Justice (Tzedek) — A Tri-Literal Root

Doing what is Right

“To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity” (Proverbs 1:3).

by Jonathan Gray

Justice – Doing What Is Right

The three Hebrew words Tze-dek, Tzedak-ah, and Tzad-dik, are the words for Justice, Charity, and a Righteous One. The root of these Hebrew words yields many branches of words with specific meaning; all of these words are related and interconnected.

In other translations of our banner scripture, a variety of English words are used for “justice.” The NIV uses “right,” and the NASB and Youngs Literal use “righteousness.” Strong’s 6664 is the Hebrew word that is shown phonetically as Ts-e-D-e-Q, meaning justice and righteousness, what is right or just or normal, justness.

The phonetic representation of this Hebrew word has an English transliteration — Tze-dek. The Hebrew words tze-dek and tze-da-kah and the related word tzad-dik, or “righteous person,” all share the same root.

From an Old Testament Bible study perspective, these words are also grouped together with Hebrew Strong’s numbers clustered around the Strong’s number 6664. Strong’s 6664 is Tze-dek, Strong’s 6666 is Tze-dak-ah, and Strong’s 6662 is Tzad-dik (an adjective).

These three Hebrew words share the same root. It is a “tri-literal” root, three Hebrew letters, as one can see here when reading from left to right. צ-ר – ק — Tza-dei, Da-let and Qoph (Kof).

The roots of verbs and most nouns in the Semitic languages characteristically have this sequence of consonants (or non-vowels). The linguistics of Semitic languages have this unique feature where the large majority of the consonantal roots are tri-literals. The tri-literal root of our three words is shown in English as Tz – D – Q, with vowels to be filled in.

Justice with Justice

The first of our three words with the Hebrew tri-literal root, Tze-dek, is used in the scriptures with repetition: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 16:20, NAS).

The Tanakh version reads slightly more literally: “Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live” (Deuteronomy 16:20, JPS 1917).

The double occurrence of the word appears to suggest that, in order to be just, we need to do justice with Justice. In other words, do justice with impartiality. Justly do justice. Justly be just. Do not favor one group over another. One translator actually translates the word Tzedek as “equity.” We read in the Schocken Bible, “Equity, equity you are to pursue, In order that you may live.”

What Do These Words Mean?

Tzedek / tzedakah seem difficult to translate precisely, because of their slight shades of meaning — justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness, and innocence. The meaning appears to be about much more than strict legal justice. A good example that distinguishes this word from its purely legal meaning is, “If a man is poor, you may not go to sleep holding his security. Return it to him at sun-down, so that he will be able to sleep in his garment and bless you. To you, it will be reckoned as tzedakah before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 24:12-13).

Tzedakah cannot mean only legal justice in this case. It speaks of a situation in which a poor person has only a single cloak, which he has given over to the lender as security for a loan. The lender has a right by law to keep the cloak until the loan has been repaid. However, the scripture admonishes us that acting on the basis of this legality is simply the wrong thing to do. We must practice justice with mercy.

Following the strict law ignores the human situation of the poor person, who has nothing else with which to stay warm on a cold night.

Why is Justice so Important to Judaism?

Justice must be impartial. Law, as described by the Torah, makes no distinction between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, homeborn or stranger. “Ye shall not respect persons in judgment, but ye shall hear the small as well as the great. Ye shall not be afraid of the face of man, for the judgment is God’s” (Deuteronomy 1:17). Justice plus compassion equals Tzedek, the first thing necessary for a decent society. Compassion is implicit in the Jewish understanding of the word Tzedek. Compassion is an inseparable part of the word.

A Righteous One

In Hebrew, Tzaddik means “Righteous one,” a bridge between his followers and God. So we have the third of our three tri-literal words — Tzaddik (an adjective, sometimes used as a noun).

Tze-dek, Tze-da-kah, and now Tzad-dik. Strong’s number 6662 is the Hebrew word Tzaddik. According to Strong’s (2001 edition), KJV translates it: righteous (163), just (42), lawful (1).

More generally, Tzaddik is a title in Judaism given to people considered righteous, such as Biblical figures, and later, spiritual leaders. In Jewish tradition, of the Biblical characters in Judaism, Joseph, son of Jacob, is often called the Tzaddik. What makes Joseph stand out as Tzaddik is that while all of the other Patriarchs lived as shepherds, Joseph’s holiness and righteousness stood out even while living in the context of worldliness — he was righteous even when among the Egyptians with all of the temptations surrounding him.

Comment: Tzedek is meaningful in some prominent names: Zakok was a high priest in King David’s day. And Melchi-zedek, King of Righteousness.

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