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The Life-Changing Hebrew Roots of Love

love, roses, ahava, chesed, dod, raya

“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”   (Luke 6:35)

With Valentine’s Day so near, love is stirring all around us.

In English, we say from the heart that we love our spouse, our children, and our job.  We also quite sincerely say that we love donuts, our favorite vacation spot, even NFL football.  For that reason, the word “love” has become almost meaningless, but Scripture presents it in all its intended glory.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul outlines the nature of love — the way it behaves:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)

In reading this passage, it might strike us how little we actually love, even as seasoned followers of Yeshua (Jesus).

So how did Paul become so wise about this Divine characteristic, which is at the core of God Himself?  He wasn’t one of the original talmidim (disciples) who walked with Messiah, so he never saw how Yeshua modeled love.

Even so, Paul had a personal encounter with Mercy and Love Himself, Yeshua.  And he wrote from a deep understanding of how love as explained by the Tanakh was to express itself in His daily life.

An Orthodox Jewish man embraces a Torah scroll.

An Orthodox Jewish man embraces a Torah scroll.

While some describe the Tanakh as being based on wrath and judgment and the Brit Chadashah (New Covenant) on love and compassion, Paul, a scholar of Jewish Scripture, clearly knew that love is at the heart of it.

Unlike the English language, there are several words for love in the Tanakh.

In English versions, for instance, these various Hebrew words have been translated simply as “love.”  In the New International Version (NIV) the word “love” appears 319 times in the Tanakh and another 232 in the Brit Chadashah.

Since “love” in the original languages may be translated as one of several words, each with its own meaning, a Bible software tool (such as the upcoming digital edition of the Messianic Prophecy Bible) can deepen our understanding as we read by allowing easy access to the underlying Hebrew words and their meanings.

Ahava, by Robert Indiana (Photo by Talmoryair)

Ahava, by Robert Indiana (Photo by Talmoryair)

The most common love word we read in the Tanakh is the verb ahev (אָהַב), from which also comes the feminine noun ahava (אַהֲבָה), meaning love, and the masculine noun ahav (אַ֫הַב), meaning lover or loving, as in a loving doe (see Proverbs 5:19).

This term first appears in Genesis 22:2 when God reminds Abraham of his strong bond with Isaac.  In Genesis 24:67, it refers to the strong bond between Isaac and Rebekah, and in Genesis 25:28 between Isaac and Esau, as well as Rebekah and Jacob.  Interestingly, the fourth use is to describe the relationship between Isaac and his favorite food!  But this is a rare use.

Ahava focuses on the strength of relationship.

The intensity that this word entails is reflected in Song of Solomon 8:6–7:

“Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love [ahava] is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.  It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.  Many waters cannot quench love [ahava]; rivers cannot sweep it away.  If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love [ahava], it would be utterly scorned.”

A Jewish couple marries at the seaside.

A Jewish couple marries at the seaside.

When we ahev, we profoundly love with the will, not with simple or fleeting romantic emotions.

“It is a desire which leads a person to make a decision to join their life to another forever.  It is what makes things last.  It is the commitment involved in making a relationship work.  Here we see that love is very much a choice as much as it is a connection.”  (Harmony of the Heart)

In this regard, it is the most appropriate word in the following two commandments that essentially summarize the intention behind the entire law, and the essence of God’s Divine love:

Love [ahev] the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  (Deuteronomy 6:5)

“…love [ahev] your neighbor as yourself.”  (Leviticus 19:18) 

charity, love, tzedakah, ahava, chesed, Rosh Hashanah, Israel

Jewish men prepare boxes of food for the poor in Israel.

The Secret of Love

The Hebrew roots of the word “ahava” contain a marvelous secret.  One root is hav, which means to offer or to give.  The other root is ahav, which means to nurture or to devote completely to another.  (Chabad)

This nullifies the idea that one can helplessly fall in and out of love, since it reveals that love is not an emotion but an action.

Perhaps the greatest giving relationship is that of husband and wife.  Each party is both giver and receiver, and the connection only grows as this process continues day in and day out, year after year.  In this way, ahava (love) is actually self-sustaining.  (Jewishmag)

This connection between love and giving is often emphasized in Judaism.

“The process of giving is a vehicle through which the giver through his act of giving is able to, through a physical gift (or even a verbal comment), give of himself to another.  This act of giving something is not merely helping another.  For sure, giving is helping another, but it is much more than that.

“Giving is a method that enables us to make a connection to another.  When we give to another, … we choose to take this object, which could have been utilized for our own needs and, instead, use it for someone else,” Ahuva Bloomfield writes in her article “Love: Jewish Style.”

“Giving is a condition that creates and sustains love.  Without giving, there is no connection that is sustaining,” Bloomfield adds.  “The true relationships that are meaningful in our lives are those in which mutual giving takes place.  The giving may be physical, emotional, intellectual, or a combination. But without giving from ourselves, no relationship can be enduring.”  (Jewishmag)

A senior couple in Israel enjoys a quiet moment together.

