From the Beit Midrash

From Dr. Josh Kulp, our second session Scholar-in-Residence, who one of the founders and teachers at The Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

From the Ramah Bet Midrash:

Can One Take the Law into One’s Own Hands

This session in the Bet Midrash program the campers have been studying a passage in the Talmud (Bava Kamma 27b-28a) concerning whether one can take the law into one’s own hands. While this might sound as if it is a question of "vigilante justice," the question turns out to be slightly different. Vigilante justice is usually understood as one civilian executing punishment upon another individual who has committed a crime without bringing the person to court, as in the case of Pinchas who executed an Israelite and a Midianite without bringing them to court. The rabbis rejected such acts, demanding that punishment and justice be meted out only by a court.

Rather, the question in the passage that we have been studying concerns a person whose economic rights have been infringed by another person. The passage begins with the story of two men who share rights to a well, each being able to draw water on alternate days. One of the men draws water on a day that is not his and does not allow the other to draw water, water each probably needs to irrigate crops. The man whose rights have been infringed strikes the other man. Rav Hisda initially believes that the man who struck his fellow should be punished. Rav Nahman responds that in a case where a person is going to suffer an irreparable loss, such as this case, everyone agrees that one may take the law into one’s own hands.

The passage continues (at great length—all admirably studied by the Ramah Bet Midrash students) trying to determine whether one can also take the law into one’s own hands when one is not threatened with an irreparable loss. According to Rav Nahman, since the person is acting justly, he may indeed act without going to court. Rav Judah disagrees and says that since there will be no irreparable loss, the person must go to court before he acts. As is frequent in Talmudic discussions, the passage does not ultimately come to a resolution. However, if you are interested in learning more about this fascinating debate you can either look it up in the Talmud or if your child has been studying in the Bet Midrash program, you can ask him/her when they come home.

Shabbat Shalom

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