Gittin 49

The biblical origins of tikkun olam.

In the fourth chapter of Tractate Gittin, we were introduced to the idea of mip’nei tikkun olam, for the betterment of the world, the notion that changes to the law can be made to prevent unintended consequences that are harmful, especially to individuals the law is trying to protect. 

On yesterday’s daf, we opened the fifth chapter of Gittin with a new set of laws enacted for this purpose — among them the mishnah’s ruling that a court must appraise lands of superior quality for payment to injured parties. This means that when a court collects payment for damages, it takes it from the offender’s highest quality lands. 

On today’s daf, the Gemara inquires about how this betters the world.

Rabbi Shimon said: Why does the court appraise land of superior quality for payment to injured parties? It is due to the robbers and due to those who take by force. So that a person will say: Why should I rob and why should I take by force? Tomorrow the court will come down to my property and take my finest field. 

In order to dissuade people from stealing, the rabbis legislated that the penalty for those who do so is to be collected from their most valuable lands. The beraita (early rabbinic teaching) goes on to tell us that the rabbis relied on a verse from the Torah in enacting this law: “Of the best of his own field, and of the best of his own vineyard, shall he pay” (Exodus 22:4). 

This is an unexpected turn. Until now, we’ve understood “for the betterment of the world” to refer to rabbinic legislation that was not required by the Torah. In this instance, it is used to explain what motivated the Torah to make the rule in the first place. And indeed, elsewhere on the daf, Ravina confirms a teaching from Rabbi Akiva that it’s not the rabbis who are the source of this law, but the Torah itself:

By Torah law, we appraise the property of the one who caused the damage. 

These chapters of Tractate Gittin are often pointed to as examples of how the rabbis used their legislative power to make the world a better place. Some argue that their actions should serve as both inspiration and precedent for us to do the same in our day. Others suggest that the ancient rabbis may have had the standing to legislate in this way, while we in our day are not similarly empowered. 

The discussion on today’s daf, however, suggests that the principle of bettering the world through law has biblical origins. If that’s right, and it’s not a rabbinic innovation, might we then be more courageous about putting it into practice and maximizing our ability to use Jewish law to make the world a better place?

Read all of Gittin 49 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 4th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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