An examination of the term nnnx (ahavah)— the Hebrew cognate noun for love in the Bible —provides a foundation for comprehending the unique qualities of the notion in Judaism. Unlike Christian and Greek literature that offer a linguistic distinction between agape (spiritual) and eros (physical) love, the term ahavah ranges in meaning from sensuous to spiritual love.

Whereas other biblical nouns and verbs convey a particular type of love, such as ion (hesed) which often designates kindness and loyalty, or p^n (hesheq), which denotes desire or passion, nnx (ahv, verb) is employed in a wide variety of social, political, and spiritual contexts. Ahv and ahavah (noun) occur over 200 times in biblical narratives and poetry. They convey notions of attachment, passion, affection, preference, loyalty, and yearning.

The first employment of the root ahv refers to Abraham’s love for Isaac when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac: “Take your son, your only one, whom you love (asher ahavta), rmnN n^x Isaac . ..” (Genesis 22:2). Other examples of parental love expressed with the verb ahv include Jacob’s love for Joseph (Genesis 37:3; 44:20), Isaac’s love for Esau, and Rebecca’s love for Jacob (Genesis 25:28).

Denoting affection and loyalty in the Bible, the active participle ohev, (literally “lover”) signifies a deep bond of friendship. A primary example of affectionate friendship is the relationship between David and Jonathan. Their love is expressed by David as he mourned the death of Jonathan: “My brother Jonathan, you were most pleasant to me; your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). The comparative statement in which a friend is called nmx (ohev) and is praised as “more devoted than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24) evokes the devotion of a true friend.

The root ahv is often employed to describe a man’s feelings for a particular woman prior to marriage (Genesis 29:18, 20; 1 Samuel 18:20), or the positive feelings of a husband toward a wife (Genesis 24:67; 29:30, 32; Judges 14:16; 16:15; 1 Samuel 1:5; Proverbs 5:19; Ecclesiastes 9:9; 2 Chronicles 11:21).

Ahv is also used to describe passionate love outside of marriage, as a selection of narratives identified as the Court History of David indicates (Van Seters 1987, 121-124). Episodes of passionate love of a man for a woman are juxtaposed with death, either of the lover or the woman’s husband. An example of the tragic consequence of passionate love is David’s attraction to Bathsheba, which ends with David’s orchestration of her husband’s death. Another case of death as the revenge against a lover turned rapist is Amnon’s love for his half-sister Tamar; this love is turned into hate and results in his murder at the hands of her brother Absalom (2 Samuel 2:8-4:12; 9-20; and 1 Kings 1-2). In most cases of marital love, men are depicted in the active role as loving their wife, whereas women are described in passive terms as being loved, except for rare occasions: “And Rebecca loves Jacob” (Genesis 25:28) and, “And Michal, daughter of Saul, loved him [David]” (1 Samuel 18:28).

A prominent feature of ahv in the Bible is its role in the commandments. The verb ahav is integral to the commandments to love God, the neighbor, and the stranger. All three commandments employ the verb ve-ahavta— literally, “and you shall love.” The commandment to love the neighbor is articulated as Ve-ahavta Le’racha kamocha, wherein the verb ve-ahavta is followed with the preposition le, meaning to or for, which according to rabbinic commentary suggests not only an emotional stance but also deeds.

The commandment to love the stranger states, “Ve-ahavtem (And you shall love [plural]) the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). The commandment to love God is articulated in the following terms: “Ve-ahavta (And you shall love) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). These commandments are interpreted by the rabbis as demanding not only loving emotions but also appropriate actions. This emphasis on deed is commonly understood as the primary means of fulfilling the love commandments.

Perhaps the most frequent context of love in the Bible is the ongoing personal and reciprocal relationship of God and Israel. In Deuteronomy 7:7-8, it is stated, “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that God chashak (passionately desired) and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of people—it was because of meh-ahavat (God’s love) . . . and the oath He swore to your fathers that God took you out with a mighty hand and released you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of the Egyptians.” God’s love in this verse is described as a free choice and justified on the basis of the Abra-hamic covenant. Abraham’s love for God contributed to Israel’s election. Abraham is addressed in the possessive form, ohabhi (my lover), and Israel’s status as Abraham’s de-scendent is inferred (Isaiah 41:8).

Divine love for Israel is reciprocated and dependent upon Israel’s love for God: “And now Israel, what does the Lord your God request from you? Only to revere the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

This motif of reciprocal love is seen in interpretations of the Shir Ha-shirim (Song of Songs) that are both physical and spiritual, literal and metaphorical. The Song of Songs is at once a celebration of young love of a man and a woman and, according to rabbinic and philosophic interpretations, an expression of the love between Israel and God. The eight chapters are permeated with depictions of physical beauty of the lovers and of the land of Israel. The mood and tone of the poems that comprise the Song of Songs exude erotic desire and passion for consummation and union. The noun ahava and related verb occur seventeen times in the song, and numerous other verbs and nouns are employed to convey the dynamics of the couple’s desire and love for each other.

The woman’s voice and her passionate love for her lover are prominent. This is in contrast with other topics in the Bible wherein explicit references to women’s desires are rare. Here, she initiates the dialogue with the following statement: “May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine (Song of Songs 1:2). Her yearnings for her lover and the pleasures and pains of her love echo throughout the Song of Songs as she refers to herself as “love sick” (2:5). At the same time, the male lover reciprocates: “You have captured my heart, my sister, my bride. . . . How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride” (4:9-10).

The Song of Songs depicts an abundance of wisdom regarding love, both implicitly and explicitly. The warning against rushing to consummate love is proclaimed periodically in verses such as “Do not wake or arouse love until it is desired” (Song of Songs 2:7). The last chapter contains one of the most profound reflections about the power of love, not only in the Bible but in the history of literature: “Love is strong as death. . . . Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it; if a man would give all the wealth of his house for love, he would be utterly scorned” (8:6-7).

It is not surprising then that Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai concluded that ahavah mekalkelet et hashurah (Love impairs common sense) (Genesis Rabbah 55:8). Despite the positive and rewarding aspects of love affirmed by numerous textual sources, this counsel about the perils of love must also be seen as contributing to the wisdom of love.

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