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What's Love Got To Do With It?

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

This week's Torah reading contains one of the central teachings of Judaism, the command to "Love one's neighbor." This command impacts many other specific relationships which the Torah mandates. One of these is arguably the commandment to marry. An analysis of the relationship between "loving one's neighbor" and marriage will yield a deeper understanding of one of the most popular, yet perhaps evasive commandments.

There is a question debated among early authorities, quoted by the Tiferet Yisrael in his introduction to "Nashim," regarding the status of marriage. Is marriage considered a positive commandment, or is marriage merely seen as a preparation for the performance of other mitzvot?

Maimonides opines that we are commanded to marry.

Maimonides opines that marriage is indeed one of the commandments. On the other hand the Rosh is of the opinion that marriage in and of itself is not a commandment, rather procreation is a commandment, and marriage gives license to procreation in a "kosher" manner.

In other areas of Jewish law, the court had the ability to exercise force in order to "encourage" negligent individuals to comply.

...when a man is told, "make a sukkah" and he does not make it ... [or, "perform the commandment of the] lulav" and he does not perform it, he is flogged until his soul departs. (Talmud - Kethuboth 86a-b)

Nonetheless, Maimonides states that a court cannot force a person to marry, on the other hand the Rosh says that a court can use force in order to have person fulfill his obligation of procreation.


Tiferet Yisrael felt that the positions regarding force should have been reversed. Maimonides (who felt marriage is a commandment) should have advocated force, while the Rosh (who felt marriage per se is not the fulfillment of a commandant, rather merely allows a commandment to be fulfilled) should not have allowed force.

The Tiferet Yisrael proceeds to resolve this "contradiction."

Rav Yisrael Zev Gustman Zat"zal cites this passage in his "Kuntisay Shiurim Kiddushin" at the end of the first chapter. Rav Gustman offers a novel approach to explain the Maimonides's position.

Maimonides certainly felt that there are times that force may be used as is evident from the Maimonides's discussion of divorce.

He who according to the law must divorce his wife but he does not wish to comply and divorce her, a Jewish court in any place in any time may strike him until he says I wish [to divorce her]. (Maimonides Laws of Divorce 2:20)

On the other hand in his discussion of marriage the Maimonides does not cite a similar ruling, Rav Gustman explains that when it comes to marriage, the Talmud teaches:

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: "A man may not betroth a woman before he sees her, lest he [subsequently] see something repulsive in her, and she become loathsome to him, whereas the All-Merciful said, You shall love thy neighbor as thyself." (Kiddushin 41a)

Love and marriage are inseparable, when a man despises his wife, divorce is the prescription:

When a man has taken a wife, and married her, and it comes to pass that she finds no favor in his eyes...then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. (Deut. 24:1)

Consequently, force is unthinkable as a method of creating marriage, since love is an integral part of the institution. Law can force a man to lift and shake a lulav, but law cannot force two people into a loveless relationship, which would surely result in enmity and divorce, in clear violation of "loving your neighbor as yourself."


The introduction of love of one's neighbor in the discussion of marriage may have even further reaching implications. It is well known that the verse - You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord - is considered one of the prominent teachings of Judaism. This idea has been articulated in various ways by different authorities. Rabbi Akiva called it "the greatest principle of the Torah."

Ben Azzai said: "This is the book of the descendants of Adam is a great principle of the Torah." Rabbi Akiva said: "But you shall love your neighbor as yourself is even a greater principle. Hence you must not say, 'Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbor be put to shame.'" Rabbi Tanhuma said: "If you do so, know whom you put to shame, [for] in the likeness of God made He him." (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 24:7)

Hillel in a celebrated teaching paraphrased the verse:

On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, "Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Thereupon, he repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. When he [the heathen] went before Hillel, he said to him, "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it." (Shabbat 31a)

Both authorities are stressing the centrality of love of neighbor in the Jewish religion, however a question arises despite the obvious importance of interpersonal relationships, how does loving one's neighbor, impact upon one's relationship with God? Surely, belief in God and the performance of the myriad of man/God commandments are also central to Judaism.


