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Tikkun Olam

Have you ever had to do jury duty? Then you will know that courts in the United States are in session every weekday. But a Jewish Bet Din has different rules, as we see in the discussion about giving time for a litigant to bring witnesses:

If he does not come, we give him an additional three days on which to bring witnesses, [when the court is in session]: Monday, Thursday, and Monday. (Bava Kamma112b)

Why do Jewish courts meet only on Mondays and Thursdays? To understand that we have to go back a few pages in Bava Kamma, to the list of the rules instituted by Ezra (Takanot Ezra). One of them is that courts sit on Mondays and Thursdays (Bava Kamma 82a), as this is the time that people come into the towns to hear the Torah reading.

A Bet Din in Benghazi, 1930

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To understand Ezra鈥檚 decrees, we need to place him in context. We know the story of Ezra from the books that bear his name, Ezra and Nehemiah. These are part of the corpus of literature written about and during the time of the Jews return to their land after Cyrus, the Persian king, allows them to come back. The beginning of this return, called Shivat Zion, takes place within a century of the destruction of the First Temple and the exile from Jerusalem to Babylonia. The Jews begin to return in 538 BCE and lay the foundations for the Temple. But only a small number come back and they are plagued with troubles from within and without. Locals antagonize them and even turn the Persian king against them, forcing the work to stop on the Temple. The Jews struggle to make a living and to defend their borders and they are not careful about Torah laws against intermarriage and doing business on Shabbat. And even though King Darius allows them to continue to build the Temple, and eventually it is completed, the enterprise of resettlement seems tenuous.

It is at this point, about eighty years after the original wave of return, that we have a new aliya from Babylonia. Ezra, a direct descendant of Aaron the priest, makes his way to Judea with a group of Jews and with the express approval of the Persian king as well as with funds from him. Ezra is called a sofer mahir, an expert or swift scribe. This is an interesting designation. He has the lineage to be a high priest but he is not from the Davidic line of kings, and yet he becomes the religious leader. The emphasis is on his Torah knowledge, and this is a harbinger of things to come, where scholars are the leaders and not priests and kings.

When Ezra arrives in Jerusalem, he finds that many people have intermarried with local women. After a series of gatherings where the people repent, and after his colleague Nehemiah arrives as well, the two create a covenant with the people (Nehemiah 9). In this agreement, the people vow to get rid of their non-Jewish wives, to keep Shabbat and the Sabbatical year, and to contribute to the Temple. By brokering this deal, Ezra and Nehemiah ensure a religious reform that will keep Judaism alive in the Land of Israel. It is no wonder that they exhort the people:

鈥淕o, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength.鈥 (Nehemiah 8:10)

Ezra reading from the Torah, from the Dura Europos synagogue

Gillman slide collection., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This religious reform is the background to the decrees of Ezra listed in Bava Kamma. While they appear on the same page as the rules that Joshua made for the people upon entering the land, they could not be more different. Joshua鈥檚 rules are all about helping the tribes live with each other and be good neighbors. Ezra鈥檚 are about keeping the Torah as the main value in people鈥檚 lives. But their juxtaposition makes sense. Joshua brings the Israelites into the land for the first time, Ezra is responsible for their survival the second time. Ezra is compared not only to Joshua but also to Moses, a giver of the Torah as well as someone who leads his people (back) into the promised land.

So what are Ezra鈥檚 rules and how did they help the Jews retain their identity? While there are a few variations of the takanot, we will bring the ones that appear in Bava Kamma 82:

鈥淓zra instituted ten ordinances: He instituted that communities read the Torah on Shabbat in the afternoon; and they also read the Torah on every Monday and Thursday; and the courts convene and judge every Monday and Thursday; and one does laundry on Thursday; and one eats garlic on Shabbat eve. And that a woman should rise early and bake [so that she will have bread for poor people who come to the door], and that a woman should don a sinar [underwear or an apron depending on the commentary] and that a woman should comb her hair and immerse in a ritual bath; and that peddlers of cosmetics and perfumes should travel around through all the towns [so that women can be beautiful for their husbands]. And Ezra further instituted the requirement of immersion for those who experienced a seminal emission.鈥 (Bava Kamma 82a)

Looking at these rules, we can see that they emphasize the values that Ezra and Nehemiah wanted the Jews to practice. They needed to create a knowledgeable and just community. To that end, regular Torah reading and regular judgments were essential. So was the need to take care of the poor. Second, Shabbat has to be the focus of the week. Laundry on Thursday to prepare for Shabbat, and garlic on Friday night to encourage marital relations on Shabbat are two ways to emphasize the importance of the day of rest. Finally, marriage and modesty are at the center of Jewish life. Women need to be careful about how they dress and need to go to the mikveh but they also need to be beautiful for their husbands.

Interestingly, the law about men having to go to the mikveh after having sex was cancelled (see Berachot 22a), since people found it too difficult to keep. Perhaps they understood that it might have a detrimental effect on marriage.

The Gemara says about Ezra that when the Torah was almost forgotten from Israel, Ezra arrived from Babylonia and reestablished it (Sukkah 20). These takanot are part of his efforts and his success.

Traditional site of Ezra鈥檚 tomb in Iraq

Old scanned postcard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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