What are the ‘Shiurim’ or, minimal requirements for the mitzvah of Gemilut Chesed?
Rabbanit Surale Rosen
She'elaI am an occupational therapist working with special needs children for many years. In addition to providing therapy on a regular basis, I go above and beyond what is expected. I research new things for many extra hours, I build them special toys/programs for extra hours, I speak with the parents, other staff, I often include names in my tefillot. I have a very good relationship with all my clients and care deeply for them. I am of course paid as a therapist, but not for these extras that I do. I do this because I want the best for these kids, because it is stimulating, challenging and rewarding. In my private life, I do some chessed here and there... yet not in an intense manner. This Rosh Hashana, I wondered deeply if my "work" life covered my "chessed requirements," as I had always assumed it did, but now I would like to explore this more deeply. Thank you
Different mitzvot – both positive and negative – are quantified in different ways. The mitzvah of chessed (or gemilut chassadim) is a positive, rabbinic mitzvah (mi-derabanan – מדרבנן; i.e. not a Torah commandment[WU1] ). Let us demonstrate the concept of quantification through some other positive commandments.
There is a mitzvah to eat matza on the first night of Pesach, at the Seder. On this same occasion, there is a mitzvah to eat maror (bitter herbs), and a mitzvah to eat from the Pascal sacrifice. All of these mitzvot are quantified; that is, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of eating these foods on Pesach, one is expected to eat a certain amount. The quantification in this case is the amount of ke-zayit (כזית) – the volume of an olive.
Another example of quantification from the rabbinic sphere is the mitzvah of Purim. On Purim there is a special mitzvah to give tzedaka, and mishloach manot; in order to fulfill one’s obligation, the rabbis quantified the mitzvah by setting a minimal amount of tzedaka that should be given on this day, namely, two portions to two poor people, and one mishloach manot containing two portions to one person.
The quantification of some mitzvot is more fluid and flexible; one example is the regular mitzvah of tzedaka. The Shulhan Arukh (249:1) instructs that a person of means should provide tzedaka based on the needs of the poor; but people without significant means should give up to no more than 1/5 of one’s possessions – and even this amount is mitzvah min ha-muvchar (מצוה מן המובחר) – performing the mitzvah in the most elevate way possible. One who has no means, should give the poor 1/10 of one’s possessions; but even a poor person who lives off of charity is expected to give charity to others, in order to perform the mitzvah.
These examples illustrate that various quantities are determined in the fulfillment of different mitzvot, whether Torah (mi-deoreita) or rabbinic (mi-derabanan) in nature. However, the mitzvah of gemilut chassadim, is different from any other mitzvah, and belongs to another category altogether.
The mishna in Pe’ah 1:1 lists mitzvot that are unquantified:
These are the things that have no definite quantity: The corners [of the field], and the first-fruit, and offerings brought upon appearing [at the Temple on the three major festivals], and the performance of righteous deeds, and the study of Torah.
The Talmud (Hullin 136b) cites the position of Rav and Shmuel, who quantify the first mitzvah mentioned in this list – the mitzvah of pe’ah – leaving the corners of the field uncut for the benefit of the poor. They determine that the mitzvah of pe’ah is quantified at 1/60 of the size of the field. The Talmud questions this quantification based on the mishna, which clearly states that pe’ah is one of the mitzvot that has no definite quantity! According to the Talmudic resolution, there is indeed no quantification for the mitzvah by the Torah, but the rabbis quantified it nonetheless. Similarly, the rabbis determined that one should put aside 1/60 of the first fruit to ripen in the field for the mitzvah of bikkurim (ביכורים – the second mitzvah listed in the mishna as having no quantification). As for the offerings brought when one visits the Temple on the three major festivals, the rabbis determined a minimal worth of the bird or animal for sacrifice, even though the Torah commanded that each should bring “as he is able,” without stating a specific amount.
