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Love Your Fellow Jew

Love Your Fellow Jew


Rabbi Yisrael (Israel) Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of Chassidism, was orphaned from his father, Rabbi Eliezer, at the age of five. The last words spoken to him by his father before his passing were: "Yisrolik, fear nothing but G‑d alone. Love every single Jew, without exception, with the full depth of your heart and with the fire of your soul, no matter who he is or how he behaves."

His father's final words not only shaped the Baal Shem Tov's personal life, as is evident from the countless stories of the extents he went to help and uplift others, but indeed, served as the cornerstone in the revolutionary movement and philosophy he founded, known as Chassidism.

To "love your fellow as yourself" was not a new idea discovered in 1703. It's a verse in the Torah,1 part of our heritage for the past 3,300 years. And 1,600 years before the Baal Shem Tov was born, a Mishnaic sage stressed that this mitzvah is "a cardinal rule in the Torah."

The Baal Shem Tov's revolution was not in the discovery of this universal truth, but in the "depth of heart and fire of soul" that he revealed within this profound mitzvah, which changed the face of Judaism for all time to come.

Love Another as Yourself?!

To actually love someone else as you love yourself is the antithesis of human nature. In the words of one medieval Jewish thinker, "The human heart cannot take upon itself to love another with the same love as one has for oneself."2 This led many biblical commentators to interpret the verse not in the literal sense, but rather, that the mitzvah relates to practice more than emotion; instructing us to treat others favorably and seek the best for them in every way—as you would for yourself.

The above is true, the chassidic masters explain, only if one views another Jew as "someone else." But, in truth, "...they all have one father. It is on account of this common root in the One G‑d that all of Israel are called 'brothers'—in the full sense of the word; only the bodies are distinct from each other."3

The above quote from Tanya, the fundamental text on chassidic thought, points to the fact that the Torah states regarding the Jews: "You are children of G‑d."4 Like children of one father, so does every Jewish soul come from one common source, G‑d Himself, and within their Source they constitutea singular entity. It is on account of this common root in the One G‑d that all of Israel are called "brothers—in the full sense of the word," literally, not figuratively.5

Whom to Love

This approach changes not only the depth of the love we are capable of cultivating, but also the parameters of whom we can come to love as well.

If the premise of love is the common source that all souls share, and not the attraction to the unique qualities that we see in another, it follows then that this love can and must be applied to any person in possession of a soul.6 In the Baal Shem Tov's words: "One must have total self-sacrifice and dedication for love of one's fellow, even towards a Jew whom one has never seen."7

The period in history into which the Baal Shem Tov was born was very bleak for the Jews of Eastern Europe. The Jewish community had been physically decimated by the Chmielnicki Cossacks in 1648-9, some estimate the Jewish deaths at their hands at approximately 100,000; and spiritually with the disappointment and despair left in the wake of the false messiah, Shabtai Zvi. To add insult to injury, Muslims and Christians jeered at and scorned the Jews.

For the simple and unlearned Jews the situation was particularly difficult. Within Jewish communities, the scholars and affluent distanced themselves from the ignorant and illiterate, in some synagogues even segregating them to an adjacent room outside of the main sanctuary.

Recognizing their despair and broken spirits, the Baal Shem Tov made it his mission to revive these precious Jews. He would travel from village to village, gather the Jews in the markets and anywhere he could find them, and tell stories to inspire and uplift them. Although the Baal Shem Tov himself was a monumental Talmudic scholar and kabbalist, he sought to engage the simplest of people, and convey to them the message that their simple service of G‑d was as precious to G‑d as the Torah study of the scholarly and learned.

Love of G‑d

The laws of the Torah encompass both the relationship between man and G‑d (e.g., the laws of kosher and Shabbat) and the relationship between one man and another (e.g., the laws governing fair business practices). In traditional Jewish thought, the passion that drives the efforts in these two distinct areas, are the two dictates of the Torah: "Love the L‑rd, your G‑d"8 and "Love your fellow as yourself."

The Talmud tells a story of a gentile who approached the sage Hillel and declared his wish to convert to Judaism—but only if Hillel would teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot! Hillel replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is but commentary..."9 In other words, all of the Torah – both the areas described above – are but "commentary" to the mitzvah to love one's fellow.10

The Talmudic commentaries grapple with this idea. While "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow" can easily be construed as the basis of the laws governing the relationship between man and his fellow man, how could this rule be the foundation upon which rest the precepts that are between man and G‑d?

In the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, however, love for another Jew and love for G‑d are not exclusive. To the contrary, the Maggid of Mezeritch, the successor of the Baal Shem Tov, related that "The Rebbe [Baal Shem Tov] would frequently remark that to love a fellow Jew is to love G‑d. For it is written, "You are children of G‑d"; when one loves the father, one loves his children..."11

In other words, for one who truly seeks to love G‑d, it would be impossible not to love each and every one of His children. How could one love G‑d, if he does not love those who are most beloved to Him—His children?12

(This idea, once again, stresses the imperative to love each Jew without distinction—for no Jew is less a child of G‑d than another.)

