In addition to the challenge of “kamokha”, many find it difficult to know how to react to a commandment that seems to address itself to an emotion, demanding “love” toward another. In reality, though, this commandment is interpreted on a level that is more outwardly demonstrable. The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) renders it into Aramaic as mah d’alakh sni l’chavr’kha lo ta’avid – “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.” Thus, many understand the commandment in this manner, as focused on refraining from negative behavior toward another. (See Chiddushei Maharsha and Maharatz Chayes to Shabbat; note the translation of R. Yonatan b. Uziel. Note also Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham, Orach Chaim 156). As the Ramban (Commentary to Vayikra) explains, it is problematic to obligate a person to attend to the needs of others on a level equal to the attention he gives to his own needs, or “as himself.” A similar comment is made by Tosafot (Sanhedrin 45a, s.v. Bror). Beyond the practical challenge of such absolute magnanimity, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a ) has explicitly recognized that a person must give precedence to his own vital necessities, as is stated “your life comes first.”
Another reason it might be assumed that the commandment is focused on avoiding the negative is suggested by R. Moshe Avigdor Amiel (L’Nevukhei HaTekufah, Sha’ar 2:32. See also R. Meir Leibush Malbim, HaTorah V’HaMitzvah, and R. Ya’akov Kaminetsky, Emet L’Ya’akov, to Parshat Kedoshim.). Were a person to limit his service to others to that which he wishes for himself, it is possible that severe discrepancies could exist between an individual and other members of society, sharply curtailing his sense of communal responsibility. Therefore, the Torah left it for other mitzvot to describe the parameters of such service, while this verse focuses on restricting harmful activity. R. Joseph D. Epstein (Mitzvot HaMussar, pp. 211-214) suggests that even the previously cited authorities would agree that this imperative demands active behavior as well; however, the commandment is only demonstrably transgressed when a person allows harm to befall his fellow. In this spirit, the Yad Ramah (Bava Batra 2:107) and the R. Shlomo Luria (Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kama 10:23) attributed to this verse the injunction against damaging another’s property. Within this general understanding, performing any act that one would not wish upon oneself places one in defiance of this commandment. (See, however, Orach Mishpat, Choshen Mishpat 26) Contemporary authors have included examples such as eavesdropping in this category (See R. Aharon Grossman, Responsa V’Darashta V’Chakarta (1, Yoreh Deah, 46). R. Natan Gestetner (Responsa L’Horot Natan 4:129. See also his commentary to Pirkei Avot 1:9, where other practical applications of this commandment in the monetary arena are discussed. Note also Orach Mishpat, ibid) rules that every moment behavior in violation of this commandment is continued, an additional violation is incurred. However, there is some discussion as to whether one violates this commandment if the behavior is motivated by innocent, non-malicious concerns (See R. Uri Jungreiss, in the journal Torat HaAdam L’Adam, vol. 4, pp. 118-32.).
Another possibility existing among commentaries may be that the commandments contains two branches: one, a prohibitive function, as described above, as well as an active element, that commands an emotional “love”, but does not necessarily obligate behavior.[ This view may be associated with the Yereim (Sefer Yereim HaShalem, 224) and the Chinnukh (219).] Yet another possibility, consistent with the words of the Ramban, would assert that the commandment addresses itself to an attitude of generosity toward another, concerning one’s self with another’s welfare with the same care one has for one’s own (rather than obligating one to actually provide that welfare to the same degree as he acquires his own).
To the Rambam, however, this imperative apparently takes on a more active nature. In his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Deiot 6:3; See also Targum Onkelos to Vayikra, and R. Eliyahu of Vilna, Biur HaGra to Torat Kohanim) he codifies this commandment as requiring “that each person love every individual of Israel as himself, as it says, ‘love your neighbor as yourself’; therefore, he must speak his praise, and worry about his money as he worries about his own and wishes for his own honor.” In his Sefer HaMitzvot (positive commandment 206), he adds that as an aspect of this love, “and whatever will be in his control, if he wants it for himself, I want it also; and whatever I want for myself, I want [R. Chaim Heller, in his edition of Sefer HaMitzvot, also includes “and whatever I hate for myself, or for one close to me, I will hate for him as well] for him as well.” In addition, the Rambam also traces to this imperative a biblical commandment to engage in acts of loving kindness (Hilkhot Aveil 14:1). However, he considers the specific examples that he lists, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and so forth, to be rabbinic incarnations.