A senior couple in Israel enjoys a quiet moment together.

In another article, “What Is Love?,” Gila Manolson writes that giving requires that we understand or know the other person—something that requires an openness and an investment of effort over time.

Both writers agree that giving not only sustains love and connection, but creates it.

Manolson helps us better understand how it is true that “the more you give, the more you love”:

“True giving, as Erich Fromm points out, is other-oriented, and requires four elements:

  • “The first is care, demonstrating active concern for the recipient’s life and growth.
  • “The second is responsibility, responding to his or her expressed and unexpressed needs (particularly, in an adult relationship, emotional needs).
  • “The third is respect, ‘the ability to see a person as he [or she] is, to be aware of his [or her] unique individuality,’ and, consequently, wanting that person to ‘grow and unfold as he [or she] is.’
  • “These three components all depend upon the fourth, knowledge. You can care for, respond to, and respect another only as deeply as you know him or her.”
Mother pushes son in go cart

Parents are a great example of how love grows through constant giving.

Chesed Love

“‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love [chesed] for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the LORD, who has compassion on you.”  (Isaiah 54:10)

The word chesed (חסד) is another Hebrew word for love, which is often translated as loving-kindness, steadfast love, or unfailing love.

It is a loyal, persistent love based on covenant commitment, such as a marriage.  It is the love that God, over and over, expressed to His people, Israel.  It often refers to the love of God toward man and in this sense is comparable with the Greek word agape, the word used in Ephesians 5:25:

“Husbands, love [agapaó] your wives, just as Messiah loved [agapaó] the church and gave himself up for her.”

David likely appealed to the chesed love of God when he wrote Psalm 51.  In this psalm, he realizes the grave sin he committed against God when he arranged for Bathsheba’s husband to be killed.

David, who had experienced God’s love, favor, and intimate friendship, now experiences the excruciating pain of being separated from His anointing, His grace, His mercy.

He cries out to his Good Shepherd, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”  (Psalm 51:11)

Child of David and Bathsheba, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Child of David and Bathsheba, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

David does not only seek to satisfy his own spiritual needs, however.  He commits himself to practice ahava by bringing others into God’s Kingdom.  He promises God that with the presence of the Holy Spirit intact, “I will teach transgressors Your ways, so that sinners will turn back to You, … my tongue will sing of Your righteousness,. … and my mouth will declare Your praise.”  (Psalm 51:13–15)

It is not enough to think that only God can love this way.  Hosea 6:6 reveals that God wants us to exercise this kind of love:

“For I desire mercy [chesed], not sacrifice …”

A couple verses later, in Micah 6:8, the words “ahava” and “chesed” join together.  The prophet states, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love [ahava] mercy [chesed] and to walk humbly with your God.”

The Hebrew term “ahava chesed,” signifies that we are not only to love one another, but that we are to love chesed.  We are to be committed and passionate about going beyond the bounds of duty in our kindness and generosity with one another.

When we love, we do not simply meet the other halfway — we go all the way, and then some more.

A couple vacations in Israel.

A couple vacations in Israel.

Romantic Love in the Tanakh

“You are altogether beautiful, my love [raya]; there is no flaw in you.”  (Song of Solomon 4:7)

Other Hebrew terms in the Tanakh that relate to love include raya and dod.

Raya is a feminine word that basically means friend, companion, darling, lover, or soulmate.

King Solomon calls his wife raya in the Song of Solomon, indicating that she is the object of his affection.  It is an affection that infers she is his intimate partner.  It goes beyond sexual to an appreciation of her whole person.  Here we are speaking basically of a best friend.  (Intimacy Ignited)

Another Hebrew term in the Song of Solomon is the masculine word dod, which means beloved and love.  The origin of the word is thought to be an unused word that means to boil.

This word relates to the physical aspects of a romantic love relationship, which come after the acceptance of raya and the commitment of ahava.  These three “loves” are part of the process a husband and wife engage in to become spiritually one.

Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon

God Is Love

“Whoever does not love [agapáō] does not know God, because God is love [agapé].”  (1 John 4:8)

First John 4:7–9 compels us to love one another, telling us that love not only comes from God, but God is love.

How we love or fail to love, then, is one of the greatest evidences of how well we know and follow God.

By studying the word “love” in the Tanakh and the Brit Chadashah, we can only conclude that love is a core aspect of God’s character.

This does not negate our need to love with holiness, just as loving a friend or a spouse doesn’t negate our need to also treat them with respect.

“Love must be sincere.  Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”  (Romans 12:9)

God is love, God is holy, God is our Judge.  Righteousness, justice and judgment function in perfect harmony with His love.

The Bible teaches that God loves us and love is at the heart of all He does.  The fullest expression of that love is Yeshua, who has made it possible for all to come to God and enjoy the intimacy of His eternal embrace.

“Because the LORD loved you and kept the oath He swore to your ancestors that He brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery….  Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; He is the faithful God, keeping His covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments.”  (Deuteronomy 7:8–9)

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