Torah Study > Chapter 3: Mishpat vs. Tzedek

Judaism weaves the ideal of justice into the very fabric of creation. Like all ideals however, justice has value only when it is lived out in daily life. In many cases the pursuit of justice comes at a price, and each individual needs to determine whether he or she will pay that price. Classical Jewish sources have provided Jews with guidance on such matters throughout the generations. In this chapter and those which follow, we will probe the meaning of some of these texts.

The Hebrew word tzedek is usually translated as “justice,” yet, like many translations, this one is not completely satisfactory. There are nuances of meaning that are important to understand as Hebrew has several words that are related to the concept of justice. In this section we will use the word tzedek in its Hebrew form and use a variety of texts to explore the richness of the concept without restricting it into a single English word. The framing exercise and six texts presented below explore Jewish perspectives on the idea of justice.


TEXT 1: Betrothal (Hosea, Ch. 2)

TEXT 2: These are the Mishpatim (Exodus, Ch. 21)

TEXT 3: Liability (Mishna, Bava Kama 8:1)

TEXT 4: When Breaking the Law is Keeping the Law (Babylonian Talmud,
Sanhedrin 46a)

TEXT 5: Beyond the Letter of the Law (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Mitzia 83a)

TEXT 6: Right of Way (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 32b)


> Ask the participants to define justice.
> Is it a system of laws? A way of behaving? An attitude? All of the above?
> Who is responsible for justice? Preserving it? Defining it? Enforcing it?
> Ask the participants to talk about the last time they were involved in an act of justice.

You may get answers which anticipate the paragraph below, indicating the two
different forms of justice: tzedek and mishpat. If not, acknowledge the answers
you get, and then ask the participants to keep their minds open for an addittional
way to understand the concept of justice.

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Hillel

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