This Hebrew Word Redefines What Love Is

In English, we have one word that encompasses a broad range of feelings, dynamics, and perspectives: love. There’s a first love, a true love, a lost love. We love pizza, challah, coffee, and the outdoors (some of us). We fall into it and out of it. We say it offhand, and we agonize over saying it when emotions are tangled. But I think we use it all wrong.

We’ve made this word elastic, stretching to encompass so much, and yet I don’t think we’ve even gotten to the bottom of it. To help, we add adjectives, clarifying descriptors, or parenthetical explanations to communicate the kind of love we mean. The most I’ve learned about love, however, has come from going back to the words of God and the lives of our ancestors.

Hebrew Words for Love

In Hebrew (and in many other languages), there are different words for different types of love. Not only are these words more descriptive, but in their summation, we begin to see the depth and breadth of all that “love” actually encompasses across relationship types and the complexities and nuances of each.

Racham means “compassion,” and is used by the prophet Isaiah and King David to describe a parent’s love for their child (Isaiah 49:15; Psalm 103:13), and it’s very often used to describe God’s love for us. Ahavah describes a deep bond of friendship, like the one experienced by Jonathan and David in 1 Samuel 18. Dod is used in Song of Songs to refer to a person’s beloved. Hesed is often translated into English as “lovingkindness,” and one of the most famous uses of this word comes when God reveals Himself to Moses: “Then Adonai passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘Adonai, Adonai, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness [hesed]’” (Exodus 34:6, italics added). 

Hesed is used 251 times throughout Scripture, and it stands out to me because it doesn’t behave in ways that we expect love to behave. In English, it’s been translated into faithfulness, goodness, loyalty, mercy, grace, and favor, just to name a few examples.

In essence, hesed isn’t earned.

In essence, hesed isn’t earned. Unsurprisingly, it’s used many times when describing God’s love for us. In His hesed love, He freed us from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 15:13), He promised His hesed love would never depart from King David (2 Samuel 7:15), and He extended His hesed love to us to bring us back from exile (Ezra 9:9). 

It’s easy to find examples of God’s perfect and unconditional love for His people, despite our unfaithfulness. But there are examples of this kind of fierce and unearned love in the very imperfect human relationships of our ancestors.

How Our Ancestors Exemplified Hesed

When King Saul’s son, Jonathan, learned of David’s certain death sentence, he went out to warn David, even though doing so could’ve cost Jonathan his own life. When it was time to flee, David delayed his escape to run back to Jonathan to reaffirm their oath of friendship, to weep together, and to embrace one another. And Jonathan, fully believing in the greater future God had planned for David, begged the future king to “show me unfailing kindness [hesed] like that of the Lord as long as I live” (1 Samuel 20:14).

When Joshua sent spies into the land of Canaan, the king of Jericho pursued them. A prostitute named Rahab stepped in and risked everything to protect the men. She knew the power of the God of Israel and knew they would inherit the land, so she asked for compassion and favor: “Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness [hesed] to my family, because I have shown kindness [hesed] to you” (Joshua 2:12). They promise her that once they possess the land, they will show her kindness [hesed]—they even go so far to declare “Our lives for your lives!” (Joshua 2:14). Their reciprocal demonstration of hesed broke cultural, gender, and religious norms, and stemmed from their mutual awareness of the source of hesed: God Himself. 

When Ruth, a young Canaanite woman, was widowed, she could’ve gone home to her father’s family and the culture she grew up in, according to custom. Instead, she declared this oath to her mother-in-law: “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth and Naomi both chose a mother-daughter loyalty that went beyond culture or tradition. Boaz later recognized that trait in her, saying, “You've added to the gracious love [hesed] you’ve already demonstrated” (Ruth 3:10). This kind of loyalty overflowed from their hearts into their hands that wouldn’t let go of one another. “Fierceness” isn’t included among the many Hebrew words for love, but according to Ruth, maybe it should be. 

The moments of pain were the moments of birth for the stories that now give us life and teach us what love looks like.

Their loyalty inspires us today, and we know how they were blessed for it. Yet it didn’t come without a price. Though there are idyllic, cozy elements of these stories—Jonathan grasping David’s hand and giving him his cloak, Ruth carrying an armful of barley to her mother-in-law, Rahab providing the spies a warm place to stay—in reality, these figures went through hell together. David was a fugitive with a murderous king after him (who also happened to be the father of his best friend). Ruth and Naomi were homeless, with three husbands buried. Rahab and her family survived, but her entire community was lost. The moments of pain were the moments of birth for the stories that now give us life and teach us what love looks like.

Showing Hesed in Our Daily Lives

Our heroes, past and present, show love that they received from God Himself. After all, the best kind of love we can share is what we’ve been shown from the source of love Himself. But we’ve also seen what the absence of that love can do. In the wake of the October 7 terrorist attacks, I was struggling to find something good—as I know many of us were. In the darkness, I desperately searched for a glimmer of light, some tangible expressions of hesed for which we all long.

Thank God, there was. Alongside the horrific images of hate burned into my brain, some beautiful examples of love stuck too: a farmer who used his truck to save dozens of people at the Nova festival, a boy who celebrated his bar mitzvah just hours after being released from a bomb shelter, an elderly couple who used their restaurant to serve free breakfasts to soldiers, and a mother who placed her hands on her son’s head to give him a bracha before he headed off to war. The steadfast love of God that saved our people again and again is still alive in us today. 

The steadfast love of God that saved our people again and again is still alive in us today.

We can experience that kind of fierce love from God and share it with those around us. In fact, that’s exactly what we’re called to do as Jewish people. Each of our relationships—or even encounters with strangers—can be opportunities to be conduits of God’s love

What does a hesed kind of love look like today? I think it’s the faithful, steady, wrinkled kind, the kind that’s held your hand through hell and back yet says, “I’m still here.” It can look like continually showing up for a grieving friend, even when that season is long and far from linear. It can look like engaging in hard conversations around a coffee table as those of us in the Diaspora attempt to help educate and inspire our non-Jewish community. It can look like living out the “sickness and in health” vow in our marriage. Or it can look like faithfully bringing a hot meal to a stranger in need in our neighborhood. Thankfully, when we’re at a loss for what it can look like, we can turn back to the source, the God whose hesed has sustained us through generations.