Seder Nezikin (Damages)

Universal interpersonal and societal issues, rather than Jewish ritual law, are the main subject of Seder Nezikin.

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The Authority of Real Life Experience

At times, the Mishnah accords real life experience an authority equal to or even greater than that of biblical law.  A number of times throughout Seder Nezikin, the Mishnah concludes the discussion of an issue with the comment, "hakol k'minhag hamedinah"--"everything goes according to the custom of the place."  For example:

"One who hires workers and instructs them to begin work early and to stay late--in a place in which it is not the custom to begin work early and to stay late, the employer may not force them to do so.  In a place in which it is the custom to feed the workers, he must do so.  In a place in which it is the custom to distribute sweets, he must do so.  Everything goes according to the custom of the land."  (Bava Metzia 7:1)

On Living among “Idol Worshipers”

Most of Seder Nezikin concerns civil and criminal law designed for an entirely Jewish community.  Such a community does not exist now, and did not exist at the time of the Mishnah.  Jews have always lived among non-Jews and therefore have constantly negotiated boundaries that allow for business and personal relationships with others, while still enabling one to maintain a clear Jewish identity.  Masekhet Avodah Zarah (“foreign worship”, i.e. idol worship) explores issues of living in a community of non-Jews—specifically idol worshipers, whose religious practice is in conflict with the fundamental Jewish injunction against worshiping objects or animals.

A Few Strange Masekhtot

Seder Nezikin also contains some of the strangest and most difficult to classify masekhtot of the Mishnah.  These masekhtot may be late additions to the Mishnah, tacked on at the end of Nezikin which some believe was, at one time, the final seder.  Masekhet Eduyot (literally:  “testimonies”) seems, by virtue of its title, to fit easily into a seder concerned with civil law and court proceedings.  However, the content of Masekhet Eduyot has very little to do with law or courts.  Rather, this masekhet consists of sayings passed down from student to teacher.  Contained within this masekhet are synopses of some of the famous disagreements between Hillel and Shammai as well as teachings of other early rabbis.

Masekhet Horayot (“instruction”) considers the problem of a kohen gadol (High Priest) or a beit din (court of law) ruling improperly on issues of Jewish law and also includes some discussion of the succession to the priesthood.  While on the surface irrelevant now that the office of the kohen gadol does not exists, this masekhet offers a basis for understanding our responsibilities vis-à-vis a government or other authoritative body that rules incorrectly or unjustly.

Pirkei Avot

The final masekhet of Seder Nezikin is perhaps the best-known part of the Mishnah—Avot, also known as Pirkei Avot (most often translated as “Sayings of the Fathers”).  This masekhet appears at the back of many prayerbooks and is the source for a number of well-known Jewish sayings, including Rabbi Akiva's dictum, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me; if I am only for myself, who am I; if not now, when?" and Shammai's statement, "Say little and do much."

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.