My mother’s paternal great-grandfather, Hersh-Meilech Hecht, came to the shores of America in 1880. The story is told that one day, when Hersh-Meilech was in the beis midrash (study hall) of the Shiniva Rav, Rabbi Yechezkel Halberstam, the Rav placed a pushka (charity box) in his hand and told him: “Travel to America and become a fund­raiser.”1 Sometime later, when Hersh-Meilech sent word to his wife, Ita Dreizel, to come to America, she went to the Shiniva Rav to ask his advice. The Rav's response was: “If your husband asked you to go to America, you should go.” She began to cry, “How can one raise G‑d-fearing children in America? It is a treifa medina (a non-kosher country).” The Rav then blessed her and said, “Go in peace. I guarantee you will see generations upon generations of G‑d-fearing Jews, learning His Holy Torah and following in the ways of G‑d.”

In addition to raising money for Jews in Europe and Israel, my grandparents' home in America was always open for guests, many of whom were Rabbis and heads of schools. Before leaving, they each would receive a handsome sum for their respective yeshivos. Thank G‑d, we still reap the fruit of the Shiniva Rav's blessing.2

Design

What is a gimmel? The letter gimmel represents the benefactor or the giver of charity. The design of the letter gimmel is ex­plained in the Talmud3 as a rich man running to give charity to a poor person.

According to Kabbalah,4 the design of the gimmel is com­posed of two letters. The first is a vav, representing man, be­cause he stands upright.To the man’s left side is the second letter, a yud, which signifies both the foot and the act of giving. In our own lives we find that the upper body, from the waist up, has a tendency toward selfishness, the predisposition to “take.” Our intellect often exists for itself, applying its faculties to secure its needs. The mouth, stomach, and digestive tract are employed in the intake of food and drink. The lower portion of the body, however, is the part that gives to others. With our legs we walk distances in order to help another person. Our hands reach into our pockets to get the money to give to char­ity. The yud can also represent the reproductive organ, the seedbed of human life.

Another suggestion is that because of its long neck, the gimmel looks like a camel.5 According to Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch,6 the word gimmel is similar to the Hebrew word gamal, which means “camel.”7

Gematria

The numerical value of gimmel is three. The Talmud says that the number three represents the Torah, which was given to the Jewish people in the third month of the year (Sivan) to our teacher Moses (the third of three children) on the third day of separation between husband and wife (the prohibition of mari­tal relations, as instructed by G‑d). The Torah was issued to a people of three groups: the Kohanim, the Levites and the Israel­ites. Finally, the Torah itself is divided into three segments: the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Scriptures.8

R. Yehudah Loew (the Maharal of Prague)9 explains that the power of the number three is its ability to combine two contrast­ing forces—to bring about integration.10 What does this mean? Let’s say a person is born into the world of Torah. He grows up in a cloistered society. He goes to yeshivah all his life and all he knows is G‑d. Finally, this person gets married and goes out into the mundane world and begins to earn a living. He says, “Hey, there’s a materialistic world out here! There are things besides G‑dliness, besides spirituality. Maybe there are in fact two realities. The first reality is G‑d. Then there’s a second reality, the world. And these realities contradict each other....” Therefore, Torah is given in the third month because “three” has the power to merge G‑dliness with the mundane world. For example, our Sages state: “If there is no bread, there is no Torah.”11 G‑d expects us to make a living in order to support our loved ones and give charity. And by conducting our worldly affairs according to Torah—with honesty and integrity—we are actually finding G‑d in the physical world.

There is a story told of Aristotle’s student, Alexander the Great, who one day entered his master’s home unannounced. To his astonishment, Alexander found Aristotle engaged in im­moral behavior. Later, when they were alone, Alexander asked, “Is this the way of the great Aristotle—the philosopher, the teacher, the mentor? Is this proper ethical behavior?!” Aristotle responded, “When I teach you philosophy and the wonders of the world, I’m Aristotle. But here, in private, I’m not Aristotle.”

