K’zohar Ha-Ivrit: February

When we think of relationships, the word 'love'-ahavah-comes to mind. Romantic love, love of family, or love of one's fellow man, all point to the fact that love is at the center of a positive relationship. It's interesting to explore the meaning of ahavah and its biblical origin.

In biblical Hebrew, ahavah is not an abstract emotion. Rather, it is a word encompassing sincerity and action. Ahavah is the force, which not only initiates a relationship, but also maintains the bond between the parties. Thereby, ahavah can mean intimate, romantic feelings, familial bond as well as deep friendship, covenant, loyalty, kindness, and even mercy. In the Bible, the noun ahavah appears 40 times, derived from the verb ahav, which appears over two hundred times in meanings like 'devotion,' 'passion,' 'intimacy,' 'loyalty,' and 'responsibility.' 

It is not surprising that the verb ve-a-hav-ta, literally meaning 'you shall love,' is used twice in the Bible expressing love for one's fellow man and love for God. Ve-a-hav-tah le-re-a-khah ko-mo-khah means 'love your fellow man as you love yourself,' (Lev 19:18) and ve-a-hav-tah et Adonay E-lo-he-kha means 'you shall love the Lord your God (Deut 6:5). This kind of ahavah cannot be understood in the abstract. In terms of human relationships, it implies social action and responsibility to one's fellow man. And in terms of the relationship with God, it requires the demonstration of unshakable devotion and loyalty.

Many expressions were coined in biblical times and later where the noun ahavah is at the center. For example, from The Song of Songs we find expressions like cho-lat ahava, 'love sick,' (2:5) and ah-zah ka-ma-vet ahavah, 'love is as strong as death' (8:6), describing romantic, passionate love. And, in the story about David and Jonathan, the phrase ahavat nefesh, 'a love of soul' is used to describe the profound bond and loyalty between two friends (I Sam 20:17). 

Despite its positive elucidations, the word ahavah is also used to illustrate negative attributes. For example, the term ahavat betzah means 'love for greed.' The adage ahavah t'lu-yah ba-da-var, means a self-serving love, an egotistical mode of behavior. This sentiment is also illustrated by the expression lo me-ahavat Mordecai elah mi-sin-at Ha-man, 'not from the love of Mordecai but from the hatred of Haman,' and means that the show of love or support was not executed for love of one, but rather due to the hatred of another.

And so, the Hebrew language attests that ahavah can be beautiful, passionate, and compassionate as well as destructive and blind. The hope is that each one of us will find in life ahavat emet, 'a true love,' which generates feelings of completeness, joy, belonging, and loyalty. 

Professor Rachel Zohar Dulin teaches Hebrew and Bible at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.

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