Pursuing Justice צדק צדק תרדוף

Welcome, let's learn together!

Before we begin and delve into the world and definitions of the rabbis, please define the following terms for yourself:

  • Justice
  • Righteous Action
  • Righteous Person

Offer not just a one sentence definition, but start to collect examples of each and make a list.

Now, let's dive into our sources!

(כה) כַּעֲבוֹר סוּפָה וְאֵין רָשָׁע וְצַדִּיק יְסוֹד עוֹלָם.

(25) When the storm passes the wicked person is gone, But the righteous person is the foundation of the world.


That is some intense language. When I made my list up above, I included some religious leaders, a few good politicians, loving members of my family, people who I trust. What does it mean to call them the foundation of the world?

Also, what is going on in the beginning of our verse? Is the wicked person the storm or just taken away by it?

Does this source feel true to your lived experience? Offer a story that is in conversation with this source, either from your life, your family's stories, or history.

Ok, so how can I be a righteous person according to our texts?

(יז) לִמְד֥וּ הֵיטֵ֛ב דִּרְשׁ֥וּ מִשְׁפָּ֖ט אַשְּׁר֣וּ חָמ֑וֹץ שִׁפְט֣וּ יָת֔וֹם רִ֖יבוּ אַלְמָנָֽה׃ (ס)

(17) Learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.

In what ways can and do we devote ourselves to justice, aid the wronged, and defend the defenseless?

Now, what is justice?

(כ) צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יי אֱלֹקֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ (ס)
(20) Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
(א) צדק צדק תרדף. הַלֹּךְ אַחַר בֵּית דִּין יָפֶה (ספרי; סנהדרין ל"ב):
(1) צדק צדק תרדף JUSTICE, JUSTICE SHALT THOU PURSUE — go to (search after) a reliable court (Sifrei Devarim 144:14; Sanhedrin 32b).
(ב) למען תחיה וירשת. כְּדַאי הוּא מִנּוּי הַדַּיָּנִין הַכְּשֵׁרִים לְהַחֲיוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְהוֹשִׁיבָן עַל אַדְמָתָן (ספרי):

(2) למען תחיה וירשת That you may thrive and occupy the land — The appointment of proper judges is sufficient to make Israel thrive and to establish them on their land.

According to Rashi, justice is created when we establish courts and install proper judges. Generally, when we use the word tzedakah, we speak of charity, giving to those who are in need. Tzedakah, though, means justice. Do you agree with the rabbis that the way to pursue Tzedakah, Justice, is through setting up the court system?

How does a proper court system help us to flourish in our land?

Next, why does the verse state, "Justice, justice..." Why the doubling up?

כדתניא צדק צדק תרדף אחד לדין ואחד לפשרה כיצד שתי ספינות עוברות בנהר ופגעו זה בזה אם עוברות שתיהן שתיהן טובעות בזה אחר זה שתיהן עוברות וכן שני גמלים שהיו עולים במעלות בית חורון ופגעו זה בזה אם עלו שניהן שניהן נופלין בזה אחר זה שניהן עולין
As it is taught in a baraita: When the verse states: “Justice, justice, shall you follow,” one mention of “justice” is stated with regard to judgment and one is stated with regard to compromise. How so? Where there are two boats traveling on the river and they encounter each other, if both of them attempt to pass, both of them sink, as the river is not wide enough for both to pass. If they pass one after the other, both of them pass. And similarly, where there are two camels who were ascending the ascent of Beit Ḥoron, where there is a narrow steep path, and they encounter each other, if both of them attempt to ascend, both of them fall. If they ascend one after the other, both of them ascend.

Can you think of your own example of where compromise is a necessity of communal life?

If not compromise, what other reason could the text have for the doubling of the word, Justice?

Look through the commentaries below and after each explain the rabbi's claim in your own words.

What does their answer emphasize?

Is the emphasis warranted?

(א) צדק צדק. עם בעלי הריב ידבר וטעם שני פעמים לדבר צדק שירויח בו או יפסיד או פעם אחר פעם כל ימי היותך או לחזוק:
(1) Justice, justice Scripture addresses the litigants. The word appears twice: because one must pursue justice, whether it be to one’s gain, or to one’s loss; or the repetition denotes “time after time” — all the days of your life; or for emphasis.

(א) צדק צדק תרדוף כשתתן לך שופטים אתה הממנה את השופטים בהו את היותר שופטי צדק אע''פ שאין בהם כל כך שאר תכסיסים הראוים לדיין כמו שלמות הקנין ושלמות הגוף כענין אל תבט אל מראהו ואל גבה קומתו:

(1) צדק צדק תרדוף. When you are about to put this legislation into practice, the party in charge of appointing such judges is told by Moses to select only those who are already known for their sense of fair play and righteousness. He will have to look for such people all over the tribe. If potential judges do not have all the qualifications which are desirable in a judge, this qualification of fairness is the overriding quality all must possess.