This story stands in stark contrast to the character of Rabbi Akiva12 and the Torah he embodied. Rabbi Akiva would often be summoned by the Roman official Tinus Rufis for a spirited de­bate.13 In the end, Rabbi Akiva always outsmarted him. One day Rafina, the wife of Tinus Rufis, decided to avenge her husband’s honor. Knowing that the G‑d of the Hebrews forbade immoral­ity, she won Tinus Rufis’ permission to seduce Rabbi Akiva and thus cause him to sin. The next time Rabbi Akiva was sum­moned to the palace, Rafina hid behind one of the trees in the garden. As Rabbi Akiva approached, she walked out in front of him, dressed provocatively. Now, Rafina was a very beautiful woman, and she was sure that Rabbi Akiva would surrender to her charms. But the Sage proceeded to do the following: first he spat, then he laughed, then he cried. Rafina was completely stunned. She asked him to explain his actions. Rabbi Akiva answered, “Two I’ll tell you, and the third I won’t. I spat be­cause of your ‘despicable actions.’14 I cried because I know that one day your beautiful form will lie in the dust and decompose. As to why I laughed, perhaps one day you will understand.”

What is the connection between the stories of Aristotle and Rabbi Akiva? Aristotle separated body and spirit, but Rabbi Akiva considered them inseparable. For Aristotle, that which was “spiritual” (i.e., the intellect and the sciences) was holy. That which was corporeal, of the body, was profane. The two realms were not connected and occupied two different spheres of intention. Rabbi Akiva, however, lived by the gimmel, the merger of G‑d and the world. Rabbi Akiva saw G‑d in every­thing, and recognized that G‑d resides even in the physical. Therefore, Rabbi Akiva had the ability to control and overcome the temptation of Rafina. Rafina later converted to Judaism and married Rabbi Akiva. This prophetic foresight was the reason for his laughter.

Meaning

Gimmel has several meanings.15 One is to nourish until ripe. After Korach rebelled against Moses and Aaron,16 G‑d told Moses, “Take a staff from Aaron and from all the other tribes of Israel. Then place the staves in the Holy of Holies [and see which one actually sprouts fruit].” The next morning, Moses brought out the staves from the Holy of Holies, and all of Israel saw that the staff of Aaron produced (vayigmal) completely ripened almonds. Thus the word vayigmalויגמל—is com­prised of the letters גימלgimmel.

Another meaning of gimmel is “to be weaned”: “The child [Isaac] grew and was weaned (vayigamal).”17 At first glance, the concepts of being weaned and nourished until ripe seem con­tradictory. When you’re nourishing, you are giving. When you’re weaning, you are ceasing to give. In essence, however, they are consistent, because if you nourish until ripe, you no longer have to give.

As mentioned, the gimmel is also called gamal, or camel. The camel itself embodies the process of weaning and nourishing, as it is able to sustain itself on journeys of vast distances after being sufficiently watered. We also note that gimmel is similar to the word gomel, to be kind or benevolent. The camel is able to help the sojourner survive the harsh desert sun by carrying him to his destination. The word gimmel in Aramaic is gamla, or bridge. One can say that the bridge is the humpback of the camel itself, which provides the means and structure to bring people where they need to go.

Now, how is it that the gimmel actually signifies the wealthy man running after the pauper? The answer can be found per­haps in the difference between the terms “charity” and “tzeda­kah.” Charity means that you are a benefactor. You are a prominent and wealthy man and you take pity on and grant mercy to this poor, homeless person by giving him charity.

Tzedakah, in contrast, has a fundamentally different mean­ing. The definition of tzedakah is righteousness or justice—simply put, to do the right thing.18 In the case of tzedakah, your money doesn’t really belong to you; G‑d loaned it to you19 so that when a poor person comes along, you can give him his money. You even have an obligation to run after him and “return” the money; it never belonged to you in the first place. Furthermore, one gives tzedakah because G‑d rewards measure for measure. In order for one to receive G‑d’s blessing, one needs to do for others.

The act of tzedakah goes one step further still. You’re obli­gated to create a bridge between the poor person and yourself. You shouldn’t remain two separate, segregated entities. There has to be a merger. The greatest level of charity is not to give a person a few dollars, a one-time gift, and then say, “Goodbye, I’ll never see you again.” The greatest level of charity is to set a person on his feet, nourish him until he’s ripe, and then wean him so that he never has to ask for money again. This is done by putting him into business, or by giving him a job.

This is the concept of gimmel; the blending of disparate ele­ments into a harmonious whole. Just as the gimmel signifies the connection between the poor and the wealthy person, so does it represent the merger, the bridge, between the material world and the reality of G‑d.