THIS SITE IS NO LONGER SUPPORTED            בית מדרש הוירטואלי עבר דירה
PLEASE FIND US AT OUR NEW TORAT HAR ETZION WEBSITE                                  
     English shiurim @          לשיעורים בעברית @

Shiur #04: Rachum and Chanun

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            The fourth and fifth attributes, which follow the attributes of Hashem, Hashem and Kel, are rachum (“compassionate”) and chanun (“gracious”).  We have no need to try to explain why these are included among the attributes of mercy, as their primary meaning clearly relates to mercy.  This time, our objective is to understand the difference between the previous attributes, which are general Names of God, and these two, which relate explicitly to the quality of mercy.  Additionally, we must explain the difference between these two terms, rachum and chanun.


            A note to Tosefot in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (17b) – the first section of which we cited in previous shiurim – addresses these questions, and writes, “Rachum is also an attribute of mercy, but not like the attribute [Havaya], for there are different kinds of mercies, as it says [in the Gemara] here – before repentance and after repentance.”  This comment does not provide an explanation for the term rachum, but simply proves that there exist different kinds of mercy.  Just as there are two distinct attributes of Havaya, one before the sin and one after the sin (and repentance), similarly, the attribute of rachum differs from the three preceding attributes.  We will return to this concept shortly; in the meantime, let us proceed to the attribute of chanun.  The aforementioned note to Tosefot continues:


Chanun likewise entails a different concept, for the attribute of compassion (rachum) applies when it is not a time of crisis; before the crisis surfaces, He has compassion so that it does not surface.  But chanun means that He shows grace during a time of distress to redeem the one who cries out, as it is written (Yeshayahu 30:19), “He shall assuredly show you grace, in response to the sound of your cry.”  This attribute means that as it were He has no choice but to show grace to the one who cries out even unjustifiably, as it is written (Shemot 22:26), “I shall listen [to the poor man’s cry], for I am gracious [chanun].”  Meaning, despite the fact that you [the lender] received the collateral legally, for you lent him your money, nevertheless, you must return it to him, for if he cries to Me, the attribute dictates that I must heed his cry, because I am chanun, and I cannot bear to see his suffering.


These comments are intended to explain the unique significance of the attribute of chanun, but from this explanation emerges as well a fundamental principle regarding rachum.  Relative to the attribute of chanun, the attribute of rachum has a rational basis.  What this means, I believe, is that there exists a logic of compassion within the attribute of rachum.  In our previous installments, we explained that the first attributes relate to allowing existence to continue despite sin, without any distinction drawn between one creature and another.  These attributes stem from the Almighty’s commitment to sustain the world and maintain an existence outside His own existence.  In contrast to this concept of general existence, rachum relates to individuals, to each person on his own.  The attribute of Havaya is based on the fact that God gives existence to everything, and this is likewise the implication of Kel.  These attributes relate to existence indiscriminately, simply by virtue of the fact that something exists and God wants it to exist; it does not take into account any specific creature.  However, at a certain point, these attributes do not suffice – and it is here when the attribute of rachum comes into play.


            We all intuitively realize that compassion is felt for one kind of a person and not another – even if both had committed the same offense.  There is a logic and a set of principles that govern compassion.  There is appropriate compassion, meaning, compassion that is justified, and there is improperly placed compassion.  The compassionate God takes the unique circumstances of each individual into account.  On the one hand, there is strict justice which relates exclusively to the transgression, without considering any other circumstances.  But then there is the attribute of compassion, which takes into account all kinds of “mitigating” factors.  We are familiar with such a concept from modern-day justice systems.  At the initial stage, a court convicts an offender based on nothing other than the actual facts surrounding the crime.  Thereafter, before the sentencing, claims are brought for the purpose of lightening the sentence.  The judge hears the testimony of character witnesses and psychological assessments, evaluates the defendant’s family situation and considers factors such as whether he was subject to certain pressures, suffered a difficult childhood, or enjoyed special privileges in other areas of life.  After taking all this into account, the judge reaches the decision of whether to lighten or even suspend the sentence.  Two people can commit the precise same offense, but one will receive a lighter sentence than the other because he is deemed worthy of compassion, while the other is not.


            It is incorrect to say that justice is based on reasoning while compassion is based upon irrational emotions.  Mercy, as we already emphasized in our previous installment, reflects truth no less than justice, and thus it, too, follows a certain logic, even if this logic cannot be easily described with clearly defined rules.


