I once heard the following idea, and I'm wondering what is the source for it.

Avraham was the pillar of chesed. His son Yishmael was rejected as being part of the Jewish people. Chazal say that Yishmaelites are steeped in illicit relations. This is because he is the corruption of his father's chesed. We see this idea when the Torah says regarding incest with a sister:

וְאִ֣ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִקַּ֣ח אֶת־אֲחֹת֡וֹ בַּת־אָבִ֣יו א֣וֹ בַת־אִ֠מּוֹ וְרָאָ֨ה אֶת־עֶרְוָתָ֜הּ וְהִֽיא־תִרְאֶ֤ה אֶת־עֶרְוָתוֹ֙ חֶ֣סֶד ה֔וּא וְנִ֨כְרְת֔וּ לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י עַמָּ֑ם עֶרְוַ֧ת אֲחֹת֛וֹ גִּלָּ֖ה עֲוֺנ֥וֹ יִשָּֽׂא׃

The Torah calls it chesed. This is a corrupt form of it, and Yishmael embodies it.

Where can I find this idea? The closest thing I found is the Radak explains that chesed is either increasing good to another or increasing immortality (זנות) with another, which might mean what I'm saying, but I'm looking for the Yishmael idea.

3 Answers 3


Rabbi Zaddoq HaKohen of Lublin writes this in P'ri Zaddiq (Qedushat Shabbat: Ma'amar 4):

וזהו מדת אברהם אבינו ע"ה איש החסד שמפסולתו יצא ישמעאל המלא בתאוות דגילוי עריות דכתיב בהו חסד הוא שהוא פסולת החסד כידוע

And this is the trait of our forefather Abraham OBM the man of hessed (kindness) from whose p'solet (dregs) Ishmael emerged, full of his lusts of illicit relations, about which are written (Leviticus 20:17) "it is hessed".

he writes similarly elsewhere such as P'ri Zaddiq (Quntres Amala Shel Torah: Ot 5), P'ri Zaddiq (Parashat Vayishlah), and P'ri Zaddiq (Parashat Vayetse: Ot 7).

A slightly earlier source is Torat Hayyim (Parashat Tol'dot pg. 290) of R. DovBer, the "Mittler Rebbe" of Lubavitch, which states that Yishmael had a corrupted version of Abraham's kindness. Note also the writings of his father R. Schneur Zalman if Liadi (Ketavim Vol. II pg. 83).

More recently, rabbi Aharon Lopiansky references this in his Time Pieces page 266. He suggests that Ishmael corrupted Abraham's trait of kindness, leading to such activities as theft and licentiousness.

  • Rabbi Zaddoq discusses this elsewhere as well. Kudos to someone for the last source.
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 26, 2017 at 6:32
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    @robev Check out the edit...
    – mevaqesh
    Dec 26, 2017 at 18:57
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    Thanks - this idea appears in various Chassidic texts, with Rabbi Tzaddok possibly being the main one. I heard once - in the name of Rav Nachman Bulman Zt'l - that prior to the Messianic era, Ya'akov will unite with the pure side of Eisav and overcome Yishma'el. Subsequently, Ya'akov will unite with the pure side of Yishma'el. In that way, the sparks of holiness within each (Chesed and Gevurah) will be incorporated back into Ya'akov (Tiferet). (At least, that's how I remember it being put - but it was some years back.) Does anyone know if a textual source for that idea?
    – Peter
    Nov 13, 2023 at 17:48

The idea presented almost exactly as you describe it can be found in Michtav M'Eliyahu vol. 2 pages 164-165. On page 165, he describes how Yishma'el is the corruption, or waste material, of his father's chesed (he cites Medrash Sifri Vezos Haberacha as support).

He describes that Yishma'el's chesed was chesed which was flipped to chesed of impurity, namely illicit relationships. This happens when chesed is unbridled and has no limitations set on it, no curtailing through a counterbalance of gevurah. We see this idea from the Torah's description of illicit relations as "חסד הוא" - reproduction is in and of itself a great chesed, as one is enabling existence itself to the following generation. However, when it has no limitations and leaves the context in which it is meant to be performed, it reduces to plain and simple lust at best, and to sin after that.

  • Thanks, very helpful. FYI he doesn't bring Sifrei as a support that Yishmael is specifically pesoles of chesed, just that he was considered pesoles
    – robev
    Dec 27, 2017 at 3:40
  • @robev That's correct, he cites the Sifri that Avraham and Yitzchok had pesoles. Dec 27, 2017 at 20:37

Chabad of the West Side discusses this concept in Parshas Vayechi

Chassidic thought explains that Abraham was the personification of the Divine attribute of chesed-kindness and love. Isaac, on the other hand, was the embodiment of the trait of gevurah-strength, which incorporates awe, judgment and discipline. These traits manifested themselves in the way Abraham and Isaac served G‑d and the way they dealt with others. Abraham served G‑d with love; Isaac with awe; Abraham spread his light outward; Isaac turned inward and introspective. Abraham showered hospitality and love; Isaac demanded high standards.

Chesed and love, Abraham’s attributes, and likewise Isaac’s attribute of gevurah, while positive and holy when they were manifested through Abraham and Isaac, can actually be the source of negativity as they emerge from their source.

To cite a few examples:

Exaggerated kindness to a child or student can often lead to an atmosphere of permissiveness. Giving alcohol to an alcoholic who pleads for it may outwardly come through as an act of kindness but it is just as negative an act as assaulting that person.

The emotion of love, which motivates acts of kindness, can also lead to immoral behavior.

Indeed, the Talmud states that incest is referred to in the Torah as chesed. This is explained in the Talmud by referring to Cain and Abel’s incestuous marriage to their twin sisters through which they populated the world; an act ultimately forbidden and regarded as deeply immoral and a heinous crime. Hence, the Talmud says, we can understand what the Psalmist means when he stated “The world was created with chesed!”

Chesed is, therefore, necessarily situational. There are times when it is considered to be the most exalted and cherished aspects of human personality and at other times it can mark the nadir of depravity.

Thus, our Sages underscore that Yishmael departed from Abraham and Esau departed from Isaac. Yishmael personified the chesed and love of Abraham but in its degenerate form and Esau was an extension of Isaac’s gevurah as he sank into violence. While they inherited their fathers’ characteristics of chesed and gevurah, respectively, they channeled them into the realm of evil.

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    Great, but what source do they mean by "Chassidic thought"? I'm not sure I'd call this publication a source, as they're just summarizing something else. But I'm glad to see I wasn't imagining this.
    – robev
    Dec 26, 2017 at 4:42

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