(א) צדק צדק תרדף טעם הכפל לומר הדיינין צריכין שישפטו את העם משפט צדק וגם אתה צריך לרדוף הצדק תמיד

The reason for the doubling is to teach not only judges must pursue righteousness for the people but You too must constantly seek justice.

(א) צדק צדק תרדוף. ע"ד הפשט יזהיר שיצדק האדם במעשיו ובדבריו, כי אלה הם הדברים שאפשר לו לאדם להרע לעצמו ולאחרים, ועל כן בא כפל הלשון, וכל הצודק בדבריו אות ומופת על צדקת מעשיו, ועל כן ראוי לכל אחד ואחד מישראל שיצדק בדבור ובמעשה, כענין שכתוב (צפניה ג) שארית ישראל לא יעשו עולה ולא ידברו כזב. או ידבר הכתוב עם האנשים אשר להם הריב ויזהיר אותן לרדוף אחרי הצדק הן לריוח הן להפסד, וזהו כפל הלשון.

(1) צדק צדק תרדוף, “Righteousness, righteousness, you shall pursue.” According to the plain meaning of the text the Torah warns (by repeating) that one must strive to be righteous both in word and in deed. These are the two ways in which one may potentially inflict harm upon both oneself and upon others. Everyone who speaks righteously reflects the fact that their deeds are most likely righteous also; this is why it behooves every Jew to be both righteous in their speech and in their deeds. This sentiment is reflected in Tzefaniah 3,13 when he said of the remnant of the people of Israel that “they shall do no wrong or speak falsehood; a deceitful tongue shall not be in their mouths.”
Alternatively, our verse addresses the people who are subject to litigation and exhorts them to strive for righteousness regardless of whether this will be financially beneficial or harmful to them. This is why the Torah repeats the exhortation.

Shnay Luchot HaBrit, Shoftim 101a

Justice, justice shall you pursue. It says "Justice" twice. The first is directed to the judges who judge in accordance with Torah law. There is a second "justice" for compromise or emergency decrees, which are done occasionally by a prophet or king, in order for the world to exist. Therefore, the verse concludes that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. As the Sages said "Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments therein in accordance with Biblical law." (Shnay Luchot HaBrit, Shoftim 101a)

What is the is the importance of compromise and emergency decrees? How does failure to compromise and strict adherence to the law lead to a community's collapse (i.e. the destruction of Jerusalem and exile of the Jews.)

צדק צדק תרדוף. שאין חקר וסוף לבחי' צדק ואמת. כי יי אלקים אמת. ולכך לעולם יש להוסיף ולהעמיק שיהי' אמת לאמיתו. כי אינו אמת עד שנעשה כל האדם אחד מיוחד לעבודתו ית' ואמת מראש עד סוף אותיות התורה. בשם הרב הק' מפרשיסחא היהודי ז"ל להיות רדיפת הצדק. בצדק לא בשקר. ודפח"ח:

Justice Justice - There is no end to seeking Truth and Justice because God is Truth. Thus there is always a need for everyone to reach deeper towards their Truth. Because it is not Truth until all uniquely perform their divine service. This is what the Yehudi Hakadosh says it means to run after Justice. Justice and not Lies.

We've been talking about justice for a while now and the word truth has not yet been raised in our texts. Justice is the pursuit of truth, is it not? Yet, here, truth is presented as a part of justice that is individual, perhaps even relative.

Is truth an inherent part of justice?

And now that we are talking about individualism and relative truths and realities, how do we deem someone worthy of justice/communal aid? Take for example the mitzvah of pe'ah, leaving the corners of a field unharvested for the needy. Who is justified in availing themselves of this resource and who would be acting unjustly in benefiting from this communal support?

