The Mitzvah of Chesed: An Overview


chesedBy Rabbi Yair Hoffman

The author would like to present the following overview of the Mitzvah of Chessed, l’Zecher Nishmas his mother, Sara Bas Eliyahu Hoffman whose yartzeit is today, the 22nd of Av. The author’s mother was the very personification of Chessed throughout her life to all that knew her. It is also dedicated in honor of the birth of the author’s granddaughter, who was named this past Shabbos – also Sara Bas Eliyahu Hoffman, tlctva.

Chessed, and the love of it, forms the very blueprint of the world. Hashem is the essence of Chessed itself, and He created the world so that He can reward us for doing Mitzvos (Derech Hashem Chapter one). Thus, the Mitzvos involved in the performance of Chessed form a large part of the reason why Hashem created the world.
Performing Chessed gives our life meaning. Since Chessed plays such a crucial role in life, it is important to understand what Chazal tell us about this most important subject. This article should be utilized to help inspire our daily Chessed, and to help us understand the significance of it.
What is the source for the Mitzvah of performing Chessed? The Gemorah (Bava Kamma 100a) identifies a posuk in Shmos (18:20) as the source, “And inform them of the path that they should walk..” The Rambam in Sefer HaMitzvos (Shoresh 2) cites this as a biblical requirement. There is another Pasuk which one fulfill when performing Chessed, “V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha. – Love thy neighbor as yourself.” The Rambam in Hilchos Aveilus (14:1) cites this as a biblical fulfillment, although the Rabbis provided illustrations as to how to fulfill it..

a. The major obligation of Chessed stems from walking in Hashem’s ways. The Gemorah (Sotah 14a) discusses the pasuk which says, “Acharei Hashem Elokecha taylechu – you shall walk after Hashem your G-d (Dvarim 13:5).” The Gemorah poses a question. It asks, “How is it possible to physically walk after the Divine Presence?”
b. The Gemorah answers that it means to follow after the Chessed traits, kavyachol, of Hashem. Just as He provides for the unclothed, so too must you provide clothing to them. The Sefer Mitzvos Gedolos states that this verse is part of the related Pasuk of “v’halachta b’drachav – and you shall walk in his ways.” In other words, the verse of Acharei Hashem Elokecha Taylechu is referencing the verse of v’halachta b’drachav. It could very well be that the aforementioned verse in Shmos (18:20) is also referencing this.


a. The Gemorah in Shabbos (133b) discusses another entirely different pasuk, “Zeh Kaili V’anveihu..” The Gemorah in Shabbos understands it to mean that we must attempt to liken ourselves to Him. Just as He is kind and merciful, so too must you be kind and merciful.

Rav Yitzchok Isaac Sherr zatzal explains (Leket Sichos Mussar p.76) that the pasuk of “Zeh Kaili v’Anveihu” teaches us the obligation of feeling and understanding that the performance of Chessed brings us closer to Hashem. This is on account of the Gemorah’s understanding of the word “Anvehu” to mean “Ani v’hu – I and Him.” The meaning of this Pasuk is therefore, “This is my G-d, and I shall bind myself to Him. I know that I can accomplish this binding through the notion of performing acts of Chessed.” The consequences of this Pasuk are an obligation of thought, not practice. It is something that we must think – Chessed binds us to Hashem – Ani VeHu.
One means of achieving this is the further obligation that the sages placed on people to say (Tana D’Bei Eliyahu chapter 25), “When will my actions reach the level of those of our forefathers?” The forefathers personified these principles of Chessed and wholesomeness. They also are the paradigns of relationship with Hashem.
The Avos were so close to Hashem that they established the Tefilos. Chessed can bring us to such a high Madreigah, spiritual level, that it can bring us to the level of the Avos! And a person is obligated to view Chessed as the means of bringing us closer to Hashem and constantly ask, when will my actions of chessed bring me up to that level of spirituality?

