Mercy or Pity
As Moshe prayed to
In his commentary to Exodus, Rabbeinu Bachaya writes that rachum and chanun represent
We can discern the difference between rachum and chanun by way of an analogy in human interactions, specifically by looking at the relationship between a victim and one who has the power to save him. In that relationship the word chanun focuses on the victim, while the word rachum focuses on the savior. Chanun denotes the idea of the victim finding “favor” (chein) in the eyes of the savior (when talking about
Other commentators offer other ways of differentiating between these two terms, and what follows is a brief potpourri of such explanations:
- Rabbi Yosef Bechor-Shor writes that rachum is for the poor because it denotes mercy and the decision to help save one from his dismal situation, while chanun is for the rich because it simply denotes granting somebody a present, regardless of how dire his situation is.
- A gloss to Tosefot (Rosh Hashana 17b) explains that the word rachamim denotes a form of clemency whereby
G-dwithholds a calamity from befalling an individual, while the word chanun denotes G-dgranting someone a special reprieve while he is in the midst of distress.
- Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms explains that rachum denotes acting with mercy beyond that which is required by the letter of the law, while chanun denotes using the system of justice to heed another’s call for clemency. Nonetheless, others explain the opposite: the trait of rachum is only applied to one who asks for mercy, while chanun is even if one does not request mercy.
- Rabbeinu Bachaya writes that rachamim is
G-d’s general way of overseeing the world, while chanun is His way of specifically overseeing each element of Creation.
- Rabbi Avraham bar Chaim Ibn Ramoch (in his commentary to Psalms 86:16, 112:4, and 145:8) — who lived in Spain at the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition — writes that rachum refers to saving another from any form of suffering, while chanun refers to granting him intellectual gifts (which allow him to help himself).
The Malbim discusses two more words (which do not appear as part of
Chus refers to having mercy on something out of a refusal to allow it to be destroyed because then he will lose whatever benefit he gains from that item/person/entity. The first word of the phrase chas v’shalom (loosely translated as “G-d forbid” or “Heaven forefend”) is a conjugation of the word chus. The word chemlah is a form of pity that one refuses to allow something/someone’s destruction because of an innate quality of that thing/person. That quality could be some form of aesthetic beauty or another perceived type of completion, which one does not want to see ruined. As Rabbi Wertheimer points out, the concept of chemlah as pity can be applied to pitying he who does not have the ability to ask for help (e.g., a child or somebody lacking the mental capacities to ask for help).
- L'iluy Nishmat my mother Bracha bat R' Dovid and my grandmother Shprintza bat R' Meir