(ט) מִי שֶׁיֶּשׁ לוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים זוּז וְהוּא נוֹשֵׂא וְנוֹתֵן בָּהֶם, הֲרֵי זֶה לֹא יִטֹּל. וְכָל מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ צָרִיךְ לִטֹּל וְנוֹטֵל, אֵינוֹ נִפְטָר מִן הָעוֹלָם עַד שֶׁיִּצְטָרֵךְ לַבְּרִיּוֹת. וְכָל מִי שֶׁצָּרִיךְ לִטֹּל וְאֵינוֹ נוֹטֵל, אֵינוֹ מֵת מִן הַזִּקְנָה עַד שֶׁיְּפַרְנֵס אֲחֵרִים מִשֶּׁלּוֹ, וְעָלָיו הַכָּתוּב אוֹמֵר בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּיי וְהָיָה יי מִבְטַחוֹ (ירמיה יז). וְכֵן דַּיָּן שֶׁדָּן דִּין אֱמֶת לַאֲמִתּוֹ. וְכָל מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ לֹא חִגֵּר, וְלֹא סוּמָא, וְלֹא פִסֵּחַ, וְעוֹשֶׂה עַצְמוֹ כְּאַחַד מֵהֶם, אֵינוֹ מֵת מִן הַזִּקְנָה עַד שֶׁיִּהְיֶה כְּאֶחָד מֵהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים טז) צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף. וְכָל דַּיָּן שֶׁלּוֹקֵחַ שֹׁחַד וּמַטֶּה אֶת הַדִּין, אֵינוֹ מֵת מִן הַזִּקְנָה עַד שֶׁעֵינָיו כֵּהוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות כג) וְשֹׁחַד לֹא תִקָּח כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר פִּקְחִים וְגוֹ':
סְלִיק מַסֶּכֶת פֵּאָה

(9) Someone who has fifty Zuz, and they use them for business, they may not take. And anyone who does not need to take, but takes anyway, will not depart from the world until they will become dependent on others. And all who need to take, yet do not take, will not die from old age until they will [be enabled to] provide for others from their portion. Regarding this, scripture states, “Blessed is the person that relies on G-d, and G-d will be their security” (Jeremiah 17:7). [The same is true] for a judge who judges in absolute truth. And one who is neither lame, nor blind, nor crippled, yet pretends to be one of these, they will not die of old age until they become like one of these, as it says, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) And every judge who takes a bribe and subverts the law, they will not die of old age until their eyes have dimmed, as it says, “And you shall not take a bribe, because a bribe blinds those who can see and understand, etc.” (Exodus 23:8)

So far, our texts have mostly described a world made better by judges and institutions of justice. What dangers lie in the perversion of justice for those that are corrupted and for society as a whole?

Now, let's move specifically into thinking about a capital case, the most serious of case possible to be judged in a Jewish court. What does it mean to pursue justice here?

(ד) ד"א צדק צדק תרדוף שני פעמים, אזהרה לדיינין שדנין דיני נפשות, שלא יהו חותכין את הדין ביומו, אלא יהו מלינין את הדין, כדרך שמלינין בירושלים, שנאמר [מלאתי משפט] צדק ילין בה (ישעיה א כא).

(4) Another interpretation of (Deut. 16:20): JUSTICE, JUSTICE YOU SHALL PURSUE, <with JUSTICE repeated> two times. <Here is> a warning for judges who judge capital cases not to render judgment on the same day as the trial. Rather let them suspend the judgment overnight (rt.: LWN), just as they suspend it overnight (rt.: LWN) in Jerusalem, since it is stated (in Is. 1:21): [SHE (i.e., Jerusalem) WAS FULL OF JUSTICE,] FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS LODGED (rt.: LWN) THERE.

How does the postponement of judgement make for justice. Should justice not be swift? Why wait a day for a capital case as opposed to other cases where judgement is offered immediately?

Now, moving away from the courts, what does it mean for us to pursue justice? What must we do and who are we responsible for?

Take a look at the texts below. Ask yourself:

  • Which of these speak to my experience?
  • What stories can I tell that exist in relation to these ideas?
  • Does one of these rabbis speak a truth that I live my life by?
כל מי שאפשר למחות לאנשי ביתו ולא מיחה נתפס על אנשי ביתו באנשי עירו נתפס על אנשי עירו בכל העולם כולו נתפס על כל העולם כולו
Everyone who can protest the sin of their
household and does not, is responsible for the people of their household. For the people of their city, they are responsible for the people of their city. For the whole world, they are responsible for the whole world....

Jerusalem Talmud, Pe-ah 1:1 [4a]

The Law does not order you to run after or pursue the other commandments, but only to fulfill them on the appropriate occasion. But peace you must seek in your place and pursue it even to another place as well.

(ו) שהרי אלו אנשים הנכבדים החסידים הנדיבים המופלגים בחכמה כשראו דברי החולק עליהם טובים מדבריהם ועיונו נכון הודו לו וחזרו לדעתו כל שכן שאר האנשים בראותם האמת נוטה עם בעל דינו יהיה כמו כן נוטה לאמת ולא יקשה עורף וזהו דברי הכתוב (דברים יד) צדק צדק תרדוף.

