True Love (Part 1/2)
The verb for “loving” appears in the Bible for the first time when Hashem commands Abraham to offer up his son “that he loves” (Gen. 22:2) — Isaac. Afterwards, Isaac himself becomes the subject of ahavah, as the Bible reports that after he married his wife Rebecca, “he loved her” (Gen. 24:67). Later on, Isaac is said to “love” his son Esau (Gen. 25:28) and asks him to prepare for him the delicacies that he “loves” before receiving special blessings (Gen. 27:4, 27:9, 27:14). The theme of ahavah continues in the book of Genesis with Rebecca “loving” Jacob (Gen. 25:28), Jacob “loving” his wife Rachel (Gen. 29:18, 29:30), Jacob “loving” his son Joseph (Gen. 37:3, 44:20), and so forth. In all of these passages — and many more — variations of the term ahavah are used. This two-part essay attempts to hone in on the exact meaning of ahavah, and how the idea it represents may differ from other terms or conceptions of “love.” In Part I, we focus exclusively on ahavah and its etymological implications, while in Part II, we focus on the apparent synonyms of ahavah, like r’chim, chibah, and agav, exploring their etymologies and cognates in an attempt to show how exactly they differ from ahavah.
Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna (1765–1802) in his work Sefer HaBrit discusses the concept of ahavah at great length, and categorizes different types of ahavah as well as the interplay between ahavah and yirah. He especially elaborates on the distinction between what the rabbis (Avot 5:16) call “love which depends on a matter” and “love which does not depend on a matter.” His most basic definition of ahavah is that "Love is the expansion of the soul and its joy in something that pleases it, desiring it more than anything else. It opens the chambers of the heart, and the vital spirits within it will run alongside all the parts of the body." Essentially, his definition of ahavah highlights “love” as an emotional experience that involves a deep connection, joy, desire, and the positive physiological and psychological impacts it has on an individual. He emphasizes how love is a profound and transformative emotion that extends beyond mere physical attraction or fondness. His description of the “opening of the chambers of the heart” and the “flow of vital spirits” suggest a profound, almost spiritual, connection associated with “love.” Rabbi Horowitz applies this understanding of “love” both to the commandment to “love” Hashem (Deut. 6:5) and the commandment to “love” fellow Jews (Lev. 19:18).
However, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (Lev Eliyahu vol. 1 p. 110) explains that most people are mistaken in their understanding of the concept of “love.” People think that love refers to a pleasant feeling that fills a person when in the company of someone defined as their “beloved.” Meaning, they delight in themselves through their loved one, using their beloved as merely a tool for their own enjoyment. However, Rabbi Lopian asserts, this understanding love is incorrect. The way he explains it, true love is that which awakens a person to give assistance to their friend and to bestow goodness upon them. In other words, true love is that which arouses a person to provide for their beloved and make them happy. [For a similar lesson, see Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler’s Michtav M’Eliyahu (vol. 1 pp. 32–36).]
Rabbi Lopian famously compared this to someone entering a restaurant to eat, and when the waiter asks, "What do you like?" they answer, "I love fish." Clearly, this person does not love the fish, but rather he loves himself and the good sensations he experiences when eating fish. The Bible relates that when Jacob had to work for Laban for seven years in order to marry Laban's daughter Rachel, "those [years] were in his [Jacob's] eyes like several days in his love [b’ahavato] of her" (Gen. 29:20). This passage is very difficult to understand, because according to the popular conception of “love,” when someone loves something and wants to attain it, then the days of waiting are just unbearable. But with the supernal type of “love” that Rabbi Lopian was talking about, it’s not about one person attaining some pleasant feeling, but about one giving to one’s beloved. Hence, the more that Jacob worked for his beloved’s father, the more he felt like he was giving towards her and fulfilling his ahavah. Of course, this is the exact opposite of the popular conception of “love,” whereby the lover really loves themselves, meaning they love to delight in themselves through somebody else.
Although this idea was originally taught in a Mussar context, there is an etymological basis for this understanding. Most early Hebrew lexicographers trace the term ahavah to the triliteral root ALEPH-HEY-BET. These lexicographers include the biliteralist Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970), as well as triliteralists like Rabbi Yehuda Chayyuj (945–1000), Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990–1050), Shlomo Ibn Parchon (the 12th century author of Machberet HeAruch), and Rabbi David Kimchi Radak (1160–1235). Yet, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 22:2, 37:4, Lev. 19:18, Deut. 6:5) — despite generally following the triliteralist approach — presents a different etymology for ahavah.
