The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 11 September 2021 / 5 Tishrei 5782

Calling the Defender - Vayelech / Yom Kippur

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The great Tannaitic sage Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: “A person who performs one mitzvah acquires for himself one praklit. A person who violates one transgression acquires for himself one kategor" (Avot 4:11). In other words, if a person does a good deed, he gains a Heavenly defender (praklit), while when a person sins, he gets a Heavenly accuser (kategor). In other cases, the antonym of kategor is sanegor (“defender”). Rashi (to Avot 4:11, to Zevachim 7b, Bava Batra 10a), Machzor Vitri (Avot 4:11), and Maimonides (to Avot 4:11) define praklit as meilitz yosher or meilitz tov, while Rashi (to Chagigah 13b) and Rabbeinu Chananel (to Rosh Hashanah 26a, Kiddushin 5a) similarly define sanegor as meilitz yosher. What is the difference between the seemingly synonymous terms praklit, sanegor, and meilitz yosher if they all mean “defender”? In the coming paragraphs we seek to address this question and further sharpen our understanding of the etymologies behind this trio of words.

What is a meilitz yosher? The Torah states that that when Joseph's brothers mentioned their lost brother in front of the Egyptian viceroy, they did not realize that Joseph actually understood what they were saying, “because there was a meilitz between them” (Gen. 42:23). In this context, the term meilitz refers to a sort of “translator” or “interpreter” who interfaces between two parties speaking different languages. More broadly, a meilitz is a “middle-man” who serves as a go-between to mediate between interlocutors.

The particular verbiage meilitz yosher is derived from Iyov 33:23-24: "If there is a single defending (meilitz) angel from among one-thousand [who speak about a person's sins] to tell about a man’s straightness (yashro), [then] G-d will favor that man and say, ‘He has been redeemed from descending to the pits. I have found atonement [for him through his upright deeds]'.” Thus, a meilitz yosher is a “defender” who emphasizes a person’s “good” and “straight” deeds, as opposed to a “prosecutor” who emphasizes a person’s “evil” and “criminal” deeds. The Targum (there) renders the verse as referring to “a single praklit from among one thousand kategors.” In this case, the meilitz yosher interfaces between the judge and the defendant in order to highlight the defendant’s worthiness and save him from an unfavorable verdict.

The word meilitz can be traced to either the root MEM-LAMMED-TZADI or LAMMED-(VAV)-TZADI. Ibn Janach and Radak see the former as related to the root MEM-REISH-TZADI, meretz (“fluency,” “persistency”), based on the interchangeability of LAMMED and REISH. In the case of the translator or defender, meilitz seems to refer to the requisite smoothness and consistency of one’s oratory skills. Alternatively, Ibn Janach and Radak also trace meilitz to the root LAMMED-VAV-TZADI (“thinking,” “explaining,” and “elucidating”), explaining that the meilitz uses his logic skills to expand on an argument and explain why it makes sense.

Rabbi Pappenheim sees the core meaning of LAMMED-TZADI as “logical verbalizations,” explaining that this can be used for good — like a meilitz who tries to defend the accused — or for bad. Hence, the term leitzanut (“scorn” or “mockery”) can also be derived from this root to mean the misuse of logical expressions for evil purposes. Elsewhere, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that the letter MEM at the beginning of many three-letter roots serves to switch the meaning of the core two-letter root to its exact opposite. In that way, the two-letter root LAMMED-TZADI (leitz) means “scorn/mockery,” while MEM-LAMMED-TZADI (meilitz) means just the opposite: “justification” or “defense.” (In Modern Hebrew, the related word leitzan — “clown” — is derived from leitz, but in this sense, takes on a more positive connotation.)

