47:29), explaining that chesed with the dead is “chesed of truth” (חסד של אמת; Gen. Rab. 96:5), since it is kindness without the possibility of reciprocity.
This is not the standard biblical usage, however. As already noted by the American archeologist and rabbi, Nelson Glueck (1900-1971), chesed in the Bible generally refers to good deeds performed where mutual relations exist, i.e., the substance of a covenant between two partners. Similarly, Walther Eichrodt (1890-1978) defines chesed in the Bible as “the brotherly comradeship and loyalty which one party to a covenant must render to another.”It is, therefore, marked by mutuality, friendship, fraternity, loyalty, and love.
Glueck’s description, however, misses at least one large part of the biblical usage, namely that chesed is generally performed by only the stronger partner within the mutual relationship. We can see this especially when the term is used together with the word berit (ברית, covenant), whether between God and humanity or between people.
God’s Covenant of Chesed with Israel
In Deuteronomy 7:9, Moses assures the Israelites that YHWH will keep his covenant with them as long as they love him and keep his commandments:
וְיָדַעְתָּ כִּי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים הָאֵל הַנֶּאֱמָן שֹׁמֵר הַבְּרִית וְהַחֶסֶד לְאֹהֲבָיו וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי (מצותו) [מִצְוֹתָיו] לְאֶלֶף דּוֹר.
Know, therefore, that only YHWH your God is God, the steadfast God who keeps his covenant (brit) and chesed faithfully to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments.
In this verse, berit (covenant) and chesed (grace, mercy, kindness) function as a hendiadys, i.e., a pair of words expressing one idea together. (In fact, the NJPS translates the phrase with only one word, “covenant.”) YHWH here promises to keep the chesed covenant with Israel in exchange for their love or obedience.
Deutero-Isaiah and Psalm 25
God’s covenant with Israel is also described as chesed in the work of the exilic prophet known as Deutero-Isaiah, whose work spans Isaiah chs. 40-55, as reflected in the parallelism below:
ישעיה נד:י כִּי הֶהָרִים יָמוּשׁוּ וְהַגְּבָעוֹת תְּמוּטֶנָה וְחַסְדִּי מֵאִתֵּךְ לֹא יָמוּשׁ וּבְרִית שְׁלוֹמִי לֹא תָמוּט אָמַר מְרַחֲמֵךְ יְ־הוָה.
Isa 54:10 For the mountains may move And the hills be shaken, but my chesed shall never move from you, nor My covenant of friendship be shaken — said YHWH, who takes you back in love.
The point is made even clearer in Psalm 25:
תהלים כה:י כָּל אָרְחוֹת יְ־הוָה חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת לְנֹצְרֵי בְרִיתוֹ וְעֵדֹתָיו.
Ps 25:10 All YHWH’s paths are chesed and truth for those who keep the decrees of His covenant.
Accordingly, divine chesed is the result of God’s covenant, promise, or pledge; it remains the sovereign act of the God of the covenant.
God’s Covenant of Chesed with David
Some biblical texts use the term chesed to describe God’s covenant with David as well. For example, Deutero-Isaiah writes:
ישעיה נה:ג הַטּוּ אָזְנְכֶם וּלְכוּ אֵלַי שִׁמְעוּ וּתְחִי נַפְשְׁכֶם וְאֶכְרְתָה לָכֶם בְּרִית עוֹלָם חַסְדֵי דָוִד הַנֶּאֱמָנִים.
Isa 55:3 Incline your ear and come to Me; hearken, and you shall be revived. And I will make with you an everlasting covenant, the enduring chesed promised to David.
In his commentary (ad loc.), Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865) explains this last verse:
חסדי דוד הנאמנים – פירש, שלא תהיה זאת ברית חדשה אלא שיקיים חסדיו הנאמנים אשר נשבע לדוד.
“The sure mercies of David” means that this will not be a new covenant, but rather that He will fulfill the faithful kindnesses (chesed), which, which were sworn to David.
