Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
THIS chapter treats of the meaning of three terms which we find necessary to explain, viz., ḥesed ("loving kindness"), mishpat ("judgment"), and ẓedakah ("righteousness").
In our Commentary on the Sayings of the Fathers (chap. v. 7) we have explained the expression ḥesed as denoting an excess [in some moral quality]. It is especially used of extraordinary kindness. Loving-kindness is practised in two ways: first, we show kindness to those who have no claim whatever upon us; secondly, we are kind to those to whom it is due, in a greater measure than is due to them. In the inspired writings the term ḥesed occurs mostly in the sense of showing kindness to those who have no claim to it whatever. For this reason the term ḥesed is employed to express the good bestowed upon us by God: "I will mention the loving-kindness of the Lord" (Isa. lxiii. 7). On this account, the very act of the creation is an act of God's loving-kindness. "I have said, The Universe is built up in loving-kindness" (Ps. lxxxix. 3); i.e., the building up of the Universe is an act of loving-kindness. Also, in the enumeration of God's attributes, Scripture says: "And abundant in loving-kindness" (Exod. xxxiv. 6).
The term ẓedakah is derived from ẓedek, "righteousness"; it denotes the act of giving every one his due, and of showing kindness to every being according as it deserves. In Scripture, however, the expression ẓedakah is not used in the first sense, and does not apply to the payment of what we owe to others. When we therefore give the hired labourer his wages, or pay a debt, we do not perform an act of ẓedakah. But we do perform an act of ẓedakah when we fulfil those duties towards our fellow-men which our moral conscience imposes upon us; e.g., when we heal the wound of the sufferer. Thus Scripture says, in reference to the returning of the pledge [to the poor debtor]: "And it shall be ẓedakah (righteousness) unto thee" (Deut. xxiv. 11). When we walk in the way of virtue we act righteously towards our intellectual faculty, and pay what is due unto it; and because every virtue is thus ẓedakah, Scripture applies the term to the virtue of faith in God. Comp. "And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him as righteousness" (Gen. xv. 6); "And it shall be our righteousness" (Deut. vi. 25).
The noun mishpat, "judgment," denotes the act of deciding upon a certain action in accordance with justice which may demand either mercy or punishment.
We have thus shown that ḥesed denotes pure charity; ẓedakah kindness, prompted by a certain moral conscience in man, and being a means of attaining perfection for his soul, whilst mishpat may in some cases find expression in revenge, in other cases in mercy.
In discussing the impropriety of admitting attributes of God (Part I., chap. liii., seq.), we stated that the divine attributes which occur in Scripture are attributes of His actions; thus He is called ḥasid, "kind," because He created the Universe; ẓaddik, "righteous," on account of His mercy with the weak, in providing for every living being according to its powers; and shofet, "judge," on account of the relative good and the great relative evils that are decreed by God's justice as directed by His wisdom. These three names occur in the Pentateuch: "Shall not the judge (shofet) of all the earth," etc. (Gen. xviii. 25); "Righteous (ẓaddik) and upright is he" (Deut. xxxii. 4); "Abundant in loving-kindness" (ḥesed, Exod. xxxiv. 6).
We intended in explaining these three terms to prepare the reader for the next chapter.