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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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Sorrow and pity for one in distress, creating a desire to relieve, a feeling ascribed alike to man and God; in Biblical Hebrew, ("riḥam," from "reḥem," the mother, womb), "to pity" or "to show mercy" in view of the sufferer's helplessness, hence also "to forgive" (Habakkuk 3:2); , "to forbear" (Exodus 2:6; 1 Samuel 15:3; Jeremiah 15:15, 21:7); "to spare" (Deuteronomy 7:16, 13:8; Ezekiel 7:4, 20:17); and , "to be gracious" and "kind" (Isaiah 22:23 [if the text is correct]; Proverbs 20:28; Job 6:14; Numbers 14:19; Genesis 30 2:10; Isaiah 63:7). The Rabbis speak of the "thirteen attributes of compassion," (Exodus 34:6; Pesiḳ. 57a; R. H. 17a). Later a distinction is made between attributes of compassion and those of love (; see see ASHER BEN DAVID in his commentary on the Thirteen Attributes, where he classifies them under "justice," "love," and "compassion").

The Biblical conception of compassion is the feeling of the parent for the child ("pitieth"; Psalms 103:13). Hence the prophet's appeal in confirmation of his trust in God figures the feeling of a mother for her offspring (Isaiah 49:15), and Pharaoh's daughter, moved by maternal sympathy, has compassion on the weeping babe (Exodus 2:6).

But this feeling should mark the conduct of man to man (1 Samuel 23:21); its possession is a proof that men are among those deserving recognition as "blessed unto Yhwh"; and in Zechariah 7:9 it is included among the postulates of brotherly dealings. Inversely, the lack of compassion mark..s a people as "cruel" (; Jeremiah 6:23). The Chaldeans are without compassion in that they slay the young and helpless (2 Chronicles 36:17); and Edom is censured for having cast away all "pity" (Amos 1:11).The poor are especially entitled to compassion (A. V. "pity"; Proverbs 19:17). The repeated injunctions of the Law and the Prophets that the "widow," the "orphan," and the "stranger" shall be protected show how deeply rooted was the feeling of compassion in the hearts of the righteous in Israel. It can not be admitted that the provisions for the extermination of the seven original Palestinian tribes (Deuteronomy 7:3,16) indicate the absence of kindly sympathy for aliens. Even if these provisions do not, as the critical school insists, represent merely pious wishes, they are at least entitled to be regarded as war measures, and, as such, were exceptional. They rank with similar provisions to cover the cases of the murderer and the false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:8; 19:13,21). The very horror with which the conduct of the Chaldees and Edom (see above) was regarded proves the contrary. Even the "enemy" was within the sweep of Jewish compassion. And so was the dumb animal, as the humane provisions of the Pentateuch against cruelty to them demonstrate (CRUELTY TO ANIMALS).

Seat of Compassion.

The physiological psychology of the Bible places the seat of the sympathetic emotions in the bowels. But the eyes were credited with the function of indicating them. Hence the frequent use of the expression "the eye has," or "has not," pity. The "length of the breath"—that is, in anger or wrath ()—is another idiomatic expression for compassionate forbearance.

God is full of compassion (Psalms 103:11, 145:3); and this compassion is invoked on men (Deuteronomy 13:17), and promised to them (Deuteronomy 30:3). "His compassions fail not, being new every morning" (Lamentations 3:22). Repeatedly He showed His compassion (2 Kings 13:23; 2 Chronicles 36:15). His "mercy [or "compassion"] endureth forever." He loveth the "poor," the "widow," the "orphan," and the "stranger." He is named ("gracious and full of compassion"; Exodus 34:6, passim). To obtain His "compassion," as the quality that pardons, sinners must first repent and return to Him (2 Chronicles 30). But when they do this, even non-Jews will experience His compassion (Book of Jonah). For God "pitieth" like a father those "that fear him" (Psalms 103:13).

These Biblical ideas become the foundation of the ethical and theological teachings of the Rabbis. Israel especially should be distinguished for its compassionate disposition (Yeb. 79a), so that one who is merciful falls under the presumption of being of the seed of Abraham (Beẓ. 32b). One who is not prone to pity and forbearance is cruel (B. Ḳ. 92a), and this though to be compassionate has the tendency to rob life of its savor (Pes. 113b). The thoughtlessly frivolous is like a cruel man, but one who is compassionate experiences the lot of the poor man (B. B. 145b). Compassion shown to fellow man will win compassion from on high (Shab. 151a). Eyes without pity will become blind, and hands that will not spare will be cut off (Ta'an. 21a). Women are recognized as prone to pity (Meg. 14b). In fact, this trait of its women was one of the glories of Jerusalem (B. B. 104b). To praise God meant to become merciful like unto Him (Shab. 133b; Exodus 15). Strangers certainly came within the scope of the rabbinical ideas of compassion. Their dead were buried with the dead of Israel; their poor were assisted; their sick were visited (Giṭ. 61a, Tos. 5:4,5). The angels when about to celebrate in song Israel's victory over Egypt were hushed by God with the rebuke: "The works of My hands have been drowned, and you would intone jubilant pæans!" (Meg. 10b).

The peculiar interdiction of the explanation of Pentateuchal laws as manifestations of divine compassion for dumb creatures (Ber. 33b) proves that this explanation was popular (see CRUELTY TO ANIMALS). But the Rabbis often lay stress on the fact that the Torah takes great care to "spare" () the property of man (Soá¹­ah 14b; Nega'im ).

God is recognized as the "Compassionate" (; compare the frequent use of "raḥman" in the Koran). He is invoked as the (Father of Compassion). So close is this association with Him that "Raḥmana" becomes the usual designation for His revealed word. He suffers with His people (Rabbi Meïr: "The Shekinah exclaims with the suffering patient, 'Oh, my head! Oh, my arm!'" Sanh. 4:46a; but see Levy, s. ). He mourns with His people (Lam. R. to 1:1). The relation which God's "compassion" sustains to His "justice" is also a subject of rabbinical inquiry, as it was among the early Christian sects. When the shofar is sounded "God's quality of compassion mounts the throne" (Pesiḳ. 151b, 155a; Lev. R.; compare also Abraham's prayer [Yer. Ta'an. 65d]). The name "Elohim" designates God's justice (), and the name Yhwh God's compassion (; Ex. R. ). Even while God is preparing to inflict punishment, God's compassion is bestirring itself (Yer. Ta'an. 65b, bottom; Pesiḳ 161b; Midr. Teh. to Ps. 86; Pes. 87b). Philo says "God's pity is older than His judgment" ("Quod Deus Sit Immutabilis," 16). The name Yhwh is repeated twice in Exodus 34:6 to allay the fears of Moses. As before the sin of the golden calf had been committed God dealt with Israel according to His compassion, so even now, after their sinning, will He deal with them in mercy (Pesiḳ. R. 5; Num. R. ).

E. G. H.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Mercy'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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