We often think of the Mitzvah of “VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha,” “You shall love your peer as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), as a simple command to love our fellow Jews. Interestingly, however, the Gemara offers several applications of this Pasuk that most of us would have never associated with it. The Gemara derives the precise manners for executing inmates from Ve’Ahavta VeAhavta Kamocha. For example, if someone must be executed through Hereg, beheading, we slit his throat on the side with a sword, rather than chopping him in the back of the neck with a cleaver. Chazal understood that the former method is less painful, “and the verse says VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha – choose for him a nice death” (Sanhedrin 52b). Similarly, when we execute someone through Skilah, stoning (which involves throwing him off a building), we make sure that the building is so high that the criminal will die on contact, and not wallow around after the fall. Again, the source is VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha (Sanhedrin 45a).
The Gemara also derives certain laws pertaining to marriage from this Pasuk. For example, one may not marry a woman until he sees her, lest he find her unattractive and fail to fulfill VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha (Kiddushin 41a; see Niddah 17a for another application).
These passages from the Gemara make us wonder why Chazal did not mention more conventional ways to fulfill VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha. Perhaps the Gemara’s presentation of this Mitzvah serves to teach us that the theoretical idea of loving every Jew applies differently to each situation. When we execute a criminal, we generally do not love him especially dearly. We might be tempted kill him in a cruel or unusual way, justifying our action by arguing that such a dastardly criminal does not deserve any compassion. Nevertheless, we must never deny any human his basic dignity. Although we must execute certain sinners, we do it as humanely as possible – “Choose for him a nice death.”
While we can easily envision the temptation to violate VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha when dealing with death row inmates, we might think that one can easily fulfill it in marriage. After all, if the Gemara in Sanhedrin defined VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha as respecting a person’s basic dignity, surely even a mediocre husband treats his wife with at least as much dignity as he would treat a death row inmate.
The passages in Kiddushin and Niddah come to teach us the flaw of this reasoning. VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha applies to each person in proportion to our relationship with him or her. The criminal can only demand from us that we refrain from unnecessarily degrading him. A wife, in contrast, deserves a far higher level of Ahavah from her husband than any stranger does. Thus, her husband must not erroneously think that he can fulfill his role as a loyal spouse simply by treating her with basic Derech Eretz. Were this the case, he could consent to marry just about any woman, without first seeing her. Instead, the Gemara teaches us that a man must see his future wife before committing to marry her. He must ensure that he can treat her not only with basic Derech Eretz, but also with the affection and enthusiasm that flow from his attraction towards her. If he cannot feel this attraction, then he will ultimately violate VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha. Without the necessary level of affection for his wife, he will grow irritated every time she does the slightest thing wrong, a thing he probably would not even have noticed had he loved her deeply. Thus, VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha dictates that a man ensures in advance that he finds his potential wife attractive.
Thus, the Gemara has taught us that VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha applies in different ways, depending on the people involved. Aside from the extreme example of a death row criminal, we also find other sources for the need to love even those who annoy us, such as the Gemara’s story about the stranger who harassed Hillel (Shabbat 31a):
A man once bet his friend 400 Zuzim that he could cause Hillel to anger. The man went to Hillel’s house just before the start of Shabbat, while Hillel was washing his hair. Hillel answered the door, and the man asked him a moronic question; Hillel answered patiently. The man left, waited an hour, and returned to ask another stupid question (“Why do some people have wide feet?”). After receiving a patient answer, he again left, waited an hour, and returned to ask another stupid question. After the third patient answer, he finally said, “I hope there aren’t many Jews like you, for you have cost me 400 Zuzim.” Hillel replied, “You should lose 400 Zuzim and yet another 400 Zuzim on account of [me], yet Hillel shall not lose his temper.”
In this story, we do not find Hillel exhibiting tremendous enthusiasm for the stranger. On the other hand, despite circumstances that would tempt most of us to respond angrily, Hillel nevertheless accorded him the basic Derech Eretz that every Jew deserves, emphasizing that he will never allow himself to lose his temper. R. S. R. Hirsch explains that when the Torah concludes the Pasuk of VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha with “Ani Hashem,” “I am Hashem,” it is conveying this attitude of Hillel:
[This Mitzvah] is required of us even towards somebody whose personality may be actually highly antipathetic to us. For the demand of this love, which lies quite outside the sphere of the personality of our neighbor, is not based on any of his qualities. “I am Hashem” is given as the motive for this demand.
The Sefer Charedim (1:28) further sharpens our understanding of specific applications of VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha. He groups all Mitzvot by the body parts that perform them, and he places this Mitzvah in the category of Mitzvot that depend on the heart. Many of the Mitzvot that he includes in this category entail some actions, but he explains that each one requires an internal state of mind as a fundamental component of its fulfillment. Numerous actions exhibit Ahavat Yisrael at various levels, as we have seen, but the ultimate fulfillment of the Mitzvah of VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha comes when these actions help their performer internalize feelings of love towards fellow Jews. Perhaps our original simple understanding is not so far off, after all.