            Herein lies the basic difference between rachum and the previous attributes, and between rachum and chanun.  According to Tosefot, the term chanun refers to an attribute of mercy that is not based upon the rules, the logic, that characterize the attribute of rachumRachum will act to prevent the punishment.  But it might happen that even after all the circumstances are taken into account within the framework of compassion, the individual may still be deemed guilty and worthy of punishment.  The sentence is issued, and the punishment descends upon the offender, as the first four attributes have not succeeded in overturning the decree.  He then cries out in distress and anguish.  Even though “you received the collateral legally” – according to the “legality” of compassion, and the rules of divine logic justify the punishment – there is another attribute that cancels the punishment despite the fact it is warranted and justified – because he cries out, and God “has no choice, as it were,” but to show grace to one who cries out to Him.  Both the attribute of justice and the attribute of compassion agree to punish the sinner – but the Almighty is “compelled” to grant him a pardon simply because he cried out to Him: “I shall listen [to the poor man’s cry], for I am gracious.”  Of course, we must understand why God is gracious to one who cries out, once the logic of compassion dictates that compassion is unwarranted.  But for the time being, it suffices for us to define the attribute of chanun so that we can understand the attribute of rachum.  Compassion means introducing the rational considerations that warrant pitying the sinner instead of punishing him, according to its internal system of rules.  Once all the claims based upon compassion have been presented and found to be insufficient, the punishment comes.  The person has nothing else to do but to cry out – not to make any more claims in his defense, but to cry out.  His cries then evoke a different attribute, one which is not based upon logical claims, and does not need any such claims.


            This concept underlies an additional explanation that Tosefot give for the attribute of chanun, one which linguistically appears independent, but in truth expresses the precise same notion: “The term chanun also connotes an undeserved gift, as we say in Berakhot (6a), ‘I shall show grace to him to whom I show grace (Shemot 33:19) – even though he is unworthy’.”  Tosefot here associate the word chanun with the root chinam (“free,” or undeserved).  This attribute is extended to someone deemed “unworthy.”  This does not refer to somebody who did not sin, for such a person requires neither compassion nor grace.  Nor does this refer to a situation of mitigating circumstances.  Grace is shown to someone who is “unworthy,” who does not even deserve compassion according to the rules by which the heart determines whether or not to have mercy.  “Chanina” (“grace”) involves an “undeserved gift,” whether or not this is the literal meaning of the word, because chanina comes after no basis has been found for rachamanut (compassion).


            We may thus summarize the first four attributes as follows: Havaya gives existence to the world in accordance with the divine will, because God willed that there should be a world, that things should exist.  But when sin occurs, the initial will can no longer sustain existence.  The second attribute of Havaya then dictates that God creates the world anew, for He wills the existence of the world even if it contains sin.  But the existence of sin itself must then be sustained, and therefore the attribute of Kel “forcefully” sustains even the sin itself.  All these attributes work in relation to the world generally, in an indiscriminate manner.  But the sin endures, and so the attribute of rachum assesses each creature and finds a reason to have compassion for some of them due to special circumstances, in accordance with the rules of compassion.  Actually, an entire book is needed to enumerate the rules of compassion, to establish precisely which circumstances warrant compassion according to the internal logic of this attribute.  In truth, one book would hardly suffice; as opposed to strict justice, compassion is subject to an infinite number of variables.  In any event, although we will not start trying to write all these rules, it is clear to us, as compassionate people, that employing compassion depends upon certain logic and justifications.  As such, there will be sinners for whom all the justifications run out; they are pronounced guilty even after compassion is invoked.  They deserve punishment, but then another attribute comes along: “Then, when he cries out to Me, I shall listen – for I am gracious.”  The Almighty grants an “undeserved gift” to he who calls out to Him, and pardons his offense even without the justifications put forth by the attribute of compassion.


            Let us now endeavor to explain the attribute of chanun in its own right.  If indeed all the excuses and justifications are insufficient, why does God offer chanina?  Tosefot explain that chanina comes in response to a person’s cry.  All opportunities for compassion are gone, but the cry of the poor man trapped in the mire of distress and retribution causes the attribute of chanina to work on his behalf, without any valid reason.  His cries evoke the response of chanina.  How can we explain this?  Why should a person deserve grace simply because he cries?  Why should the one who exercises inner strength and self-control, and quietly endures the punishment rather than crying from pain, not earn chanina, while the hysterical person who erupts in tears as soon as the crisis befalls him deserves divine grace simply by virtue of his crying?  After all, we deal here with God, not some human tyrant whose objective is to break the spirits of the condemned offender.  Tosefot emphasize (adding the term “ke-veyakhol” – “as it were”) that God “has no choice” but to pardon the sinner. Divine logic does not agree to extend chanina; yet, nonetheless, the cries of distress "force" God to do that which He had already decided not to do.  What, then, causes this attribute to go into effect?


            In human experience, such a phenomenon would be interpreted as a sign of weakness.  I simply can no longer tolerate the crying, and so in order to free myself from it I give in – not because I want to, but because I have no other way of sparing myself this ordeal of hearing the cries.  However, as we already emphasized in the previous shiur, the divine attributes of mercy reflect strength, not weakness.  God’s attribute of chanun, too, stems from strength.  But if so, then why is the Almighty forced to show grace?  Why is He compelled to act against His will?


