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Tikkun: The Intricacies of Government Reform

Tikkun as a legal concept in halacha
Fr Lawrence Lew/Flickr
Fr Lawrence Lew/Flickr
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program
 What is a man born for but to be a Reformer, a Re-maker of what man has made; a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great Nature which embosoms us all, and which sleeps no moment on old past, but every hour repairs herself, yielding us every morning a new day, and with every pulsation a new life?” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The root of tikkun in Rabbinic usage often refers to governmental tasks. Normal judicial or legislative activity to preserve a body politic requires new or revised legislation, called takkanot, enactments, whose root derives tikkun. For example, in Ashkenaz there was burst of halakhic creativity unprecedented in Jewish history from 1000- 1400. The local Jewish communities legislated hundreds of takkanot with rabbinic approval based on majority rule of the Jewish city councils. For example, Rabbenu Gershom (11th C. Mainz) inaugurates the era of such legislation with the takkana that taxes may be collected by the authority of the city council:

If the Kahal has established a takkana for the poor or for any other purpose with the agreement of the majority, then the minority may not refuse to obey it saying, ‘Let us go to the court to discuss the matter,’ for everything depends on the views of the Elders of the city, according to the ancient custom or the needs of the hour. (Louis Finkelstein, Jewish Self-Government)

For example, Takkanat hashuk, the reform or “repair of the market,” is an example of the need to correct the impractical and undesirable results of following the law too strictly. The halakha may be draconian in two ways regarding stolen property. On one hand, if someone steals a book form your house and sells it to another and you find your book, then you ought to be able to reclaim it. However that would undermine the market principle that one buys and pays for objects and trusts the system that it is now his possession. On the other hand, the halakha also holds that if the owner lost something and despaired of getting it back, then it is officially ownerless. When something without special markings is stolen, then people despair quickly that they will ever get it back. So one who buys it without knowing it is stolen, has now gained a legal right to keep what the owner despaired of finding. The market system “works” in this latter case, but the original owner still feels cheated that he cannot reclaim what was his and what he never intended to relinquish.

Therefore the Geonim established a reform:

What is the takknat hashuk, the reform to maintain the market? One who bought something from a well-known thief and then the original owner found it, then he takes it back from the purchaser without compensating the purchaser to whom one says: You caused your own loss for you should not have made a purchase from a well-known criminal.
But if one made a purchase from someone not known for theft and the original owner may reclaim his possession from the buyer, but then let him pay compensation for what the purchaser paid. For if you told the purchaser that he receives no compensation when the original owner appears, then no one would buy anything in the market again. (Hilchot Reu, Otzar haGeonim to TB BK Responsa #311) (Nahum Rakover, Takkanat HaShuk, Ministry of Justice, Israel, Studies in Hebrew Law #25)
In the case of Jewish books even if a Jew buys them from a well-known non-Jewish thief or the government that confiscated them, then the original may claim them back form the purchaser, but must also reimburse the purchaser, for otherwise Jews will not purchase stolen Jewish books at all and then the non-Jews will throw away the Jewish books which have no buyers. (Ritba on TB BK 58a; Maharam TB BB #289 or Mordekhai to TB BK #151)

Besides legislative activity, tikkun also includes the executive functions of supervising execution of the law. The Rabbis in the Talmudic and the medieval world often served in public roles as judges, as tzedakah officials, and as governmental supervisors of public safety and market – “to regulate (l’takein) fair market prices.” Much economic legislation was concerned with takkanat hashuk – fixing the market using the same verb as Tikkun Olam. Some interpreters think the Rabbis recited a blessing over their activity of executing justice:

Rabbi Elazar Azikri identified this activity as supervising the market to maintain honest measures and weights and he explains that the blessing recited was: “who sanctified us to sanctify measurements and balances and to regulate (l’takein) fair market prices. (Sefer HaHaredim)

The role of the judge is to supervise social justice and order in society. The Babylonian Talmudic scholar, Rav Huna combined personal wealth typical of the plutocracy of ancient municipalities and legal scholarship with an official role in maintaining social order. Apparently Rav Huna’s invitation to the poor to join him for every meal became the basis for the practice on Seder night to open the door and proclaim: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” The following tale teaches much about the need to balance one’s interventions into society to “fix” it.

Raba said to Rafram ben Papa: Tell me some of the good deeds which Rav Huna had done.
He replied: On cloudy days [indicating an incoming storm or according to Rashi, gale winds] they used to drive him about in a golden carriage and he would survey every part of the city and he would order the demolition of any wall that was unstable [lest the rains cause its collapse; if the owner was in a position to do so he had to rebuild it himself, but if not, then [Rav Huna] would have it rebuilt at his own expense.
On the eve of every Sabbath [Friday] he would send a representative to the market and any vegetables that the [market] gardeners had left over he bought up and had then, thrown into the river.
Should he not rather have had these distributed among the poor?
He was afraid lest they would then at times be led to rely upon him and would not trouble to buy any for themselves.
Why did he not give the vegetables to the domestic animals?
He was of the opinion that food fit for human consumption may not be given to animals.
Then why did he purchase them at all?
So as not to cause a crisis in the future. (TB Ta’anit 20b)

Rav Huna was concerned lest the farmers seeing that not all their produce was sold, cut back on planting and in the future there would not be abundant fresh produce in the market.