Rashi in a cryptic comment on the Talmudic passage cited, addresses this question.

Your own friend, and your father's friend forsake not (Proverbs 27:10).

"Friend" this is the Holy One, blessed be He, do not ignore His words for it is detestable when your friend ignores your words. (Rashi Shabbat 31a)

Rashi's explanation is based on the Midrash, and is echoed in the Zohar:

Rabbi Hezekiah interpreted the verse: A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. (Proverbs. 17:17), as follows: "A friend" is the Holy One, of whom it is written, Your own friend and your father's friend, forsake not (Ibid. 27:10)... Indeed, you must not forsake your Friend, you must worship Him, cleave to Him, keep His commandments ... The true worship of the Holy One, blessed be He, consists in loving Him above all and in all, as it is written: You shall love the Lord your God (Deut. VI, 5). (Zohar, Exodus, Section 2, 55b)

The Hebrew word re'ya which we routinely translate as neighbor, is taken as our only true neighbor - God. With this insight, the teachings of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva are deciphered.

The true love which the Torah speaks of is to be directed toward God. However, if this is the case, then why not suffice to teach the verse cited in the Zohar: You shall love the Lord your God? Why is man mandated to love his fellow man as well, if the true objective is love of God?


A parallel teaching can be discerned with regards to "Honor your father and mother." It is a common teaching that the first five commandments are between man and God while the second five are between man and his fellow man. (See Nachmanides on Exodus 20:12.) This teaching indicates the dual focus of Judaism, the only problem is the fifth commandment - Honor thy Father and Mother; how is this directed toward God?

Honoring one's parents is perhaps the most rational of all the commandments.

Honoring one's parents is perhaps the most rational of all the commandments; this may be the reason that the paradigmatic examples of the performance are non-Jews, from Esau to Damah ben Nethinah (see Kidushin 31a). Why should we honor our parents? The answer is simple. They conceived us, nurtured us, clothed us and provided us with shelter. However, ultimately, who created us? Who nurtures us? Who clothes, feeds, and shelters us? God!

Thus when man manifests his appreciation of his parents appropriately, he has completed a lesson in honor of God as well. We may say that the goal of honoring parents is the honor of God, therefore it is listed in the first five commandments.

Perhaps a similar relationship exists with regard to the commandment of loving our fellow man. Maimonides, in the "Laws of Teshuva" discusses the ideas of "fear of God" and "love of God" respectively. Maimonides states that fear of God is more basic and accessible, but that few sages reach the sublime level of "love of God." He writes:

What is the proper type of love? One should love God with a great, superior, bold love, until one's soul is bound with love of God, whereby it consumes completely - as if one was lovesick, whereby his mind is never free from thoughts of a particular woman, he always thinks of her, when sitting or standing, whether he be eating or drinking. More than this should the love of God be for those who love Him, as it says: With all your heart and all your soul... and all of Song of Songs is a parable dedicated toward this idea. (Maimonides, Laws of Teshuva 10:3)

When Maimonides seeks an appropriate example for love of God, he draws upon the paradigm of love between a man and a woman. Based on this example one may posit, that if a person lacks in this area, he will be unable to properly love God. Love of man is designed to serve as an impetus for love of God.


This lesson may be drawn from the story of Jacob when he found himself reunited with Joseph, the son whom he had mourned for all these years:

And Joseph made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen, and presented himself to him; and he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while. (Genesis 46:29)

The text informs us that Joseph was crying. However the Torah does not tell us what Jacob was doing. Rashi explains that Jacob was saying the Sh'ma.

This seems strange: Jacob has not seen his beloved son in all these years. Why is this the proper time to say the Sh'ma?

Jacob felt such a profound sense of love at that moment that he wished to direct his feeling to God.

The answer is that Jacob felt such a profound sense of love at that moment that he wished to direct his feeling toward heaven. The Sh'ma contains the phrase: Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your possessions. Jacob knew how to draw from the emotional feelings in his personal relationships and utilize them in his relationship with God.