a. The posuk in Micha (6:8) states, “..What does Hashem require of you? Merely to do justice and love Chessed..” The idea is that we must foster and develop a love of Chessed. Rav Sherr explains that there are three elements to this love:
1] To love doing acts of Chessed ourselves.
2] To love and appreciate a situation where Chessed is being performed by others – either for another or for others.
3] To love the existence of opportunities for Chessed in the world.
The Chofetz Chaim writes (Ahavas Chessed 2:1) that not only must one love Chessed but one must stick to this character trait and always go beyond the measure of what is required. He give the analogy of a parent. A loving parent gives more food and clothing than the child requires, so too must we do likewise in sticking to the Midah of Chessed.
The Alter of Slabodka writes that the notion of Olam Chessed Yibaneh tells us that just as Hashem built the world with Chessed, so too must we build the world with Chessed.
Everyone in the world needs Chessed. When we are born as babies we require the chessed of others. When we become elderly and sick, we also need the Chessed of others. There is no other way. Chessed is necessary for the world to be built. Hashem built this into the nature of the world in order to show us the very necessity of Chessed.
There is another element in Chessed too. It is a natural tendency for people to become miserable and crabby as we age. Living a life committed to Chessed changes that – it stops us from declining in this respect. Thus, Chessed not only builds the world – it builds ourselves as well.
There are other benefits of Chessed too. The Chofetz Chaim writes (Ahavas Chessed 2:4) that when the performance of Chessed saves a person from difficulties in life. It also ensures that Hashem will continue to maintain His love. It also awakens the Divine Middah of Chessed above. The Gemorah in Bava Kamma (17a) also explains that one’s enemies fall away when one is committed to the performance of Chessed.
The Mitzvah of Chessed applies equally to men and to women. It should also be taught to one’s children. There is no better way to inculcate this most precious of traits than by example and by performing the Chessed with family members.
Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky zt”l was the Gadol HaDor in the early twentieth century. After he had passed away, his notes to himself were found. He had a note that stated he should always make sure to perform at least two chassadim per day.
The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chessed 2:12) writes that one cannot allow one day to go by without having performed Chessed. He cites Rav Chaim Vital (a student of the Arizal) that one must spend time to consider every day to do Chessed and by doing so one achieves atonement for one’s sins.
We must also look for opportunities for Chessed. Hashem in His tremendous love for us has created new mediums and technologies for us to be able to better perform Chessed. Most people nowadays have a cell phone. The ability to store vast numbers and to call anyone no matter where we are are actually Divinely ordained developments for the purpose of our performing Chessed for others.
Chessed is such a remarkable Mitzvah, it is even greater than Charity, Tzedakah. How so? The Gemorah in Sukkah (49b) explains that it is greater than Tzedakah in three ways: Tzedaka is only with money – Chessed can be done with money or with one’s physical body. Tzedakah can only be done for the poor. Chessed can be done for the poor and the wealthy. Tzedakah can only benefit the living. Chessed can benefit either the living or the dead.
The opportunities for Chessed are indeed quite numerous. To name just a few:
There are:
1. Our homeless brethren
2. The forgotten elderly in nursing homes
3. People in hospitals
4. Family members of people in hospitals
5. Children who need extra attention
6. The poor who need clothing
7. The developmentally disabled
8. Foreigners in a strange land that need assistance
9. Loaning items or money to others
10. The Avos DeRav Nosson (Chapter 13) says that if one greets a person with a smile it is as if he has given him all of the greatest gifts in the world.