            I would like to propose a solution, though with some hesitation, as this subject is clearly very deep and of profound significance with regard to God’s relationship with human beings generally.  It seems to me that chanina stems from the fact that the King of kings, the Creator of heaven and earth, identifies with His creatures, specifically with the human being, who was created in His image.


            Let us begin by analyzing our responses to crying.  Why do I have pity on a child who cries after I decided to punish him?  For the sake of comparison, imagine that I am angry at my computer because it gives me problems.  I disconnect it, and then, in response, it wails and shrieks.  The computer’s cries of anguish would evoke no feelings of pity whatsoever, and would not deter me from proceeding with my harsh response to its wrongdoing.  But when a human being cries, when a child cries, I am incapable of bearing his pain, and I have no choice but to have pity.  Why?  The answer is simple: the human cry affects my heart because I sense, I hear, myself in his cry.  His cry reminds me – against my will – of that which we share in common, and hence his pain arouses my own pain.  In short, the cries arouse the human identification I sense with every other human being.  When he cries, I cry with him.  Indeed, this reflects an element of weakness, because this response is based on pain, on my suffering which results from my sharing in his suffering.  But this “weakness” is a good quality, because it stems from sensitivity.  The only way to overcome this sense of identification – besides shutting one’s ears – is to harden the heart so that it cannot feel or identify with the source of the crying.  This hardening of the heart would amount to sheer cruelty, even if it serves the purpose of justice.  This is a basic quality of people – we sympathize with those with whom we identify, for we share our humanity with them.  The joint human experience brings us into the pain of the sufferer and casts upon us the emotional, ethical need to alleviate the suffering and help our fellow.


            These feelings of sympathy and identification are extended to all human beings for we all share the common experience of humanity.  Can something similar be said about the King of the universe?  I believe that indeed it can, that the Almighty identifies with His creatures, for two reasons:


1)    Because He created them all; meaning, He invested effort into their existence.

2)    More importantly for our purposes, and perhaps more compellingly and correctly, He identifies with human beings because they were created in His image and form.  Man is created in the image of God, and this forms the basis for God’s sense of identification with His image.


We will not elaborate here on the precise meaning of this concept of “the image of God.”  I would like, however, to suggest a simple explanation which, I believe, must serve as the starting point for any in-depth discussion of this fundamental principle.  The term tzelem (“image”), with respect to anything created, refers to the plan according to which something was made.  The tzelem is the model, the work plans and technical specifications that describe the ideal which the item is intended to achieve.  If a person is created in the “image of God,” this means that the human being has no other ideal or limiting specification other than God Himself.  Everything else is defined by its existence – a dog can never be anything more than a dog – but the human being is defined in the present through his potential in the future, and his potential is God – it is limitless.  On the one hand, man is worth what he currently is; but on the other, he is defined by what he can become.


In relationships between people, mutual identification stems from the recognition that “But for the grace of God, there go I.”  With respect to God, it stems from the sentence, “There, by the grace of God, is someone who can reach the Throne of Glory.”  Just as I identify with the crying infant or suffering adult, because I can identify myself in his place, similarly, the Almighty identifies, as it were, with the person who sins and now finds himself in distress, because He identifies Himself, as it were, as the potential outcome of man’s existence.  I return now to the Talmud’s remark that has been accompanying us from the outset of this series: “Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say.”  The Almighty cannot be in man’s place, as a person can place himself in the position of another person who suffers.  Nevertheless, the Almighty sees Himself within the human being as an image, a model of that person’s perfection.  The fact that within a person there is the ideal of God, and the ability to strive to be like God, forms, in my mind, the basis for God’s sympathy for and identification with the human being.  Therefore, for our purposes, after divine justice has convicted the sinner, and after the divine attributes of compassion and kindness have found no reason to show mercy and reverse the sentence, nevertheless, his cries from his suffering and torment arouse personal identification, such that the Almighty cannot, as it were, bear to see the person suffering.  Even though punishment is warranted from all viewpoints – of both justice and kindness – there is an additional quality of kindness which arises not between the judge and the defendant, but rather between brothers, as it were, between those with a shared existence.  I assert that there is a shared existence between God, the Creator, and the human being who is created – because the human being is created in the divine image.  The person’s crying does not increase his suffering – he suffers even if he does not cry – but as a result of the cry, God is not only aware of his suffering, but also identifies with it; He senses it, as it were.