His example reflects three interesting principles of tikkun olam in governing society. First, he prepares for impending disasters by establishing and enforcing a building code to avoid the collapse of buildings during storms that may lead to flooding. However he also took part in enforcing these norms for passing good legislation is inadequate without enforcement.

Second, he realizes that the poor are often those who violate codes and live in the most dangerous dwellings as regards public health. So enforcing order also means causing additional hardship to the needy who live in condemned buildings and cannot afford to bring them up to code. Therefore he combines strict law enforcement with generous social welfare – out of his own pocket. While clearly a man of wealth and comfort who likes to make an impression when traveling through town in his gold carriage, he still cares about the public welfare and goes out on a stormy day to make sure that all will have safe dwellings when the weather turns inclement and disaster approaches.

Third and most unusual, Rav Huna takes care of public health by cleaning up the leftover fruits and vegetables in the market and yet he refrains from using these leftovers for tzedakah for the poor, even though on a personal level he is very generous to all the needy in town.

Whenever he discovered some [new] medicine he would fill a water jug with it and suspend it above the doorstep and proclaim, Whosoever desires it let him come and take of it.
When he had a meal he would open the door wide and declare: Whosoever is in need let him come and eat. Raba said: All these things I could myself carry out except the last one because there are so many poor in Mahuza. (TB Ta’anit 20b)

Rav Huna is careful not to “rock the boat” of patterns of supply and demand, lest the producers decrease supply when they see the unsold surpluses. He therefore buys up the surplus. Yet he does not give it away to the poor, lest they become dependent on government largesse rather than procuring food themselves. One must assume the poor he has in mind are not totally destitute but rather have the ability to purchase foodstuffs on their own. The 13th C. commentator, the Meiri generalizes Rav Huna’s behavior into a halakhic guideline:

Even though tzedakah is a very great mitzvah and even more so on the eve of Shabbat and holidays, still a hasid, pious person, will avoid making it a regular practice to hand out readymade food unless he knows that every day he will have surpluses available, lest the poor rely on this readymade food [and wait for last minute gifts] and end up [when tzedakah is not available] with their Shabbat [meal] cancelled. (Meiri, Beit HeBehira, Ta’anti 20b)

Rashi seeks to justify how Rav Huna could have thrown the produce into the river and thus violated the law against wasting resources. He explains that the food was placed on a raft and that the population down the river benefited from it (Rashi on TB Taanit 20a-b).

Rav Huna is a wonderful example of the highly developed sense of public service promoted by the Talmudic rabbis who realized that such service would be at the expense of their private scholarship.

As long as one is but an ordinary scholar (haver), he has no concern with the congregation and is not punished [for its lapses], but as soon as he is appointed head and dons the cloak [of leadership], he must no longer say: ‘I live for my own benefit, I care not about the congregation,’ but the whole burden of the community is on his shoulders. If he sees a man causing suffering to another, or transgressing, and does not prevent him, then he is held punishable.
The Holy Spirit then exclaims, My son, if you have become a guarantor (arev) for your neighbor’- you are responsible for him, because ‘you have shaken hands making a commitment to be guarantor on behalf of another (zar) (Proverbs 6:1).
The Holy Blessed One says to him: ‘You [by assuming office] have placed yourself in the arena (zira),’ and he who places himself in the arena stands either to fail or win.(Exodus Rabbah 27:9)

Leadership in the public “arena” entails not only responsibility but also a struggle reminiscent of the athletic contests of the Greco-Roman world where one may easily fail but must compete with all one’s prowess. These Rabbinic sources introduce our theme – the complex and challenging political role of fixing the world through governmental activity. Such public activity was viewed as the work of Heaven and it was permitted on Shabbat even though making private business arrangements is prohibited.

It is permitted to discuss Heavenly pursuits [on Shabbat] such as calculating expenses for performing a mitzvah such as a tzedakah account or the costs of mitzvah banquet or raising (poskim) funds for tzedakah. Similarly it is permitted to supervise and tend to public business for nothing is a greater Heavenly pursuit greater than that! …
Making public announcements is also prohibited except for announcing a lost object … and proclamations concerned in any way with fixing the city (takanat of the city) or the public. Such was the practice [on Shabbat] at international trade fairs to announce the names of those who do not pay their bills faithfully, for even though this concerns an individual, it affects the public conduct of commerce and the needs of the many, so one may announce it on Shabbat. (Arukh HaShulkhan OH Shabbat 306:13-14)

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