However, the final two mitzvot mentioned in the mishna – the performance of righteous deeds (גמילות חסדים – gemilut chassadim), and the study of Torah – remain unquantified; we will leave the study of Torah for another time, and discuss the mitzvah of chessed.
Why did the rabbis avoid quantifying the performance of righteous deeds?
The Talmud (Sotah 14a) discusses various expressions of the mitzvah of chessed in the context of the instruction “you shall follow Hashem your God” (Deut. 13:5). We are commanded to walk in the path of Hashem; but what does this mean? Is man really capable of emulating God?
The Talmud explains:
Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Hanina, says: Why is it written “After the Lord your God shall you walk” (Deut. 13:5)? Is it possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? But has it not already been stated: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire” (Deut. 4:24)? Rather, one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He: Just as He clothes the naked … so too, you should clothe the naked; Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick … so too, you should visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners … so too, you should console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead … so too, you should bury the dead.
The Rambam views the mitzvot mentioned in the Talmud not as suggestions, but rather, as obligatory (The Laws of Mourning 14:1):
It is a positive commandment of rabbinic origin to visit the sick, to comfort mourners, to make arrangements for a funeral, to make arrangement for a bride, to accompany guests upon their departure, and to attend to all the needs of a burial: to carry [a corpse] on one’s shoulders, to walk before the bier, to eulogize, to dig a grave; and also, to bring joy to a bride and groom and help them in all their needs. These are deeds of kindness that one carries out with his body, and these have no limit.
The mitzvah of walking in God’s path is considered a positive commandment, as formulated by the Rambam in Sefer ha-Mitzvot: “The eighth mitzvah is that He commanded us to emulate Him to the extent that we are able; this is the meaning of ‘you shall walk in his ways’ (Deut. 28:9[WU2] ).
We see in the Talmudic text above that the rabbis provided the mitzvah of walking in God’s path with practical expressions. Perhaps the reason they avoided quantifying the mitzvah is its spiritual nature and purpose – emulating God. Since God is infinite, the practical expression of this mitzvah should also be infinite, not quantifiable.
As your sensitive formulation indicates, your profession (which is all about bettering the lives of your patients) naturally demand more than the job definition. Since the examples for chessed brought in halakha include varying needs of the individual and the community, certainly tending to the needs of patients beyond that which is required of you is considered part of the mitzvah of gemilut chassadim.
Moreover, the human life cycle naturally demands acts of chessed mentioned in halakhah, such as visiting the sick, going to funerals, comforting mourners, and accompanying guests. In addition to responding with these acts of kindness that arise naturally in day to day life, you can add your own unique and personal acts of kindness, offered through your profession.
I would like to add a point I learned from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz זצ”ל.
An acquaintance of mine asked the rabbi how he can best fulfill his own unique designation in the world. His intention was to ask what he should be doing with his spare time, when he wasn’t working to support his family. Should he invest time in studying Torah? In learning about Tefilla? In chessed? Of course, the premise of the question was that investment in one track would prevent him from investing time in other activities.
Rabbi Steinsaltz cited the mishna in Avot 1:2:
Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the Great Assembly. He would say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and acts of kindness.
This mishna is often interpreted meaning that the world stands upon these three elements simultaneously, and each of the elements is equally important in maintaining the world.
But according to Rabbi Steinsaltz, the mishna should be interpreted differently: the needs of the world are forever shifting. At times, there is a need to reinforce the element of prayer, and sometimes, the study of Torah needs reinforcement. Other times, the element of chessed requires strengthening.
People have to decide how to divide and invest their time, energy, and resources, based on guidelines that energy should be invested in various facets of avodat Hashem. It is important to take into account that conditions shift and alter, and the decision requires flexibility. While these are all important elements in one’s religious and spiritual life, they shift in importance based on the shifting needs of the time.
If you have the ability to perform chessed both at work and beyond – that is an enormous zechut! May you always have the strength to keep striving to benefit those around you.
With Kind Regards,