Furthermore, the Baal Shem Tov taught, just as G‑d's love is not reserved for the Jew's soul and spiritual concerns, but also extends to his body and material needs, so too our love towards "those who are loved by our Beloved" ought to be more than a spiritual exercise. The love must express itself in genuine concern for the material needs of another. So much so, said the Baal Shem Tov, that "a soul may descend to this world and live seventy or eighty years, just in order to do a Jew a material favor, and certainly a spiritual one."13


See Nachmanides and Chizkuni to Leviticus 19:17-18.


Tanya, chapter 32.


The final words, "only the bodies are distinct from each other," explain the reason why one might feel otherwise. It is because our bodies are separate from each other, despite the intrinsic unity of our souls. Therefore, concludes the Tanya, "...there can be no true love and fraternity between those who regard their bodies as primary and their souls secondary."


The following story that illustrates this idea is cited in the Jewish Encyclopedia:
In the years before the Baal Shem Tov passed away, there was a heretical sect led by a man named Jacob Frank. These "Frankists" began agitating amongst the Christian authorities against the Jews with specific emphasis against the Talmud. In 1759, the bishop of Lemberg decreed that a debate should be held between the Jews and the Frankists. (In fact, in a previous "debate" in 1757, the Frankists succeeded in causing the Talmud to be burnt.) The Baal Shem Tov was a member of the three man delegation that represented the Jews—and they soundly defeated their opponents. At the same time, the defeated Frankists were forced to convert to Christianity. While most of the Jewish leaders were happy at the downfall of these evil men, the Baal Shem Tov was not. He said. "The Divine Presence wails and says, 'So long as a limb is attached to the body there is still a hope that there can be a cure, but once the limb is cut off there is no cure forever.' And every Jew is a limb of the Divine Presence."


Hayom Yom, Kislev 15. See also Kovetz Lubavitch, No. 9, p. 56: "Until the times of the Baal Shem Tov, Ahavat Yisrael was a Torah imperative, and the one who studied Torah was to be loved. The Baal Shem Tov introduced the notion that the love is not dependent on Torah knowledge, but rather on the essence of the Jew, i.e., the G‑dly soul."


Talmud, Shabbat 31a.


Thus, the Baal Shem Tov taught that the Mishnah which states that "Torah that is unaccompanied by labor will ultimately cease" (Ethics 2:2), refers to the "labor" of loving one's fellow Jew (Ketter Shem Tov, Appendix 110).


Hayom Yom, 24 Menachem Av.


From Hayom Yom, Nissan 28:
Chassidim asked the Alter Rebbe [Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi]: "Which is the superior service, love of G‑d or love of Israel?" He replied: "Both love of G‑d and love of Israel are equally engraved in every Jew's neshamah, ruach, and nefesh [various soul-levels]. [However,] Scripture is explicit: 'I have loved you, says G‑d' (Malachi 1:2). It follows, therefore, that love of Israel is superior—for you [are thus] loving whom your Beloved loves."


Hayom Yom, Iyar 5

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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Anonymous Stony Brook, NY September 14, 2010

What about non-Jews? I understand that the focus of this discussion is on the love of one's fellow Jew, but I do not see anything in the discussion of the mitzvah that would preclude the obligation to love all human beings as oneself. Do they not share the same father, as well? I understand that it could be hard at certain times of history to love people who were very cruel to Jews, but living in times when many of us interact primarily with (generally benevolent) non-Jews, I wonder if it does not make sense to revisit the meaning of the mitzvah. Reply

Meira Shana San Diego, CA/USA August 19, 2010

Love Your Fellow Jew Anonymous via,

It is not "If" -- but for me, being raised orthodox (not haredi, however) with a mother of valor and most honorable, it is easier for me to stand up to those who are not orthodox ...

No, I will not ever feel like a reform Jew ... and hope to find another conservative synagogue.

For now, I am invited to a reform for the High Holy Days ... and will enjoy being with 2 friends who are members there.

Shalom! Reply

Anonymous via August 19, 2010

Love Your Fellow Jew Regarding the posting by Meira Shana
The reality is that you'll always be a Jew.
Second, you felt the sting from a haredi, now you are leaning to conservative.
If you get a sting from the conservative, are you going to lean reform, and so on? Reply

Meira Shana Vista, CA/U May 28, 2010

Love your fellow Jew Shalom, Rabbi Freeman,

Do you mean that the Haredim have the power to rise above looking down at other Jews?

I know that I still give respect to all human beings ... in spite of their negativity. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman May 27, 2010

Re: Love your fellow Jew Yes, ethnocentrism is endemic to the human condition. But we are empowered to rise above all that.

That is precisely what Torah is about--the power to sublimate and elevate the human condition, and thereby the entire world. The Baal Shem Tov came to provide us an extra boost of that power. Reply

Meira Shana San Diego, CA/USA May 18, 2010

Love your fellow Jew Ahhh, if only that could be true . . . but I have felt the sting of a Haredi Jew saying that only that group are real Jews.

Although raised orthodox, I lean more to conservative ... and am still very much a Jew to my core of Being. Reply

Learn about the life and teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century mystic who permanently changed the Jewish landscape.
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