Mipnei Mah? Investigating Tikkun Olam in its Primary Mishnaic Sources

Yael Jaffe, Brandeis University
In various respects, one might compare the popular discourse surrounding tikkun olam in the American Jewish world to that of social justice in American politics and activism. In addition to the former emerging as the Jewish shorthand for the latter, discussions are often critiqued for their abstract nature – their tendency to espouse esoteric values without citing pragmatic implications. Tikkun olam – “repairing/mending the world” – has a long and complex history in Jewish thought and law, and has become a popularized idiom in the American Jewish lexicon over the past several decades. There is now an extensive amount of literature exploring the sources, principles, relevance, and implications of tikkun olam. Generally, the concept is understood as related to social responsibility, particularly the social responsibility that the Jewish community owes to the broader world – an incredibly broad ideal. Our halakhic system is deeply rooted in and built upon the interplay between broad principles and practical implementations, which we initiate when we bring various source texts into conversation. The complaint about tikkun olam’s vagueness is therefore understandable through the lens of Jewish tradition. A principle that compels us to “repair the world” could have tremendous impact in this kind of legal discourse, and it is therefore essential that we analyze its rabbinic legal sources thoroughly, honestly, and critically if we seek to employ it in practice.

What do the contexts and content of the primary legal sources for tikkun olam tell us about the more tangible principles that this abstract idea might involve? Some of highly specific cases are found in the fourth chapter of the Mishnah in Gittin. Tikkun olam is cited here as the reasoning behind several takkanot (from the same root as tikkun) – halakhic enactments that alter existing practice in a number of areas. First, Rabban Gamliel the Elder invokes tikkun olam to make three changes in divorce law. He establishes (hitkin) that a man can no longer use a beit din in a different city from his wife to cancel a get (bill of divorce) that he has already sent her via messenger; second, in writing a get, a man must use any names by which he and his wife are known; and third, witnesses must sign the get. These takkanot could have several motivations within the context of the system of divorce law outlined in Gittin. These laws often reflect a concern with the direct consequences of an unsuccessful divorce: adultery and consequential illegitimate children. The legislators therefore standardize the processes of divorce in order to prevent these outcomes and ensure stable family structures. In addition, these precautions allow divorced women more security and mobility. In this case, tikkun olam is invoked to protect the institutions of marriage and family, perhaps as essential pieces of our social structure.

The very next line in the Mishnah broadens our understanding of how tikkun olam can be applied. It tells us that, due to tikkun olam, Hillel enacted the pruzbul – an exemption from the mandatory cancellation of a personal loan that occurs in the Sabbatical year. In Mishnah Sheviit 10:1-4, Hillel observes Jews refusing to lend money to borrowers in need, anticipating that they would not repay them before the Sabbatical year arrived, when the debt would be void. Noting that this very behavior is condemned in Deuteronomy 15:9, Hillel therefore institutes the pruzbul, allowing people lend money to the poor without fear of losing it. Here, tikkun olam is associated with the encouragement of generosity and prevention of miserliness.

Following this, the Mishnah invokes tikkun olam as the reasoning behind laws regarding slavery. First, if a master mortgages his slave to a second master, and then frees the slave, the second master is forced to free him, and the slave (or, according to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the original owner) must write a document of debt. Second, if a man is half-enslaved and half-free, he can marry neither a slave woman nor a freewoman, and the master is therefore forced to free him, so that he may marry and reproduce. These applications of tikkun olam protect the humanity and rights of slaves. In addition, in the second instance, we see the same concern for family structure that influences divorce law. As we read more cases in which tikkun olam is invoked, we see differences and breadth in its applications, as well as consistencies.

The Mishnah then makes two statements regarding Jewish captives in the name of tikkun olam: we do not ransom captives for more than they are worth, and we do not help captives escape. The Gemara on Gittin 45a explains that this takkanah was made to prevent placing financial burden on the community, and to discourage kidnappers from seizing more captives. Here, it seems that tikkun olam allows public good to take precedence over the individual. 

Moving into yet another topic, the Mishnah states that, due to tikkun olam, we may not purchase sefarim (holy books), tefillin, or mezuzot from non-Jews for more than their value. This seems to aim to protect the Jewish community’s possession of Jewish artifacts. Next, the Mishnah returns to divorce law, and describes a particular case when tikkun olam is invoked in order to allow a couple to remarry after a divorce, despite a vow made by the husband which may prevent this. Yet again, tikkun olam is associated with the preservation of the family. Finally, the Mishnah states, if a man sells his field to a non-Jew and a Jew purchases it, the buyer must bring bikkurim – the first fruits of the field that are brought to the Temple. Just as when the Mishnah forbids us from overpaying for holy objects purchased from a non-Jew, this usage of tikkun olam functions to protect the Jewish status of Jewish property.

With all of these primary uses in mind, we can begin to construct an idea of what tikkun olam means as a guiding legal principle. Yehuda Mirsky summarizes these Mishnayot as instances in which tikkun olam is “given as the rationale for a number of specific legal provisions and edicts enacted within Jewish society and its then-existing frameworks towards ends of social justice.”蜉 This aligns with the aforementioned popular association of tikkun olam with social justice and community service work. Jill Jacobs, on the other hand, proposes that a more contextual translation of “mipnei tikkun ha’olam” as it is used here, would be “for the sake of the preservation of the system as a whole.”蜉 She points out that, when a legal detail is given the potential to disrupt the broader system, tikkun olam is summoned to maintain stability. This appears to be a relatively conservative value, especially considering the idiom’s modern association with liberal social justice causes. Jacobs acknowledges this, but also notes that the majority of the Mishnah’s cases serve to protect socially and/or economically vulnerable individuals, and to restrict powerful parties from using the system to their advantage. More importantly, Jacobs argues that any general idea we formulate about tikkun olam must take into consideration not only its sources in this rabbinic legal text, but also in liturgical, Midrashic, and Kabbalistic writings. 

With these variegated sources in hand, we can begin to ask fundamental questions about the practical implementations of tikkun olam. What specific ideals does tikkun olam seek to introduce into our society? What methods does tikkun olam endorse to enact these ideals? What makes tikkun olam a particularly Jewish endeavor? In the Mishnaic sources, we can identify the following as some of tikkun olam’s central principles: marriage, family, generosity, individual rights, public good, and the Jewish status of property. In addition, according to Jacobs, the Mishnah exhibits an overarching interest in preserving the stability of our halakhic and social system. It is important that we recognize these ideas as essential to the origins and implications of tikkun olam. In addition, we cannot study tikkun olam in a vacuum; this is precisely what examining the context and content of its halakhic sources can preclude. We must inspect it not only through its directly relevant sources, but alongside other thematically similar Jewish texts, ideologies, and practices. Meir Tamari, in his essay entitled, “Social Responsibilities of the Jewish Individual” discusses a host of other practical and philosophical sources for kindness and welfare in Jewish tradition, beyond tikkun olam. He takes into consideration Jewish concepts of mercy, kindness, and charity, and explores the values guiding those practices.蜉 For those who associate tikkun olam with social justice work, these aspects of Jewish thought and custom demonstrate that tikkun olam is just one of many potential sources for holistic humanitarianism in our tradition. Investigating how these ideas contradict and compliment one another, we can begin to try to answer those fundamental questions, and perhaps to understand what exactly tikkun olam demands of us in the context of Jewish tradition.