|Author||H. M. Lazarus|
|Publication Date||May 21, 2012|
"He who wishes to become a Hasid (saint) let him observe the teachings of Nezikin" (Talmud Bavli Baba Kamma 30a).
This striking dictum of Rab Judah, a Babylonian teacher of the third century, well illustrates the true conception of Jewish civil and criminal law. In order to develop a saintly character the Jew is not advised to attend a systematic course in philosophy and ethics, nor is he advised to attach himself to a band of cloistered saints who spend their days in meditation and contemplation. The counsel is: Let him who wishes to become a saint study the teachings of the Nezikin order so that he may know how to observe the laws of justice, of right and wrong, of meum and tuum.
This close connection of ethics and law is the essence of the Jewish legal system.
The civil and criminal law was regarded by the Jews as a part of the Divine Revelation — the Torah. Grounded in the Book and centered in God, it was not, as other legal systems are, the creation of the state, nor did it ever draw its inspiration from political feeling. For the Jew, the Torah was to be an independent and positive source of inspiration, regulating individual and corporate action; and on it was to be reared the whole structure of the Jewish legal system.
This does not involve the ignoring of the economic and social functions of organized society. Political movements and events did play their part in the formation and development of the civil and criminal law; but they were ever subordinated to moral purpose and ethical principle. In other words, morality was the dominant factor in communal life and the underlying principle in all social and economic legislation.
Thus the object of the legal system was not to preserve a particular dynasty or a certain form of government, but to establish social righteousness, and to maintain thereby a constant, close, inseparable connection between ethics and law, both flowing from the same Divine source.
The Sanhedrin, the body which framed and enacted laws, was not so much a legislative body as a research institute, where the Torah was investigated and studied and the results of such study applied to the needs of practical life.
This function, it is significant to note, made in reality the Sanhedrin, and not the king, the leader of the people. Alien to the whole spirit of Judaism was the idea of a single all-dominating authority vested in a person or corporation. All laws, regulations and enactments had authority only in so far as they were able to stand the ethical test of the Torah.
Once they passed this test they were no longer regarded as manmade, but became identified with the very law of God. And this it was which made the Jewish communities able to exhibit, even under the most trying circumstance and the most hostile environment, a moral enthusiasm and a passion for social justice in which even enlightened European states have often lamentably failed.
Thanks to its divine basis, the Jewish civil law never ceased to exercise its humanizing influence on the dispersed Jewish communities throughout the exile, enabling them to bring the details of social life into subjection to the divine will, and at the same time into harmony with the changing environments and conditions.
For this reason the study of the Nezikin order was from the earliest days the most popular.
MAKKOTH. Treats of the punishment of perjurers; the Cities of Refuge; the offences punishable by lashes and the regulations for the administration of stripes.
EDUYYOTH. A collection of miscellaneous traditions of earlier authorities cited in the Academy on the day when Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was elected as its head.
ABOTH. Contains aphorisms and maxims of teachers of successive generations from the men of the Great Assembly onwards.
[Adapted from the Introduction to Seder Nizikin.]