Word of the Day / Gemah: Turning Hand-me-downs Into Acts of Kindness

These organizations that lend out clothing or kids' toys or sometimes even loans operate mainly in the ultra-Orthodox world.

Borrowing the used clothes of unknown people may seem primarily like a save the Earth thing, or maybe a bad economy thing, but it is also very much a Jewish thing.

Organizations that lend out used clothing – as well as other items, like children’s toys, eyeglasses and baby bathtubs – are common in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world, especially among the ultra-Orthodox. In the singular, an organization of this sort is called a gemah (ge-MAKH), an acronym of gemilut hesed or gemilut hasadim, literally “bestowing of kindness.” Since many gemilut hesed societies have historically given out interest-free loans, the term can also sometimes refer to the loan itself.

The Mishna refers to this form of charity in Ethics of the Fathers: “On three things the world stands: On Torah, on service [of God] and on acts of human kindness [gemilut hasadim].”

In the Diaspora, gemahs (or gemahim, to use the Hebrew plural) have been used to help Jews when they were minorities or recent immigrants who needed all the help they could get.

Nowadays they often provide goods as well. In Israel (and elsewhere), they offer items that are needed only briefly. A list of Israeli gemahs reads something like a list of Jewish lifecycle events: wedding dresses, maternity clothes, breast pumps, pillows for brit milah ceremonies, and the low chairs on which Jewish mourners traditionally sit. Sometimes what’s being offered is a service: rides to a hospital, a lost-and-found in a Haredi neighborhood.

Unlike many gemahs, there is a Chabad-run one in Herzliya that presumably targets the non-religious; the objects it supplies are tefillin. 

But if what you’re looking for is cool vintage clothing or a sparkly little cocktail dress you can wear for the evening and return the next day, don’t get too excited about this Jewish Freecycle network. Since many of these gemahim operate in the ultra-Orthodox world,you’ll probably come back with a lot more fabric than you bargained for. Then again, if you’re a candidate for that eyeglasses gemah, maybe you won’t even notice.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.