Loving All Creatures - Middah Ohev et HaBriyot

Marlene Myerson

About Mussar and Middot

The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

Ohev et HaBriyot translates as "loving all creatures." Ohev comes from the Hebrew root aleph-hei-vet, which means "to love." Briyot comes from the Hebrew root beit-reish-aleph, which means "to create."

"Hillel taught: Be a disciple of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures, and attracting them to the study of Torah." (Pirke Avot 1:12)

The rabbinic sage Hillel admired Aaron, the brother of Moses, as someone who had many good traits. Among those traits mentioned in our Text is loving one's fellow creatures (Ohev et HaBriyot).

In a commentary on Pirkei Avot, the rabbis use two familiar stories from the Bible to emphasize the importance of loving others.

"People must love their fellow creatures, and not hate them. The people of the generation which was dispersed over the earth (the tower of Babel generation, Genesis 11:1-9) loved one another, and so God did not destroy them, but only scattered them. But the people of Sodom hated one another, and so God destroyed them from this world and from the world to come." (Avot de Rabbi Natan 12, 26b)

In order to understand what it means to love all creatures, Rabbi Susan Freeman suggests that we turn to two respected sages, Maimonides and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. To Maimonides, it is how we behave toward others that shows our love for them. He explains that the commandment to "love your fellow person as yourself" is the basis for carrying out specific deeds of loving kindness such as visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and caring for the dead.

Rav Kook agrees with Maimonides and says that love for others is to be "expressed in practical action, by pursuing the welfare of those we are bidden to love, and to seek their advancement." (Teaching Jewish Virtues, p.179)

What about people who are different from us - people who are physically or mentally challenged; people who speak another language or whose skin is another color; people who may make us feel uncomfortable-are we supposed to love them too? Perhaps one of the reasons we have a virtue (middah) that instructs us to love all creatures (Ohev et HaBriyot) is that it's not something that we can do easily. Studying and thinking about the middah helps us to become more aware of its importance. (Teaching Jewish Virtues p.184)

Surely the middah (virtue) of Ohev et HaBriyot (loving all creatures) must embrace all the creatures God created, including animals, birds, and insects. A Hasidic source teaches that we must never speak derogatorily of any creature of God. Rabbi Susan Freeman suggests that we turn that comment into the positive, ie. speak positively of every creature of God, whether cow, wild animal, or bird. (Teaching Jewish Virtues, p.186) In fact, if you have ever had a pet, you know that you can feel love for an animal.

To Talk About

  1. According to this week's Text, why was Aaron so admired? Is there a connection between loving your fellow creatures and loving and pursuing peace? Between loving your fellow creatures and attracting them to the study of Torah? What are some things that you could do to be considered a disciple of Aaron?
  2. Read the stories of the tower of Babel and Sodom and Gemorrah in the Bible. Do you think that the rabbis were wise in choosing these two stories to illustrate the importance of loving others? Why or why not? Can you think of any other Biblical story that would have been a better choice?
  3. According to Maimonides and Rabbi Kook, how do we show our love for others? Can you think of five things that you've done recently that showed your love for others?
  4. Compare the biblical commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) to the Talmudic statement that tells us "do not unto your fellow what is hateful to yourself!" (Talmud, Shabbat) How are they similar? How are they different? Which one has more meaning for you? Why?
  5. In the Book of Genesis, we read that human beings are created "betzelem Elohim" (in the image of God). How would you use this biblical source to explain this middah (virtue), Ohev et HaBriyot (loving all creatures)?

To Do
Make a list of the deeds of loving kindness that Maimonides tells us we must do to fulfill this middah. Add at least five more things to the list. Going forward, look for opportunities to carry out as many of the deeds on your list as is possible.