Shadal’s interpretation appears to be an apologetic-polemic against the Christian theology of the New Testament and its idea of new covenants. Nevertheless, his observation that God’s chesed is a consequence of a previously made promise/covenant seems correct.
Pairing Chesed with Berit and Emunah
God’s chesed with David is also the theme of Psalm 89, where it is paired with berit and emunah (faithfulness).
תהלים פט:ב חַסְדֵי יְהוָה עוֹלָם אָשִׁירָה לְדֹר וָדֹר אוֹדִיעַ אֱמוּנָתְךָ בְּפִי. פט:ג כִּי אָמַרְתִּי עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יִבָּנֶה שָׁמַיִם תָּכִן אֱמוּנָתְךָ בָהֶם.פט:ד כָּרַתִּי בְרִית לִבְחִירִי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְדָוִד עַבְדִּי….
Ps 89:2 I will sing of YHWH’s chesed forever; to all generations I will proclaim Your faithfulness with my mouth. 3 I declare, “Your chesed is confirmed forever; there in the heavens You establish Your faithfulness.” 4 “I have made a covenant with My chosen one; I have sworn to My servant David…
פט:כט לְעוֹלָם (אשמור) [אֶשְׁמָר] לוֹ חַסְדִּי וּבְרִיתִי נֶאֱמֶנֶת לוֹ.
89:29 I will maintain My chesed for him always; mycovenant with him shall endure.
The Covenant of Chesed between David and Jonathan
This description of a covenant of chesed is not only used for covenants between God and humans, but also between individuals. For example, when David is hiding from King Saul, the king’s son Jonathan, who is David’s close friend, makes a berit with him (1 Sam. 18:4):
וַיִּכְרֹת יְהוֹנָתָן וְדָוִד בְּרִית בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ אֹתוֹ כְּנַפְשׁוֹ.
Then Jonathan made a covenant (berit) with David, because he loved him as his own soul.
The covenant here is not described as chesed, but it is in chapter 20, when David brings it up with Jonathan (1 Sam. 20:8):
שמואל א כ:ח וְעָשִׂיתָ חֶסֶד עַל עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בִּבְרִית יְ־הוָה הֵבֵאתָ אֶת עַבְדְּךָ עִמָּךְ
1 Sam 20:8 Act with chesed to your servant, since you have taken your servant into a covenant (berit) of YHWH with you.
Jonathan then responds to David’s request for chesed with his own request for the same when David ends up in power (1 Sam 20:14-15):
שמואל א כ:יד וְלֹא אִם עוֹדֶנִּי חָי וְלֹא תַעֲשֶׂה עִמָּדִי חֶסֶד יְהוָה וְלֹא אָמוּת.כ:טו וְלֹא תַכְרִת אֶת חַסְדְּךָ מֵעִם בֵּיתִי עַד עוֹלָם וְלֹא בְּהַכְרִת יְ־הוָה אֶת אֹיְבֵי דָוִד אִישׁ מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
1 Sam 20:14 Nor shall you fail to show me YHWH’s chesed, while I am alive; nor, when I am dead, 20:15 shall you ever discontinue your chesed to my house — not even after YHWH has wiped out every one of David’s enemies from the face of the earth.
Jonathan makes a covenant of chesed with David because he loves David so much, but he also expects reciprocity from David, i.e., David must make his own chesed covenant in return, since Jonathan predicts that in the near future, David’s star will be on the rise and his family’s star on the wane. This in fact happens, and 2 Sam 9 describes David’s chesed with Jonathan:
שמואל ב ט:א וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד הֲכִי יֶשׁ עוֹד אֲשֶׁר נוֹתַר לְבֵית שָׁאוּל וְאֶעֱשֶׂה עִמּוֹ חֶסֶד בַּעֲבוּר יְהוֹנָתָן.