The Hebrew word meltzer ("guard" or "waiter") appears twice in the Bible (Dan. 1:11, 1:16). This word might be derived from the same core root as the word meilitz, with an additional REISH appended as a suffix to mean the same thing that the English suffix -er does. In other words, the added REISH might serve to form an agent noun from a verb or another noun, such that the meltzer is the person who engages in being meilitz, in the same way that a baker (noun) is one who bakes (verb), or a butler (noun) is one who deals with bottles (noun). The meltzer as a “waiter” interfaces between the kitchen and those participating in a meal, while a “guard” also interfaces between that which falls under his protection and those who seek to harm his charge.

There is some precedent for this explanation in the case of Rabbi Yochanan HaSandler, who was said to be a shoemaker. The word sandal in Greek and Mishnaic Hebrew refers to a type of shoe, just like it does in English. The Rashbatz, Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (1361-1444), in his commentary to Avot 4:11, explains that the added REISH to the appellation HaSandler denotes Rabbi Yochanan’s occupation of shoemaker (noun), as someone who deals with shoes (noun). Rashbatz offers another example by noting that the word Mishnaic Hebrew word palter (“professional baker”) — found in Demai 5:4 and Avodah Zarah 4:9 — is derived from the Greek word plateia (“open street”), because a professional baker would typically sell his goods on the street. Plateia, by the way, is the etymological ancestor of the English words place and plaza.

Alternatively, Rabbi Yaakov Yehuda Zilberberg (1914-2003) explains that a meilitz can manipulate verbal expressions and can produce a sweet-sounding rhetorical trope (see Ps. 119:103 and Rabbi Hirsch there). In the same way that the meilitz is occupied with making sure his words are “tasty,” the meltzer also taste-tests food before serving it. Dr. Chaim Tawil actually understands meltzer to be unrelated to the Hebrew meilitz, arguing that meltzer is borrowed from the Akkadian word massaru/mansaru (with the letters NUN and LAMMED interchanging). (The Ashkenazic Jewish surname Meltzer is unrelated to the Biblical meltzer, but rather derives from German/English word malt, and refers to the occupational maltster who prepares grains for brewing.)

Of the three terms that this essay discusses, only meilitz yosher is truly Hebrew. The other two words that we will discuss — praklit and sanegor — are actually loanwords that come from Greek. The word praklit appears in the Targum as the Aramaic rendering of the Hebrew word meilitz (Targum to Iyov 16:20, 33:23). Although the word is typically pronounced praklit, Melechet Shlomo (to Avot 4:11) actually vowelizes it as paraklet, and MS Kaufmann (the oldest vowelized manuscript of the Mishna) similarly vowelizes it as parakilit. In fact, Rabbi Yisroel Lipschutz (1782-1860) in Tiferet Yisrael (to Avot 4:11, Yachin 51) connects this Mishnaic Hebrew word to the Greek word parakletos (paraclete in Latin).

Praklit/parakletos is often understood as a Greek legal term that variously means “supporter,” “helper,” “sponsor,” “advocate,” and "intercessor.” This Greek term is comprised of para (“outside”/“beside”) and kalein (“to call”), making the praklit a person from outside whom one calls upon to defend him. Historians explain that this term does not refer to the sort of lawyer-for-hire that we might be familiar with in contemporary times. Rather, it refers to one’s patron, who also doubled as one’s standing counsel who would intercede on one’s behalf in court when needed. Some scholars even argue that in contrast to the sanegor, who would typically have a speaking role in defending his client, the praklit would silently help by simply showing up to a hearing and providing moral support. The praklit’s mere presence already helps make a litigant’s case. Others explain the praklit as a sort of character witness who attests to the defendant’s virtue, but does not directly argue about the case at hand. (In Modern Hebrew, the term praklit means "state attorney," who is actually a prosecutor, not a defense lawyer.)