Now we may understand the teaching of Maimonides. The most intense love which people ever experience is the love of a spouse - a "soul-mate." People who never find their soul mate will likely be lacking in their relationships with other people and in their relationship with God. The benchmark described by Maimonides, of an obsessive love, will undoubtedly be foreign to that individual. The metaphor of Song of Songs will be meaningless for that person.


While loving one's neighbor is one of the major principles in Judaism, fulfillment of this commandment is elusive. How many people succeed in loving their neighbors? How many people love their neighbors as themselves?

This lofty commandment often seems like a pleasant daydream, unfortunately beyond reality, beyond the grasp of man. (See Nachmanidesn on the verse in Leviticus, and Tosfot Sanhedrin 45a "Bror lo Mita yafa.")

Rav Chaim Vital, in a discussion on the importance of marriage, writes:

By virtue of having a wife a man may accomplish all the mitzvot, life in this world and the next ... for [when a man marries] all his sins are forgiven, and he saves himself from [additional] sin ... man lives by virtue of taking a wife, furthermore, should he have children, and circumcise them, and redeem them. Teach them Torah and service of God ... Furthermore ... he will thus fulfill all the mitzvot. For if he loves her as himself, he will fulfill the mitzva of loving his neighbor as himself, which includes all the mitzvot as is indicated in the Talmud...if he keeps this mitzva it is seen as if he has fulfilled the entire Torah. (Likutai Torah Parshat Ekev)

While most commentaries see this commandment as being central, Rav Chaim understands the fulfillment of this mitzva as being tantamount to observing the entire Torah. If the level of loving another as oneself is achieved with even one person, one is considered as having kept the entire Torah!


This explains the difficulty which so many commentaries had expressed regarding the fulfillment of this commandment. Perhaps I cannot love all people as myself, but to love even one person completely is a spiritual revolution. It indicates a breaking of the walls of egotism, self-centeredness and narcissism. Only such a person may be able to approach God.

The self-made man often worships his own "maker" and not God.

The self-made man often worships his own "maker" and not God. Only the person who realizes that he is incomplete can reach out to God. The person, who feels love for his spouse and appreciates all she does for him, is prepared to love God as well.

This idea, that marriage is an expression in finding a neighbor to love, is expressed in the blessings said under the chupa.

May You make the loved companions greatly to rejoice, as of old You gladdened Your creation in the Garden of Eden. Blessed art You, O Lord, who makes bridegroom and bride rejoice. (Ketuvot 8a)

The term in Hebrew for "loved companions" is re'im ahuvim, and it is obviously reminiscent of v'ahavta l'rayacha, "love your neighbor." Rashi explains that "the groom and bride are neighbors who love one another." (Rashi Ketuvot 8a, this connection is pointed out by Rav Zuriel in Bet Yihezkal p. 30.)


We now see that this aspect of love between husband and wife is not merely an integral aspect of marriage. This loving relationship forms the basis of the entire spiritual personality, and becomes a vehicle through which a person can reach the highest level of religious accomplishment.

The blessing, by referring to "your creation in the Garden of Eden," gives us even further insight.

In Eden, Adam and Eve were created as one being. The separation which followed was temporary; man achieves unity when he reunites with his mate. Similarly, the soul of man had its origin in the breath of God, and spiritual wholeness results when man reunites with his maker, just as he reunites with his spouse.

Passionate love of God is the closest we can get in this world to that total unity. Marriage, then, is both the paradigm and the vehicle for man's relationship with God. The relationships between man and wife and between man and God become intertwined, and each relationship effects and is effected by the other.

Neither of these relationships are complete without the other.

Rabbi Akiva expounded: "When husband and wife are worthy, the Shechinah abides with them; when they are not worthy fire consumes them." (Sotah 17a)

May God place our portion among the lovers of both the Jewish People and God, for it says (Zohar) "The Jewish people and God are one." (Minchat Chinuch commenting on the command to Love your Neighbor, Mitzvah 243:2).


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