The Midrash (Introduction to Aicha #24) tells us that all the Avos listed their own merits to Hashem in order that the nation of Israel should ultimately be redeemed. Avrohom Avinu mentioned his mesiras Nefesh involved in Akeidas Yitzchok. Yitzchok too cried out and responded that he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Yet, Hashem only responded to Rachel because her merits involved the notion of Chessed. She gave the simanim to her sisters so that she not be embarrassed. This is why the Pasuk in Yirmiyahu (31:14-16) states, “A voice is heard on High – Rachel is crying for her children..”
We should also be aware that there is no limit to the heights and growth we can accomplish in our chessed. This can be seen from a passage of the Targum Yonasan on Sefer Rus. Boaz tells Rus that he is aware of both how she came and joined up the nation of Israel, and also of all the Chessed that she had performed with her mother-in-law. The Targum Yonasan on this Pasuk explains that because they were written next to each other and said in the same breath, these two Mitzvos were equal to each other.
This is somewhat mind-boggling. Rus was a princess of Moav, a very powerful nation. It is a remarkable notion that one of the top women in society would give it all up to become a lowly member of the Jewish nation that must take Tzedakah. Is this lofty Mitzvah equal to the mere Chessed that she does with her mother-in-law?
The answer, according to Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l. is that there is no spiritual limit to any Mitzvah that we perform. If we do a Chessed, any Chessed, with the right intentions and Kavannah – it can be equal to the greatest of Mitzvos.
The Gemorah in Avodah Zarah (17b) explains that one who engages in Torah but does not perform Chessed alongside it, it is as if he has no Elokah – as if he has no G-d. The Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 7:4) tells us that whomsoever denies Gmilas Chasadim, it is as if he has denied Hashem – k’ilu kofer b’ikkar. The Yalkut Shimoni (Parshas Shoftim #64) states that whoever performs Chessed acknowledges all the Chessed that Hashem has performed since the exodus from Mitzrayim, and whoever does not perform Chessed it is as if he denies all the Chessed that Hashem has perfomed since the exodus from Mitzrayim.
The Mitzvah of Chessed is a fulfillment of the Torah commandment of “V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha – love your neighbor as yourself.” Generally speaking, we rule that when a person fulfills a Torah Mitzvah, Kavana is required in order for it to count. Kavana means that a person must have in mind that he is fulfilling the Mitzvah of hashem as found in the Torah. This would seem to be the case in regard to Chessed as well (See Ahavas Chessed 2:23). However, many Poskim have written that although it is required ideally, if one did not have the correct Kavana, the Mitzvah still counts, post facto. The Chazon Ish was of the opinion that this concept of not receiving credit for a Mitzvah when one does it by rote without intent does not apply in regard to Mitzvos that are between man and man (Toraso yehge, Miluim #10).
What happens when it turns out that the recipient ended up not using or not needing the Chessed? The Maharsha in Sukkah (49b) indicates clearly that the person who performed the Chessed still receives full schar, credit. Thus, there is no need to feel disappointment when it turns out that the Chessed may not have been necessary. One still receives full credit.
Ideally, one should stand when doing the Mitzvah of Gmilas Chessed, just like the performance of any Mitzvah (OC 8, Bais Yoseph, Eliyahu Rabbah and Mishna Brurah). The rationale is that it is giving respect for the Mitzvah. Here too, of course, if one did not stand – one still fulfills the Mitzvah.
One does not recite a blessing when performing the Mitzvah of Chessed. There are a few reasons that are given. The Rashba explains (Vol. I #254) that any Mitzvah involving the benefit of other human beings, and when they refuse to accept it there will be no Mitzvah, does not receive a blessing. Rabbeinu Bachya in his Kad Hakemach (Tzitzis) writes that any intellectual Mitzvah that one would have performed anyway without a commandment from the Torah does not receive a blessing. The Ohr Zaruah (#140) explains that Mitzvos that apply all of the time do not receive a blessing.
When performing the Mitzvah of Gemilas Chassadim one should do so cheerfully and with a smile (Chofetz Chaim in his Sefer Ahavas Chessed Vol. II #23). This is predicated upon the same halacha in Shulchan Aruch regarding the giving of charity (Yore Deah 249:3). At the opposite extreme, it is stated in Avos D’Rav Nosson (13) that if one gives someone enormous gift but greets him with a sour expression, it is as if he has done nothing. The same would apply to the Mitzvah of Chessed.
There are two Mitzvos in the Torah that imbue an individual with their own unique feeling of joy – they are the love of Torah learning and the joy of a Chessed. These special joys, in fact, have a Divine source to them. They emanate from the Ohr Panim kaveyachol of Hashem – the Divine light of Hashem. In the Tefilah of Shmoneh Esreh written by the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah we say, “Ki b’or panecha nasata lanu toras chaim v’ahavas Chesed.”
The Divine source for the origin of the joy we feel when we perform Chessed explains why Chessed can be so life-changing. It can save us from depression, it can save us from the crabbiness that comes with old age, and so much more.
There was an older woman who had lost her desire to eat and said, “Hashem just wants me to die now.” A young woman visited her, engaged her in conversation, empathized with her struggles, and gently offered her some ice cream. This little chessed snowballed and eventually the woman regained her desire to eat.
It is important not to allow the Yetzer Harah to enter into the performance of this wonderful Mitzvah. The Mesilas Yesharim describes the Yetzer Harah as “ish milchama hu umelumad b’armimus – he is a man of war and skilled in the art of deceipt.” Thus, the Yetzer Harah can easily convince us to get angry at someone else involved in the Chessed. “It is so upsetting, the Chessed leader does not know what they are doing!” Other Midos that the Yetzer HaRah can trip us up in, are: Gaavah, taking things that do not belong to us, etc. In short, there may be other temptations that the Yetzer HaRah will bring to us while we perform acts of Chessed in order to try to make the Chessed less pure.
We must also realize that encouraging others to perform Chessed is in and of itself the fulfillment of Chessed. It should therefore also be done cheerfully and with a smile. The problem is that if one is encountering resistance, then it is likely that the second person’s Chessed will not be performed in the cheerful loving manner that it requires. This area is one that is fraught with difficulty since doing Chessed is actually an obligation, just as other positive Mitzvos are obligations. The halacha is that if there is a good chance that you can change someone’s mind to do the Chessed – then one is obligated to give Tochacha. The obligation of Tochacha for doing a Mitzvah is found in Parshas Kedoshim (VaYikrah 19:17), “Hochayach Tochiyach es amisecha – You shall surely rebuke your peer..” The obligation is discussed in Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 608:2).
The suggestion therefore, is to keep the Tochacha as positive as possible. Guilting a person into performing Chessed or mildly chastising them will not necessarily result in a happy performance of it. The Chazon Ish has written that the art of giving Tochacha has been lost in the current generation. If this was true in the Chazon Ish’s time, it is certainly true in our times. Therefore, one should try to encourage others as much as possible in doing Chessed, but one should avoid the harsher forms of Tochacha.
It is important to keep the Chessed as pure and pristine as possible and not to show off the Chessed. This is the fulfillment of V’hatzneya leches im elokecha (Michah 6:8). Such a person is described as an “v’yikarah Ish Emunim.” It is also the understanding of the Pasuk in Mishlei (6:14) “Matan b’saiser yikveh af.” Just like in Torah, where Chazal tell us in Pirkei Avos (4:3) that we not make Torah a crown to show off in, the great Roshei Yeshiva have said the same thing in regard to the performance of Chessed.
At the same time, it is also important to spread the notion of doing Chessed and getting others involved in the Chessed. This is something that takes work – to make sure that the Chessed is done Lishma – with a purity, yet at the same time to help spread the notion of Chessed. The Tefilah that we say in the Shmoneh Esreh of Shabbos morning – “Vetaher libeinu l’avdecha b’emes – and purify our hearts to serve you in truth” is very instructive here.

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