With this in mind, we can have a better appreciation of the following Talmudic passage: "Anyone who is taken to the gallows to be sentenced, if he has great praklitim, he can be saved. But if he does not, he will not be saved. These are a person’s praklitim — repentance and good deeds” (Shabbat 32a). In this case, repentance and good deeds serve as “character witnesses” to show a person’s true disposition and allow him to be saved from harsh judgment, even if he is actually guilty of what he is accused. Similarly, the Talmud says that one’s acts of righteousness and kindness serve as one’spraklitim before G-d (Bava Batra 10a) because they similarly attest to his good character and worthiness. Additionally, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explains that when one is obligated to bring a sin-offering and a burnt-offering, the former is always brought first, because “a sin-offering resembles a praklit who enters [the king or judge] to appease” and only once the praklit achieves that appeasement does the “gift” of a burnt-offering become appropriate (Zevachim 7b, Tosefta Parah 1:1, and Torat Kohanim to Lev. 14:20).

The Greek word sanegor might be more accurately spelled synagor, as it is comprised of the Greek roots syn ("together"/"same") and agor (“gathering place”/“assembly”). English words that contain the Greek syn include synonym, syntax, synagogue, and synthesis, while the word agor is possibly related to the Hebrew agur (“gathering”). The synegoros in Ancient Greece was a legal expert who would argue before the assembly on a defendant’s behalf.

From an exegetical perspective, many sources explain the word sanegor as a contraction of sani (“to despise/hate”) and tigra (“fighting/argument”), in reference to the sanegor’s role as a peacemaker in trying to quell the accusations of the prosecutor. This explanation is cited by Rashi (on Ein Yaakov Chagigah 13b), Machzor Vitri (to Avot 4:11, and to Laws of Rosh Hashanah), Rabbeinu Elyakim (quoted by Imrei Noam to Lev. 16:4), and Moshav Zekanim (to Lev. 16:4).

Both the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 36a) and the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:2) explain that one cannot fulfill the mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashanah by blowing a cow’s horn because “the kategor cannot become a sanegor.” Meaning, because the bovine beast represents the sin of the Golden Calf, which causes Heavenly accusations to be leveled against the Jewish People, its horn cannot be used for the protective mitzvahof shofar. The same explanation is given for why the Kohen Gadol does not wear his Golden Vestments when performing the holiest Temple services on Yom Kippur: since gold invokes the sin of the Golden Calf, which causes Heavenly accusations, that metal cannot be used for the performance of the especially sacred rites on Yom Kippur (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 36a and Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 7:3).

Something would be amiss if we discussed the etymologies of the words praklit and sanegor, but not the word kategor (“accuser”). This word also comes from Greek and is comprised of the Greek root kata (“down,” “reverse,” “against”) and agora (“assembly”). The “accuser” is one who speaks against somebody else in front of an assembly. Encyclopedia Britannica explains that although kategoria originally referred to an "accusation," the early Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 bc-322 bc) already began to use this word in the philosophical sense of an “assertion.” It is an early term from which the English word category (“class,” or “group”) is derived, into which one can “assert” that an item belongs.

Many commentators understand the word kategor to mean “slanderer,” as the prosecutor/accuser essentially snitches/informs on people to get them in trouble (see Rabbeinu Chananel to Rosh Hashanah 26a and Kiddushin 5a, Maimonides to Avot 4:11, Rashbatz and Rabbi Yaakov bar Shimshon to Avot 4:11). Based on this, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) in Sefer Tishbi claims that kategor is related to the Latin word interrogator. However, from an etymological perspective this does not quite pan out because interrogator is comprised of the Latin roots inter (“between”) and rogare ("to ask"), which has nothing to do with the origins of the word kategor.

Machzor Vitri interprets kategor as a portmanteau of ketata (“dispute”) and tigra (“fighting/argument”), while others explain the term as a contraction of magur ketat, which means “instigator of dispute” (Sefer Kushyot 346, Moshav Zekanim to Lev. 16:4), or kara tigra (“calling for a fight”). The later Hebrew word kitrug (“accusation”) seems to be a metathesis of kategor, with the REISH and GIMMEL consonants switching places.

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