2 Sam 9:1 David inquired, “Is there anyone still left of the House of Saul with whom I can do chesed for the sake of Jonathan?”
David’s chesed here is not really optional, it is a necessary consequence of the berit he made with Jonathan.
David’s Chesed with the King of Ammon
David also performs chesed with the son of another former ally, the king of Ammon:
שמואל ב י:ב וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד אֶעֱשֶׂה חֶסֶד עִם חָנוּן בֶּן נָחָשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אָבִיו עִמָּדִי חֶסֶד וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד לְנַחֲמוֹ בְּיַד עֲבָדָיו אֶל אָבִיו…
2 Sam 10:2 David said, “I will keep faith with Hanun son of Nahash, just as his father kept faith with me.” He sent his courtiers with a message of condolence to him over his father…
The Bible never records what Nahash did for David, but David’s comment here should be understood as political, an attempt to continue an alliance now that David was in a position of power. It was not merely a complimentary “shiva call.”
These texts all show that, in contrast to how chesed is described in rabbinic texts, in the Bible, it is generally rulers or the privileged who are able to carry out covenantal chesed, which is made between a powerful person or group and a weaker person or group, although it carried with it an implied (or stated) reciprocity.
Noam – A Covenant of Pleasantness
The biblical term noam (נעם), “pleasantness” or “kindness,” though used less frequently than chesed, is also tied to covenant. An example of such a usage can be found in the prophecy of (Second) Zechariah, in which he performs a symbolic act:
זכריה יא:י וָאֶקַּח אֶת מַקְלִי אֶת נֹעַם וָאֶגְדַּע אֹתוֹ לְהָפֵיר אֶת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אֶת כָּל הָעַמִּים.
Zech 11:10 Taking my staff Noam, I cleft it in two, so as to annul the covenant I had made with all the peoples.
Breaking noam (pleasantness, kindness) symbolically breaks the covenant between God and the nations.
The Definition of Noam
The New Biblical Dictionary, edited by Zvi Radai and Haim Rabin, includes among the definitions of noam, the term chasdei elohim (the chesed of God) that is, divine grace. The term is used in this way in Psalm 90, which parallels chesed and noam:
תהלים צ:יד שַׂבְּעֵנוּ בַבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ וּנְרַנְּנָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בְּכָל יָמֵינוּ…
Psalm 90:14 Satisfy us at daybreak with Your chesed that we may sing for joy all our days.
תהלים צ:יז וִיהִי נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ…
Psalm 90:17 May the noam of our Lord, our God, be upon us…
The psalm does not use the term berit, but its point is asking for God to be forgiving of the people’s trespasses and to act with kindness (chesed, noam) in any event.
Jonathan was Noam to David
Jonathan’s treatment of David, which we saw above was described as chesed and berit, is also described by David as being noam:
שמואל ב א:כו צַר לִי עָלֶיךָ אָחִי יְהוֹנָתָן נָעַמְתָּ לִּי מְאֹד נִפְלְאַתָה אַהֲבָתְךָ לִי מֵאַהֲבַת נָשִׁים.
2 Sam 1:26 I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan, you were most noam to me. Your love was wonderful to me More than the love of women.
David recalls Jonathan’s kindness to him, and also connects it to his “love” (א-ה-ב), a concept associated both with Jonathan’s covenant with David earlier, as well as the Deuteronomic covenant between Israel and YHWH.
Covenantal Chesed or Noam in Medieval Arabic: From the Quran to the Geniza
The connection between chesed and noam has a significant afterlife in the Quran, in Arabic legal contracts, (not in daily usage) and in Judeo-Arabic legal contracts in the medieval period, as seen in letters and court deeds from the Cairo Genizah.
For the most part, the root word nun-ayin-mem ( نعم ) in Arabic has the same definitions as those in Hebrew: relaxed, pleasant, comfortable; but when it appears in the nominal form ni’ma (نعمه), it means chesed or divine grace, and it may be understood in the sense of covenant or as a type of agreement between two parties.
