How it really was! - A time to love, a time to serve

What was “love” between man and woman in the Bible?

Jacob and Rachel by William Dyce (1853) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jacob and Rachel by William Dyce (1853)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In a lockdown day, you probably, like me, are more aware of the many thoughts flitting across the screen of your mind.  Let me share a few of mine with you.  
Most of us know the Hebrew word that means love. “Ahavah.”  All of us who go to any kind of synagogue even if only on Yom Kippur recite the verse telling us to “love” God “with all our heart, all our soul and all our might.” It is the second sentence in the basic Jewish credo, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6)
Often I’ve wondered how can you “love” a great big abstract all-powerful “Being,” whose real name you are not allowed to say?  In the course of my studies, I discovered that there is another meaning for the Hebrew word “love.” I quote a famous Biblical expert “Love in Deuteronomy is a love… intimately related to fear and reverence. Above all, it is a love which must be expressed in loyalty, in service, and in unqualified obedience to the demands of the Law.” In other words, “You shall loyally serve the Lord your God” is a clearer translation.  You  undertake to observe His laws loyally and willingly, “with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.”
A similar example is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”  No word in one language has an exact parallel in another.   And the Hebrew of thousands of years ago is not the Hebrew of today.   The word translated as “neighbor” will better be understood as “fellow-man.” (With apologies to feminists, the text is always in the masculine.) Loving your fellow-human is not an abstract fuzzy feeling for humanity, but a specific command to act towards him or her as you want to be treated. The key is to “act.” To love your fellow-human means doing, and parallels the idea of serving.  It is an act or series of acts and not just a feeling.
That may change our way of looking at “loving” God and our fellow-human.  But there is the other kind of love, for which the usual translation fits. 
Here we refer to the familiar “love:” an expression of a deep emotional connection between man and woman. For example, Rachel’s crafty father, Laban, promises that Rachel can marry Jacob if he works for Laban as a shepherd for seven years.  The text tells us that Jacob loved Rachel, “ And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed to him just a few days because of his love for her.” (Gen. 29:20)  And because Laban pulled a switch, putting Rachel’s sister Leah into the conjugal bed, Jacob had to work an additional seven-year period.
Only in the last few hundred years, experts say, “romantic love” developed – the kind of  love that has been magnified on the stage, silver screen and TV for over a century. So just what was “love” between man and woman in the Bible? In the Middle Ages?
Since I am not an expert, but rather an unrepentant romantic, I can allow myself to say that some form of romantic love was always there. True, family control of land or wealth was, and perhaps still is an  important factor in some marriages, just as wealth and family standing (yikhus) was, and still is, a major consideration in the more Orthodox Jewish world.  Nonetheless, I believe that love existed and was based on physical attraction, as expressed in the various changing sociological realities across the centuries.  The physical aspect certainly included what today is phrased as, “Do I want this woman as the mother of our children?”  Along the axis of time there were ups and downs.  From the power and even high-handedness of the matriarchs, the roles of Miriam, Moshe’s sister, and Deborah, general marshaling her troops into victorious battle, until eventually, women became regarded as  chattel to men.
Physical or sexual attraction, as brought to the forefront by Freud and company well over a hundred or more years ago, is so clearly alluded to in the story of Adam and Eve, that only centuries of rabbinic or clerical repression makes us miss it. 
A digression: Remember, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was forbidden to Adam and Eve.  Once they ate from it, each shifted the blame. “Okay, I ate it, but it was her fault – the woman You made.” Adam is really blaming God, “You made her!”  Eve says, “Yes, it was the snake that made me do it.”  The Bible begins with the moral weakness of the first woman and man.  Humankind never takes responsibility for its bad actions and always tries to shift the blame to someone else.  (This proves that all the politicians from then till now are a direct line to the naked blame-dodgers of the Garden of Eden.)