Rabbi Hirsch’s approach to ahavah sees the initial ALEPH of the word as radical to the essential root, so instead of seeing its root as ALEPH-HEY-BET, he sees the core root as the biliteral HEY-BET (hav, “giving/bring”). That biliteral root appears more than thirty times in the Bible in words like hav (Prov. 30:15), havu (e.g., Gen. 47:16, Deut. 1:13, 32:3, Ps. 29:1), and havah (e.g., Gen. 11:3, 29:21, Ex. 1:10). It is also cognate with the Biblical Aramaic yahav, which appears in the Aramaic parts of Daniel and Ezra, and is often used by Targum to render the Hebrew natan (“giving”) in Aramaic (yahav also appears once in the Hebrew part of the Bible, in Ps. 55:23).
In an explanation that mirrors the idea presented by Rabbi Lopian, Rabbi Hirsch argues that the etymological connection between ahavah and hav shows that ahavah entails "giving" oneself over to another person, and the desire to “bring” that other person as close to oneself as possible. In other words, he understands ahavah as the feeling of striving to get the closest attachment to another by completely giving oneself up and surrendering towards one’s beloved. [Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation adds that the connection between ahavah and hav is evident in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b), which connects the word vaheiv in Num. 21:14 (a cognate of hav) with ahavah, as vaheiv is really a cognate of yahav, with the VAV and YOD being interchangeable.]
Indeed, Orchos Tzadikim (Shaar HaAhavah) writes that the way for a person to bring himself to "love" another is by helping that other and using as much of his money as possible for that other's benefit. Rabbi Avraham Erlanger (1931–2021) even claims that this passage in Orchos Tzadikim is the conceptual basis for Rabbi Hirsch's above-mentioned understanding of the word ahavah and the idea it represents.
Rabbi Hirsch continues by contrasting this ideation of ahavah with its antonym — sinah ("hatred"). He associates the word sinah with the word sneh ("thorn"). With hatred, a person wants to be like a thorn, which is something that people keep away from, just as the hater wants to distance himself from the hated person, and vice versa. For the purposes of ahavah, the existence of the other party is a necessity, but for sinah, his absence and even death, is desirable. [For more on the word sneh and its synonyms, see “Of Thorns and Thistles” (Aug. 2022).]
Interestingly, Rabbi Yitzchak of Zeldin in Shoresh Yesha follows what seems to be the popular approach to “love,” as he explains that ahavah relates to hav in the sense that a person smitten with love is constantly thinking to himself “give [me], give [me]” — the same refrain that King Solomon put into the mouth of the leech (Prov. 30:15), who parasitically sucks the life out of his host.
In his work Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) also entertains the possibility that ahavah is related to hav. Nevertheless, he ultimately rejects that line of inquiry and presents a different approach. He sees the ALEPH of ahavah as essential to the root, but marks the middle HEY as the added radical. Therefore, he traces ahavah to the biliteral root ALEPH-BET, whose core meaning he defines as “primary cause.” The most obvious derivative of this two-letter root is the word av/abba, which means “father.” A group of words derived from this root is headlined by avah (“desire/will”), because they relate to one’s wants as their primary causes for action. In that sense, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that ahavah connotes the awakening of desire in a positive way.
Its antonym eivah ("animosity") — and its close counterpart oyev ("enemy") — are also said to derived from this root, but they imply the awakening of desire in a negative way. Professor Saul Levin (1921–2021), in his seminal work Semitic and Indo-European: The Principal Etymologies with Observations on Afro-Asiatic, p. 458) adds that perhaps the Hebrew oyev (“enemy”) is a cognate with ahavah, as both terms refer to dealing passionately with an outsider, with ahavah doing so in a positive (romantic) way, and oyev doing so in a negative (bellicose) way. [For more about the Hebrew words related "enemy," see "A Variety of Enemies" (July 2016), which happens to have been the first essay I wrote in this series.]
Taking a similar approach, Rabbi Yitzchak of Zeldin suggests (as an alternative to his aforementioned explanation) that the triliteral root of ahavah (ALEPH-HEY-BET) may be viewed as a metathesized form of the triliteral root ALEPH-BET-HEY (avah, “desire”), which amounts to the same idea that Rabbi Pappenheim proposed. [For more on Hebrew terms related to "desire," see "Deleterious Desires" (June 2017).]
In some ways, the concept of ahavah refers to the drive towards the unification and joining together of two parties in love. Rabbi Meir Ibn Gabbai (1480–1540) finds an allusion to this concept of unification through love by noting that the very word ahavah bears a gematria (“numeric value”) of thirteen, which is the same gematria as the Hebrew word echad (“one”). This connection reinforces the idea that the notion of love is the longing for discrete entities to join together as “one.”