(6) As behold, when these honorable, pious and magnanimous scholars, who were outstanding in their wisdom, saw that the words of the one who is in disagreement with them were better than their words and [that] their investigation was correct, they conceded to them and recanted to that one's opinion. All the more so, when other people see that the truth is leaning towards the one with which they have a conflict, should [such a one] lean towards the truth and not stiffen their neck. And this is the [meaning of the] verse (Deuteronomy 16:20), "Justice, justice shall you pursue."

Justice, justice... The great Mussar rabbis say that if one hastens to give tzedakah it is worth double, as if one gave tzedakah twice. Tzedek tzedek - it will be considered as two tzedakahs, if "you pursue" it, if you try to give it as soon as possible.

Hida (18th century Palestine & Western Europe, North Africa)

Justice, justice you shall pursue...With justice, you shall pursue justice. Even the pursuit of justice must employ only just means, and not falsehood.

R' Simhah Bunim of Pshischa (18th century Polan)

Justice, justice you shall pursue...Justice alone is not enough, because there are many types of justice, just as there are many kinds of truth. Every regime has its own justice. The Torah, therefore, stresses, "Justice justice you shall pursue," namely the Mussar of justice, where both the means and the end are just.

Derashot El Ami (19th-20th century Poland & Palestine)

ויהיה זריז לבקש צדקה, דכתיב (דברים טז כ): "צדק צדק תרדוף"; וכתיב (ישעיהו נא א): "שמעו אלי רודפי צדק מבקשי יי".

A person should be alert to seek justice, as it is written : "Justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deut. 16:20). And it is written, "Hearken to Me, ye that follow after righteousness, Ye that seek the Lord" (Is. 51:1).

In case the rabbis and I haven't been clear enough so far on the importance of justice and just institutions, let's read three more texts.

Justice, its pursuit, and the institutions that uphold it are the foundation of our community and society at large.

See below, it is what connects us to the generations that have come before us, it is the balancing force to the letter of the law, it is what it means to be human.

(א) חַיָּבִין אָנוּ לְהִזָּהֵר בְּמִצְוַת צְדָקָה יוֹתֵר מִכָּל מִצְוֹת עֲשֵׂה. שֶׁהַצְּדָקָה סִימָן לַצַּדִּיק זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית יח יט) "כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו" (בראשית יח יט) "לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה". וְאֵין כִּסֵּא יִשְׂרָאֵל מִתְכּוֹנֵן וְדַת הָאֱמֶת עוֹמֶדֶת אֶלָּא בִּצְדָקָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה נד יד) "בִּצְדָקָה תִּכּוֹנָנִי". וְאֵין יִשְׂרָאֵל נִגְאָלִין אֶלָּא בִּצְדָקָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה א כז) "צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה":

(1) We must be especially careful to observe the mitzvah of tzedakah, more so than any other positive mitzvah, for tzedakah is a sign of the righteous [tzadik] lineage of Abraham, our father, as it is said, (Genesis 18:19) For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity [to keep the way of the LORD] by doing what is just [tzedakah].175See Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 79a. The throne of Israel is established and the religion of truth stands only on tzedakah, as it is said, (Isaiah 54:14) You shall be established through righteousness [tzedek]. And Israel will only be redeemed through tzedakah, as it is said, (Isaiah 1:27) Zion shall be saved in the judgment; her repentant ones, in the retribution [tzedakah].176See Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 139a.

Tzedakah: The Untranslatable Virtue - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

But mishpat alone cannot create a good society. To it must be added tzedakah, distributive justice. One can imagine a society which fastidiously observes the rule of law, and yet contains so much inequality that wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few, and many are left without the most basic requirements of a dignified existence. There may be high unemployment and widespread poverty. Some may live in palaces while others go homeless. That is not the kind of order that the Torah contemplates. There must be justice not only in how the law is applied, but also in how the means of existence – wealth as God’s blessing – are distributed. That is tzedakah.

Tzedakah cannot be translated because it joins together two concepts that in other languages are opposites, namely charity and justice. Suppose, for example, that I give someone $100. Either he is entitled to it, or he is not. If he is, then my act is a form of justice. If he is not, it is an act of charity. In English (as with the Latin terms caritas and iustitia) a gesture of charity cannot be an act of justice, nor can an act of justice be described as charity. Tzedakah is therefore an unusual term, because it means both. It arises from the theology of Judaism, which insists on the difference between possession and ownership. Ultimately, all things are owned by God, creator of the world. What we possess, we do not own – we merely hold it in trust for God. The clearest example is the provision in Leviticus: “The land must not be sold permanently because the land is Mine; you are merely strangers and temporary residents in relation to Me” (Leviticus 25:23).

(ה) ובִמְקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ:

(5) In a place where there are no humans strive to be a human.

May you go out and pursue justice!


Want more? Come deepen the conversation further by listening below.