Returning to our theme of physical (sexual) attraction.  The name of the Tree in Hebrew is Etz Ha-Da’at, the Tree of Knowledge.  The next episode (Genesis 4)  begins with a verb conjugated from “Da-at,” and translates, “And Adam knew his wife and she conceived…”  He knew her carnally, that is in the flesh, in today’s legalese, “carnal knowledge.”  Genesis quotes God punishing Eve : “Thy desire shall be to thy husband....”  And earlier we are told that man shall cling to woman and they shall be “one flesh.”  If those are not references to physicality and sexual activity, tell me what else these quotes might mean.
Love between men and women, then, is sexual attraction, the need to procreate and whatever else the particular culture and societal norms prevail. Prettiness or beauty were always mentioned whether in the Biblical description of Rachel, “beautiful face and figure,” – if we were to translate into today’s terms, or in the Talmudic saying,  “A pretty wife, good furniture and a nice house” expand a person’s horizons. (Brakhot 57:)  A few lines before that quotation there is explicit reference to the “otherworldly” or “heavenly” pleasure of sex.  Sex was a natural and openly understood fact of life.  The verse from Exodus teaches: “If a man takes another wife, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing or sexual intimacy.” (21:10).  These three “duties” are written into the Ketubah, the marriage contract that protects the bride’s rights, and is signed by the groom and witnessed before a halakhic marriage.
In the Middle Ages, attraction and love were part of the culture.  Here’s what Dante wrote 700 years ago in Canto V of the Inferno. Francesca da Rimini tells him about her love for her handsome brother-in-law: “He, who never shall be parted from me, while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.”  Then their illicit act of love leads to their death and joint punishment.
And just to remind you of love and service intertwined, at a shivah for a Haredi relative, the deceased wife was praised by these words, originally in Yiddish, “she served him so well.” But isn’t that what the dialogue from Fiddler on the Roof shows? Tevye asks Golda if she loves him. (The language of the “romantic love” idea penetrating traditional Jewish society a hundred plus years ago.) Golda’s wonderful answer: “Do I love him?  For years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him.  For years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?”
By now, if you have had the courage to read thus far, you would be fair to ask what triggered this subject. The answer is music.  Many of us know the tune but not the words of beautiful Ladino songs. One of them, Adio Kerida, has such a haunting melody that Verdi used it in the shattering theme for Addio del passato. sung by the dying Violetta in the final act of La Traviata.  The Ladino “cancion” (song) accuses the woman who has jilted him as heartless: “When your mother gave birth to you, she did not give you a heart …. You have embittered my life, Farewell, my love. Adio Kerida,  I do not want to live.”  Opera singer and music scholar Sharon Azrieli dates the song to between 1200 and 1500; more or less parallel to Dante.
That and other Ladino songs convinced me that romantic love did exist across time, from Jacob’s love at first sight, through to the Talmudic era ending in 500 CE and then evidenced in the Middle Ages.  Okay, nobody went down on one knee and proffered a diamond ring.  But love was always there.  And another discovery through music.  I had  thought it was only Ladino (Sefardi) lyrics that spoke so openly of love, but I found out that even Satmar Hasidim to this day lead the bride to the wedding canopy  with a song (“Mi von siah)” that explicitly speaks of “the bride’s love (ahavah) and the delight of lovers.”  The traditional melody (usually without words) can be heard today at modern orthodox Israeli weddings as well.  It is performed magnificently by Israeli actress Shira Hass in the series “Unorthodox.”  First found in printed form in 1663, the words may very well have been sung at weddings long before.
What can one say? Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim sang of “ahavah,” of love requited or unrequited.  They did so while serving God with all their heart, soul and might.
As for me, I love being a Jew. ■
Discussions  with Dr. Joshua Levinson, who also the provided the citation from William Moran about love in Deuteronomy, and reading Dr. James Kugel’s various books gave the writer many insights for this column, and for which he is grateful. Due disclosure: Levinson is the writer’s son-in-law, and is a noted specialist in Midrash and literary criticism. Kugel is a famous Biblical scholar who incorporates many languages and specialties, including history and archaeology, in his teaching and writings. The theories on romantic love, right or wrong, are the writer’s. He can be contacted at