The root ALEPH-HEY-BET appears in the Hebrew Bible close to 250 times. In most cases, inflections of this root are used to denote the verb of “loving” or the abstract noun of “love” itself. In three cases, the noun form of ahavah appears in the plural form as ahavim to refer to concrete “expressions of love” — whether verbal or physical (Prov. 7:18, Hos. 5:19, 8:9).
However, there is one particular passage which uses an inflection of ahavah that does not fit any of these molds: Song of Songs (3:10) describes an apiryon (“canopy” or “sedan”), whose interior was ratzuf ahavah, “paved with ahavah." In this case, the term ahavah seemingly refers to some sort of concrete material, not the abstract notion of love. But what material could it be? The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT, edited by Drs. Koehler and Baumgartner) argues that at least in this context, the Hebrew word ahavah is cognate with the Arabic ihab, which means “leather, skin.” How or does this relate to the concept of love? That I leave for the reader to figure out. The truth is that R. Yosef Kara (1065–1135) understands that ahavah here refers to the emotional motivations of those who built the apiryon, rather than to the actual materials used.
Once we’re discussing academic theories about ahavah, it is interesting to cite an approach first suggested by the German philologist Wilhem Gesenius (1786–1842), and later partially adopted by HALOT, that sees ahavah is related to the Arabic habba, which means "to breathe heavily" or "to be excited." In line with this, Gesenius etymologically connects ahavah with hav, avah, chibah, and hevel, implying that they are all onomatopoeic representations of a person breathing heavily.
Before we conclude Part I of the essay, please allow me to indulge in my adoration of Jewish onomastics (“the study of names”). As far as I know, in the Bible and Tannaic periods, there is no evidence of ahavah or any variations thereof being used as a personal name. However, later in the Talmud, there are multiple men named Ahavah. For example, the father of the frequently-mentioned Amoraic sage Rabbi Adda bar Ahavah bore the name Ahavah, as did Ahavah, the son of Rabbi Zeira (Rosh HaShanah 29a, Nedarim 32a, Eruvin 96b).
In later times, Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Yam Shel Shlomo to Gittin 4:30) mentions the confusion between the masculine names Ahuviyah (literally, “my beloved is Hashem”) and Ahuvyah (sometimes Anglicized as Ahubiah, literally, “beloved of Hashem”), both of which contain an inflection of ahavah and the theophoric element Y-ah (i.e., a reference to Hashem by using the first half of the Tetragrammaton), except that the former also contains an extra YOD to represent the first-person possessive. The latter of those names seems to be a calque, or translation, of the German first name Gotlip/Gotlib/Gottlieb (which later became a common Jewish surname), which is comprised of the words gott (“god”) and lieb (“love”). This is implied by Rabbi Yaakov Margolis of Regensburg (1430–1501) in Seder HaGet (§21) and is also apparent from the Rabbi Luria’s discussion. Another masculine name related to ahavah appears in the responsa of Rabbi Moshe of Trani (responsa HaMabit vol. 1 §69) — Ahuv. [The Jewish names Ahuvyah and Gottlieb are semantically-equivalent to the Greek name Theophile. Those names are quite similar to the Hebrew name Yedidya, which the prophet Nathan applied to King Solomon (II Sam. 12:25). Interesting, the Jewish-Italian Renaissance scholar Rabbi Azariah of Rossi (1511–1578) dubbed Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish-Greek philosopher in the first century bce) Yedidya, because philo means “love” in Greek.]
In more recent times, the feminine given name Ahuvah (literally, "beloved one") has become commonplace, and is clearly an inflection of the Hebrew word ahavah. Interestingly, though, linguists explain that this given-name is actually a relatively recent Hebrew calque of the Yiddish name Leeba (which means “love,” and whose Germanic etymon is cognate with the English word love) and is not an original Hebrew name. I would love to know when and where the name Ahuvah starting being used. That said, there is a Hebrew bulla found in archeological explorations of the City of David in Jerusalem that bears the name ne’ehevet, which essentially means the same thing as ahuvah, except that it is in the nifal form, while ahuvah is in the pa’ul form. I wonder what, if anything, would be the difference between the names Ahuvah and Ne’ehevet. Truth is, I'm not totally convinced that Ne’ehevet in that bullae must be proper name, as it could have just as easily been a description or simply common noun. Any thoughts on that?
To be continued…
In Part II of this essay, we will continue our exploration of the concept of “love” by focusing on additional Hebrew words that convey that idea — r’chim, chibah, and agav. We will look at the respective etymologies of those terms and related lexemes as we try to understand how exactly they differ from ahavah.