As noted, though, adopting an affirmative commandment in this instance is difficult due to the seemingly unattainable nature of “kamokha”, making the Rambam’s position surprising. The Netziv (Ha’amek Davar to Vayikra), sensitive to this, suggests that the Rambam does not mean to obligate one to do for another as he would do for himself, rather one should do for another as one would want that other to do for them. R. Yisrael Meir Lau (Responsa Yachel Yisrael, III, 3:31), combining the Rambam’s words about acts of kindness with the Netziv’s suggestion, posits that the affirmative requirements of this commandment are all rabbinical in obligation, and, because of the rule of “your life comes first,” the rabbis were limited to a formulation like that of the Netziv.
Some contemporary authors [See, in the journal Torat HaAdam L’Adam, vol. 4, R. Moshe Miernik (pp. 60-77), and R. David Ariav (pp. 96-8), who adduces evidence from the writings and citations of the Chazon Ish, R. Yehoshua Leib Diskin, and R. Chaim Kanievsky] suggest that perhaps the Rambam perceives a two-tiered commandment. One element, the prohibitive one, is absolute and mandatory. The second, the active component, is voluntary in nature. Known in halachic terminology as a mitzvah kiyumit (as contrasted with a mitzvah chiyuvit), this category would indicate that behavior in this area is a fulfillment of the goal of the commandment, without being mandatory in nature. (In other words, declining to behave in this manner would not incur any guilt or implications of negligence.) As is noted by proponents of this theory, adopting such an interpretation of the Rambam’s position would leave the practical difference between his opinion and that of other authorities very narrow, if at all existent.
R. J. David Bleich (in Y’kara D’Chaim [memorial volume for R. Chaim Ya’akov Goldvicht], pp. 85-89) explains that the comments in Mishneh Torah and those in Sefer HaMitzvot are to be taken as a sort of progression. In its essence, the imperative of loving one’s neighbor is centered on treating another as one would oneself, as he writes in Mishneh Torah. However, that has some limitations, in that one may not wish for oneself, were one in a comparable situation, that which one’s friend feels he currently needs. Therefore, he adds in Sefer HaMitzvot that it is incumbent on the individual to strive to develop this sensitivity to another’s concerns, so that they become identical with his own, at which point they will become a part of the central obligation of love. However, as this may not automatically be the case, the Rabbis found it necessary to specifically command visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and the like, in the event that a person may feel that were he sick or bereaved, he would not want visitors. If this individual has not yet developed the complete sense of mutual identification, his sense of love will not yet motivate him to take up these activities; thus, a rabbinic command is needed (see also R. Moshe Shternbuch, Moadim U’Zmanim 5:346, and R. Yitzchak Shmuel Schechter, Shut Yashiv Yitzchak, 3:31.)
R. Eliyahu Bakshi Doron (Responsa Binyan Av 3:78, and in the journal Torah SheB’Al Peh 36:33-40) uses this concept of an ongoing development within this commandment to explain the Rambam’s comment that one must express one’s love to the other by “speaking his praise.” The Torah commands love not just in relation to one’s fellow but also toward God. In delineating this commandment (Sefer HaMitzvot, positive commandment 3), the Rambam writes that the development of that love comes through the study of, and the involvement in, His Torah and His creations. By focusing on the Divine majesty, one nourishes one’s love for God. So, too, speaking the praises of one’s fellow man will foster a sense of brotherly respect and love.
R. Sha’ar Yashuv Cohen (in Torah SheB’Al Peh 36:45-57) focuses on this comparison as well and suggests that both commandments of love are representative of the principle that often the Torah directs a mitzvah at the emotions by working through actions. It is indeed true that one cannot be ordered how to feel; thus, all such imperatives that have such aspirations are centered on performable actions, as a means to an end. In this spirit is the comment of the Derekh Eretz Zuta: “If you wish to attach yourself to love of your fellow, you should [involve yourself in actions that are] in his benefit.”
Thus, the imperative of love demands that, at a minimum, one be protective of another to the extent that one is of oneself, if not actually requiring that one foster another with the same level of active attention, a position also with substantial support. The HaK’tav V’HaKabballah to Vayikra lists a number of practical manifestations, some of which are explicitly included in other commandments, and others whose primary home is this verse. Among these are displaying genuine affection; giving respectful treatment; seeking other’s best interests; feeling sincere empathy; showing expressions of friendship and joy in greeting one another; giving the benefit of the doubt; providing financial, physical, and practical assistance; and taking care not to express, or to feel, condescension.
R. David Cohen (Birkat Yaavetz, vol. 1, pp. 45-52), in his discussion of obligations emanating from this commandment, offers another suggestion as to why R. Akiva terms the imperative “a great principle in Torah.” He notes a fundamental distinction between interpersonal commandments and those that are between Man and G-d. The latter category tends toward absolute rules; while interpersonal laws are often situational and those given to exceptions. The reason for this is that the “principle” of “Love your neighbor as yourself” stands as an overarching concept, rather than a specific law, and exists to provide a goal point that will affect the ultimate application of all the laws that relate to it.