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Greater than Charity
WHO IS A JEW?
A Jew is identifiable by his compassion modesty and gemilut hassadim (acts of kindness) (Yevamot 79a etc.).
What is gemilut hassadim (also called gemilat hessed, or just hessed – loving kindness)? Like so many other Jewish concepts, chief among them the fundamental one of Tora, it is probably best understood in terms of the practice it calls for rather than by abstract definition.
And what is Tora, the anniversary of whose bestowal on the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai some 34 centuries ago we celebrate on Shavuot this week?
Beginning and end, the Tora is gemllut hassadim, says R. Simla'i (Sota 14a). How so? At the beginning God clothes Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:21); at the end He buries Moses (Deut. 33:6). Here we have two characteristic acts of hessed.
The sages go on to tell us (Succa 49b) that gemilut hassadim is greater in three ways than tzedaka. One performs tzedaka, commonly translated as "charity", by (1) giving money to the (2) living (3) poor. Gem/- jut hassadim, on the other hand, is performed (1) either with money or with one's person (such as by visiting the sick), (2) for the benefit of poor or rich, and (3) for both the living and the dead. And the highest form of it, called "gemilat hessed shel emet– the true gemilat hessed', is attending, or at least paying last respects, to the just-deceased, who cannot redprocate.
ON SHAVUOT, the biblical book of Ruth is read in the synagogue service. What is the connection between Shavuot and this bucolic idyll?
The sages suggest several connections. One is that Ruth is the ancestor of David, whose birthday and death anniversary are traditionally marked on Shavuot. Also, the story's main events occur in the seven-week barley and wheat harvest season beginning Pessah and culminating in Shavuot's "First-fruits Festival".
Another is that Shavuot, "the Time of the Giving of Our bora", is an appropriate occasion to read the story of Ruth, a model proselyte, whose declaration of fidelity to her poor, widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, and to her adopted people-faith is probably unmatched for its succinct, exquisite beauty: "Entreat me not to leave thee, to turn back from following thee; for whither thou goest I will go; and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest there will I die, and there will I be buried. Thus and more may God do to me if anything but death parts me from thee" (Ruth 1:16-17).
I PROPOSE another connection, suggested by what the Jerusalem scholar Dr. Gavriel Haim Conh maintains is Ruth's main theme: hessed. So I think we read Ruth on Shavuot to underscore the message that the point of the Tora is hessed.