In the Quran
The Quran uses the term in the same way the Bible uses noam or chesed. For example:
1:7 The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor (ni’ma), not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who are astray.
2:40 O Children of Israel, remember My favor (ni’ma) which I have bestowed upon you and fulfill My covenant [upon you] that I will fulfill your covenant [from Me], and be afraid of [only] Me.
16:18 If you wish to count all graces of God, ni’mat allah you will not be able to count them all, God is forgiving and gracious.
According to the traditional Muslim sage al-Qalqashandi (d. 1418), the concept of ni’ma stems from the Quran, especially the above-quoted Sura 16:18.
In Legal Contracts
By the 9th cent. C.E., Ni’ma became an important term in Arabic legal contracts. When used in this context, it carries the meaning of the Latin technical term, beneficium, which, interestingly enough, is one of the terms Salomon Mandelkern (1846-1902) uses to translate chesed in his famous concordance, Heykhal ha-Ḳodesh.
Beneficium, according to the principles of European feudalism (ca. 9th-11th cent. CE), is the leasehold of real property given on very easy terms by a nobleman, who owns an estate, to a nobleman of lesser rank, mainly in exchange for particularly low lease payments, or even without any such payments; the lessee receives the leasehold thanks to the generosity of the giver, in most instances, in exchange for military service.
Two Examples of Nima from the Genizah
The usage of the term ni’ma is specifically notable when writing letters aimed for the court and the Fatimid Imam officials.
The Gaon of Palestine Gets a Royal Ni’ma
Daniel ben Azaria, Gaon of Palestine in ca. 1070 C.E., wrote a letter of thanks to Avraham ha-kohen, the recognized “head of the Jews” in Fatimid Egypt, for representing him in the imam’s court and getting him a royal grant/contract (nima).
Jerusalemites in Ramla Defend their Ni’ma
Around the year 1030, the Babylonian Jews living in Ramla turned to the high authorities in a plea to build a separate court for them and to acknowledge the authority of the Head of the Yeshiva in Babylon over them. The Jerusalemites, headed by the Yeshiva of Palestine, wrote their own letter to the Imam and his officials, claiming that this request contradicts local tradition and good order. Among other things the Jerusalemites wrote:
This will bring upon us endless disputes and robbery of assets and riots and raping of women, and the cancellation of rights, and the ni’ma we have been given will vanish away….
From the above documents and others like them, we see that ni’ma is a system of covenants, usually between two unequal parties: a king and his subjects, the head of a community and its members, a minister and a senior official, or a wealthy person and those in need of his assistance. In this constellation, both sides give and receive, according to their abilities and opportunities. Moreover, each side is committed to giving and receiving under an unwritten, but socially accepted contract.
The Contrasting Developments of Chesed and Ni’ma
Although we do not know the exact process with which Ni’ma came to have this technical meaning, the biblical background of the term Ni’ma (=noam), which is parallel to the biblical chesed, expresses more than the word itself (pleasantness), but rather a type of social function, and its resonance may very well be connected to the similarity between the Quranit nima and the biblical concepts of chesed and noam granted by a powerful person or deity to a subordinate in need.
The terms Ni’ma and chesed took opposite paths. Both were once reflective of covenant, but Ni’ma became all about business, a technical term for a certain type of land use (beneficium) in Judeo-Arabic contracts, whereas chesed became a term for acts of altruistic lovingkindness.
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August 3, 2017
August 3, 2020
Prof. Elinoar Bareket is a Senior Lecturer at Achva Academic College, where she serves as the head of the History Department. She holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from Tel Aviv University in Jewish History. Among her books are, The Jews of Egypt 1007-1055, based on Documents from the ‘Archive’ of Efraim ben Shemarya [Hebrew], Fustat on the Nile; The Jewish Elite in Medieval Egypt, and The Gaonite Era; Jews Under Islamic Rule During 7-12 Centuries.
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