Society cannot function by only following the letter of the law
A Jewish religious court of law is called “Beth Din” in Hebrew; House of Judgement.
You will often see “Beth Din Zedek” written on the stamp of approval issued by a Jewish religious court of law; it means “House of Judgement (Din) and Justice (Zedek)”; (בית דין צדק).
A Jewish religious court is passing judgement to seek justice. It is easy to pass on judgement, it is harder to reach justice. Can the two go hand in hand? Let’s have a look.
In the Babylonian Talmud – also pronounced “Talmud Bavli” – in the tractate Sanhedrin in the chapter Dinei Mammonos on page 6 a & b, there is an interesting conversation revealing the essence of Judaism. In Dinei Mammonos the rabbis are discussing how to rule financial disputes; mammon means money.
The Talmud says: “Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Korchah says: Where there is judgement there is no peace, and where there is peace there is no judgement.” The Talmud is referring to a court case, where the plaintiff (person filing a lawsuit) had won the case, but there was no peace, because the other person, the defendant (person sued or “accused” in a civil case) had lost the case; the court had ruled the defendant had to pay a large sum of money he was unable to pay.
Ben Korchah continues by quoting Samuel 2 (8:15): “King David reigned over all of Israel; David administered the rule of law (Mishpat) and justice (Zedakah) to his entire people.”
It is worth noting that the Hebrew word “Zedakah” is used in this verse in Samuel 2 (8:15) in the Hebrew Torah (Old Testament), and not the word “Zedek”, which means justice. The word “Zedakah” is perceived as charity; acts of kindness. The Torah is not using the word “Zedek” as in “Beth Din Zedek” (צדק), but “Zedakah” (צדקה), which is closer to “acts of kindness”.
Ben Korchah brings his conclusion: “Where there is judgement there is no justice, and where there is justice there is no judgement.” So, the two cannot go hand in hand? But how come David was able to combine the two?
Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Rabbi Yossi from the Galilee, clarifies: ”If two parties tried a case in King David’s court of law, and David concluded the defendant was guilty, and the plaintiff was innocent, and the court had ruled the defendant to pay a sum of money, but the guilty person was a poor person unable to pay, then David would pay the plaintiff out of his own pocket; that’s what is meant in Samuel 2 (8:15) when saying, ‘David gave both judgement and justice to his entire people’.”
David gave judgement to the one who received compensation according to the court’s ruling; and justice to the other who was unable to pay by David paying out of his own pocket.
The two parties engaged in a dispute must renounce something they consider themselves to be the rightful owner of; such situation would not be a case of strict ruling, but a case of a compromise being made.
Where there is compromise there is peace, and where there is peace there is wisdom.
Pardons sin and forgives the transgression (נשא עון ועבר על פשע)
Many associate forgiveness with Christianity, and less with Judaism. But forgiveness is deeply rooted in Judaism. The prophet Micah is talking about the attributes of kindness of the Jewish God (Elokim). In Micah 7:18, Micah says: “Who is God like You (Elokim), who pardons sin and forgives the transgression (נשא עון ועבר על פשע) for the remnant of his legacy.” (Legacy in this context: To be remembered for what you have contributed to the world).
In the tractate Rosh Hashanah 17a, Rava says: “He who forgoes his right [to exact punishment] is forgiven all his sins, as it says in Micah 7:18, … pardons sin and forgives the transgression…” The Talmudic commentators Rif and Rabbeinu Chananel clarifies Rava’s statement: “If a person makes full teshuva, a decree (Gezera) from Heaven will be annulled. That’s the power of teshuva (repentance).” The commentator Maharsha clarifies: “The person who renounce his right to exact punishment when bad acts are done against him, will be pardoned all his sins, because as it is written, …pardons sin and forgives the transgression…”
A Talmudic story: Rav Papa and Rav Huna
There is a Talmudic aggada, a tale, about Rav Huna, the son of Rabbi Yehosua, who once became deadly sick. (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 17a).
Rav Huna’s condition suddenly became very critical, and the end was near. Rav Papa visited Rav Huna’s home to hear about Rav Huna’s condition. When Rav Papa was standing next to Rav Huna’s bed, he could see that Rav Huna was critically ill. Rav Papa said to the family: ”Make Rav Huna ready for his journey.” And they started making funeral preparations and dressed Rav Huna in white clothes.
But Rav Huna did not die as Rav Papa had predicted. After a while Rav Huna slowly and gradually recovered. When Rav Huna had fully recovered from his sickness, Rav Papa was a bit embarrassed over visiting Rav Huna, because Rav Papa had given Rav Huna a wrong judgement that Rav Huna would die. Eventually Rav Papa managed to overcome his embarrassment, and visited Rav Huna. Rav Papa asked out of curiosity: “What did you “see” while you were sick and in coma?” Rav Huna answered: “It was indeed as you had predicted and judged, but then suddenly the Almighty – the blessed One – said to the angels: ‘Since Rav Huna does not demand exact punishment, since he forgoes his right to exact punishment, do not be too particular with him on the punishment of his own sins, because as it is written: The person who pardons sin done against him, will have his own sins walk away from him.’”
And Rav Huna was given many extra years to live.
A Talmudic story: Benjamin Hatzadik
In another place in The Babylonian Talmud, in the tractate Bava Basra 11a, there is a story about Benjamin Hatzadik.
Benjamin Hatzadik was appointed administrator of the local community-welfare purse. After a long time of drought and severe hunger in Israel, a single mother knocked at Benjamin’s door and asked for help. She said to Benjamin: “Dear Sir, please support me.” Benjamin answered her: “I swear by the Holy Temple that I am speaking the truth; there are no money left in the public purse.” The single mother continued crying for help: “My Lord, if you do not support me, then a woman with her seven sons will die!” Benjamin now realised how dire her situation was, and he did what he could to help the single mother by taking money from his own private purse; but Benjamin wasn’t rich, and he also had a large family to support during the severe famine.
The single mother and all her sons survived the famine. Sometime after the famine, Benjamin became critically ill, and the end was near. While Benjamin was in deep coma, angels from the highest realms said to the Almighty: “Master of the Universe, you have once said, The person who supports one soul from Israel, it is as if he supports the entire world – and Benjamin Hatzadik sustained a woman and her seven sons during a famine by the means of his own private purse, shall he die after so few years?” Immediately the decree was torn apart in the Court of Heaven.
Benjamin was granted another 22 years, and then he finally died.
The power of charity
The power of charity – Zedakah (“acts of kindness”) – is very strong and is the mechanics that can absolve bad karma. The medieval commentator Rashi says: “If a rich person gives money to charity (“Zedakah”) purely out of selfish motivation, such as his children may be granted a long life, then he is still to be considered a completely righteous person (Tzadik gamur). He does not have to give money to charity wholeheartedly (Be’lev shalem).”
We can today only speculate about the motivation for acts of kindness at King David’s court of law, but as Rashi would have said: it doesn’t make King David less righteous, even if David had ulterior motives for granting Zedakah.
Article written by Benjamin Kurzweil, London, Britain. (Updated April 2, 2019)