On Root / In Hebrew, There's a Fine Line Between Charity and Justice

It's no wonder that when the Torah emphasizes the importance of actively fulfilling the core value of justice, it repeats it twice.

Usually this column takes a common Hebrew root or roots, and discusses the variations and nuances of their multiple manifestations. This week we'll look at one that has just a few familiar words related to it.

Just indeed: The Hebrew root tz-d-k means "just" or "justice" – and it has indeed only a few main, but very important, forms used in Hebrew throughout the ages.

Justice, not just us

The main noun form from this root is tzedek, "justice" (or sometimes, "righteousness").

Now, there are many kinds of justice, including procedural and substantive, distributive and restorative, social and environmental. So it's no wonder that when the Torah emphasizes the importance of actively fulfilling the core value of justice (Deut. 16:20), it repeats it twice: "tzedek, tzedek tirdof! Justice, justice shall you pursue!"

This is usually interpreted to mean justice and only justice, achieving just ends through just means.

Israel's Supreme Court is called the "High Court of Justice," beit din gavoha letzedek, known by its acronym, bagatz. But while in English those who sit in judgment are known as "justices," the Hebrew terms for judges are from different roots: dayan or shofet, both from words for "law."

Christian charity (not)

Probably the best known word from the root tz-d-k though is tzedakah, usually translated as "charity."

Merciful acts of charity seem worlds away from meting out justice, but the linguistic root can reveal deeper truths about the values represented.

Since tzedakah is a mitzvah, a commandment, it is indeed seen as an obligatory act of justice, of tzedek, not a voluntary act of caritas, love, as the Latin root of charity suggests. Giving to the poor isn't an optional offering out of the goodness of one's heart, but a claim that the poor have on general resources to live a life of dignity. It is the legal duty for all to share the wealth and abundance with which they have been blessed.

That is a noble, even radical, social vision. However, the current economic model that allows for huge profits for some, resultant increased concentration of wealth, and shrinking social safety nets, seemingly mitigated only by the possibility of philanthropy, has given rise to an oft-repeated criticism from progressive quarters in Israel that what we needis tzedek velo tzedakah, justice and not charity.

And yes, the family name of the popular singer Neil Sedaka really is tzedakah. His family is Lebanese, with Sephardi roots, and the word is actually the same in Arabic as well.

Make that 3 dozen righteous ones, please

The other big word from the root tz-d-k is the type of person who seemingly embodies tzedek, the tzadik.

Tzadik is usually translated "righteous person" and originally meant, well, a righteous person, anybody upright and pious. But a sort of mythology has grown up around the term.

First, there is the very old legend of the 36 saintly ones, lamed vav tzadikim (from the Hebrew letters lamed and vav whose combined numerical value equals 36) sometimes known as lamed vavnikim.

According to the story, in each generation there are 36 wholly righteous people – unknown to themselves and everyone else – upon whom the continued existence of the world depends.

Then there is the tzadik who is the titular head of a Hasidic dynasty, who, in many cases, is seen to be supernaturally closer to the divine, even a miracle-worker. Thus the idea has morphed into the Jewish version of a saint or holy man, even though that is far from the original idea.

The original context was simply anyone who is a really good person. For instance, the phrase tzadik vera' lo, refers to "a good person who has bad things happen to him." In English, this often goes by the fancy name "theodicy," i.e., understanding the meaning of "the suffering of the righteous," a metaphysical question for those who believe in divine reward and punishment.

Do it justly

While few of us can claim to be an absolute tzadik, each should strive to implement tzedek, i.e., be tzodek, "right" or "just" in their lives. A Jewish take on the popular slogan "just do it!" would be "do it justly!"

But even that can be overdone. As Ecclesiastes (7:16) warns: al tihyeh tzadik harbeh – "Don't be too much of a tzadik," i.e., overly righteous. Don't get carried away with too much of a good thing.

Bloomberg