When Pharaoh enslaved and tormented Benei Yisrael in Egypt, the Almighty was of course aware of their suffering.  He knew, in the ordinary sense of the word, the facts, and weighed them in light of the principles of justice and kindness.  But when they cried out, “their pleas arose to God from the labor” (Shemot 2:23).  At that point, “God heard their groans… God saw the Israelites, and God knew” (ibid. 24-25).  The term “knowing” when used without an object refers to what we would call “feeling the pain.”  God “knew” in the sense of an inner feeling, just as “Adam knew his wife Chava” (Bereishit 4:1).  “Knowing” in this sense means being one with the object of that knowledge.  Benei Yisrael’s cries effected a change in God’s attitude towards them, for at that point, “God knew.”  The same is true regarding everyone who cries: “Then, when he cries out to Me, I shall listen – for I am gracious.”  The attribute of chanina means God’s identification and sense of oneness with the distress experienced by a creature created in His image.


As I write this, I am overtaken by awe.  Is this possible?  I, too, prefer to hide behind a protective wall to shield me from these daring concepts presented by Tosefot, and to add the word “ke-veyakhol.”  It is only “ke-veyakhol” that God senses the pain, and “ke-veyakhol” that He cannot bear to see somebody’s suffering.  Whatever the true, metaphysical explanation is, the basic concept is that of identification, knowing, a sense of oneness.  Let us therefore read once again the conclusion of the sentence in the Gemara that begins with, “Had the verse not been written”: “The Almighty wrapped Himself as a sheli’ach tzibur.”  When we recite the thirteen attributes of mercy, the Almighty is the sheli’ach tzibur; He is alongside us, the worshippers, and not on the other side, as the one listening to the prayers.  We suggested one explanation for this comment in our introductory essay.  Here, in the context of the attribute of chanun, an additional explanation arises.  God is the sheli’ach tzibur for the recitation of chanun, He is part of the tzibur, part of our community – for this is the attribute which equates, as it were, us with Him.  This attribute works because He does not judge our suffering, but rather shares in it – “imo Anokhi ve-tzara” (“I am with him in distress” – Tehillim 91:15).  He prays, as it were, for the crisis not to surface, because it also affects Him, as it were.  I am the sinner and He is the forgiver – but when it comes to crying and distress, I am the sufferer and He, as it were, suffers with me.  This is a most profound concept in Judaism.  Alongside the infinite difference and distance that separates God from man, we recognize as well God’s identification with man.  This is the concept of tzelem Elokim.  We can proceed to debate the full meaning of this concept from now until eternity, but we cannot escape the basic point that this concept establishes: man is not God, but he is made in the image and form of God, he lives with the constant ambition and drive toward divine perfection.  I contend that this point leads to chanina, an “undeserved gift.”  It sounds like favoritism and discrimination on God’s part toward those created in His image, as though the Almighty looks out for His own best interests.  And this is exactly what it is – and this is an attribute of kindness.


The Almighty wants to execute justice.  He wants to show mercy.  But in addition, God has the desire and the need to minimize the suffering, even suffering that is justified from the standpoint of justice and mercy, because all suffering is the suffering of the divine image, and God identifies with the sufferer and his suffering.  Meaning, even if the Almighty does not wish to lessen the punishment, as this would be unjust according to the rules of compassion, He nevertheless wishes to reduce the suffering, because He is gracious.  If it would be possible to punish without causing pain, there would be no need for the attribute of chanina.  But suffering is an inherent part of punishment, and therefore the attribute of chanina must supersede the attribute of justice, which it does even when the attribute of compassion does not suffice.


If this is the correct understanding of chanun, then it requires special concentration and awareness as one recites this attribute in prayer.  As I clarified during our study of the previous attributes, each attribute is accompanied by a special awareness on the part of the worshipper, which is based upon his role as the “chariot” bearing that divine Name.  According to the approach proposed here, one who recites the Name of chanun must cry out from suffering and torment.  Serving as a basis for the manifestation of this attribute means that one presents before God the suffering in the world in a manner that arouses identification – and thus the worshipper, too, must identify with the suffering; he must feel it, “know” it, and truly sense why God is “compelled” to alleviate the pain of the sufferer.



When a person declares, “rachum,” he says: “Look at the mitigating circumstances that arouse compassion toward my personal situation.”  But when he declares, “chanun,” he says: “True, I have nothing to justify a lightening of the sentence, but please, our Father, it hurts me!  It hurts!”  When a child runs to his father after he has fallen, he does not think of all the logical reasons why his father should have pity on him.  He simply cries out and his father, with a primordial instinct, shares in his pain.  This quality must originate from the depths of one’s heart, from the depths of one’s suffering.  It originates from the most simple and basic place within a person: I am not smart, I don’t understand, I can’t have any sophisticated intentions, but I just cry, “Ah!”  To whom do we turn when we feel pain, if not to our Father in the heavens?  And our Father, when He hears the cries of His children, of those who bear His Name and His identity, cannot bear their pain and suffering: “Then, when he cries out to Me, I shall listen – for I am gracious.”