Before they bless us, the kohanim (priests) first praise Hashem for giving them the sanctity of Aharon, and commanding them to bless the Jews “באהבה.” That word, commonly translated as “with love,” is an example of how translations color our understanding. Is love in the Jewish context the same as in modern English? Let’s check.

 Good Wishes or Good Feelings?

Two 16th century commentators, Be’er Sheva and Maharsha, read אהבה in the brachah as meaning attention, being fully focused on hoping it is successful. While that’s not a lack of feeling, it’s a far cry from what we usually mean by love. It’s no stretch to say we could expect kohanim to fully intend their blessing even for people they don’t particularly like, let alone love.

About a hundred years later, Magen Avraham noted the Zohar’s comment that any kohen who isn’t רחים of the congregation shouldn’t lift his hands (to recite the priestly blessing). רחים is Aramaic for אהב; if we interpret both as love, it seems to imply some kind of emotions. What’s not clear is the kinds of emotions necessary. Magen Avraham didn’t clarify, later authorities did.

Before we get to them, let’s note that Peri Megadim, in the mid-1700s, pointed us to Eliyah Rabbah—a younger contemporary of Magen Avraham’s—who read באהבה like the earlier 16th century commentators. Until 1800, in other words, the meaning of “באהבה” was as likely to be said to be full intent as it was to be love.

What Kind of Love?

In 1810, R. Avraham Danziger published Chayei Adam, which was the Mishnah Berurah until the Mishnah Berurah displaced it almost a hundred years later. Chayei Adam says באהבה rules out a kohen delivering Birchat Kohanim to a community who all hate him or he them.  This is focused on the feelings between the kohen and the community, like Magen Avraham, but only so far as a whole community’s feelings, and only in terms of avoiding hatred. Shut Siach Yitschak 78 (R. Yitschak Weiss, 1873-1942, a Slovakian rabbi murdered by the Nazis) does rule that if anyone in the community hated the kohen or vice versa, he should not recite Birchat Kohanim. He’s made it individual, but still only at the level of lack of hate.

Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chayyim 128;21, suggests both the kohanim and the people should accept love for each other before Birchat Kohanim. He is looking for love, but is satisfied with the kind of love that can be accepted in a moment.

Before we move to a very different reading of the blessing, note how little “love” really figures in this discussion. Some sources only cared about full intent, others about avoiding hate; even when we find someone speaking of love, it is not at a deep level.

Hashem Commanded the Brachah באהבה

Another option, taken by R. Yerucham Fischel Perle in his explanation/expansion of R. Saadya Gaon’s Sefer haMitzvot, is that Hashem commanded these blessings with אהבה. If so, we want to understand what it means to describe Hashem as having אהבה. This is of interest in our particular context, but also in deepening our understanding of the obligation to emulate Hashem. If Hashem is described as having love, we would want to make that kind of love part of our emotional arsenal as well.

Devarim 4;37 says Hashem אהב, loved, the Avot, the Patriarchs, which shaped His choosing their descendants (us). I write about Derashot haRan at TorahMusings.com (here’s the most recent one, which has links to earlier ones); in the ninth Derashah, Ran adds that the covenant with the Patriarchs leads Hashem to accept our returning to Him even when we do it out of expediency.

How did the Avot earn such depth of feeling? The Torah doesn’t say, but a likely guess would be their having built lives based on the belief in Hashem in a world where almost nobody did. That translated into a lasting covenant that created for their descendants the right to repent even in an otherwise unacceptable fashion. To emulate Hashem’s אהבה, one element would be to develop a lasting connection with people who act well, ready to rebuild even a frayed connection.

Hashem Loving Us; For Ourselves?

Sforno and Ramban were clear that we have to earn Hashem’s אהבה. In Devarim 7;8, Sforno says Hashem loves us (aside from being the Avot’s descendants) because we value Hashem’s Name more than the rest of the nations. For him, our relationship with Hashem is founded on recognition of Hashem’s Name.

Ramban expands that a bit on Devarim 9;4. Moshe Rabbenu tells the Jews they shouldn’t think their goodness got them the Land. That contradicts Moshe’s earlier declaration of Hashem’s love since, Ramban says, Hashem only loves those who are good (and hates those who are evil). He resolves that by saying Hashem loves the Jews of all of history; that generation, though, had acted badly.

A few verses later, he adds another level of difficulty to earning אהבה.  When Moshe says that in return for observing the mitzvot, Hashem will love and bless us, our children, our produce, and our animals, Ramban says that’s when we perform the mitzvot out of love. Doing the mitzvot isn’t enough, we have to do them out of love. R. Hirsch, similarly, thought it was our foregoing what we want in favor of what Hashem wants that leads to love.

Base Level אהבה and the Potential for More

Devarim 10;18 speaks of Hashem’s אהבה for converts, to give them bread and clothing. As Rashi notes, that’s what Ya’akov hoped for from Hashem when he headed to the uncertainty of Lavan’s home in Charan.  But Hashem’s אהבה isn’t limited to that, it’s that the simple act of being a convert secures that. (That adds evidence that אהבה is a function of declaring our connection to Hashem, which is what the convert did when leaving a non-Hashem focused people to join the people dedicated to Hashem).

In Devarim 23;6, Moshe Rabbenu notes that Hashem rejected Bilam’s curses, implying that we have a base level of Hashem’s love as well.  For more than that, we might need Patriarchs’ help, our good deeds, our submission to Hashem’s Will, or our declarations of Hashem in the world.

There’s plenty of אהבה out there, much of it similar to the love we speak of in English. The difference is that in Hashem’s terms—and therefore when we try to emulate it—it is conditional, a function of connecting ourselves to what Hashem wants, maybe in the way that Hashem wants. If we want to emulate Hashem’s love, that’s one place to start.