A reader wishing to be identified only as “Harry” has a question about the Mishnaic tractate of Pirkei Avot or — as it is often called in English — “The Ethics of the Fathers.” (The Hebrew title literally means “Chapters of the Fathers,” the book being divided into six chapters in which many of the maxims of the founding fathers of rabbinic Judaism are collected.) Pirkei Avot is the best-known tractate of the Mishnah because it is generally printed as part of the prayer book and studied regularly. The sixth maxim of its first chapter states: “Yehoshua ben Perahya says, ‘Find yourself a teacher, and get yourself a friend, and judge every man l’khaf z’khut.’”
I have left the last words in the Hebrew because they are the subject of Harry’s question and have been translated in different ways — for example, “in the scale of merit,” “on the side of merit,” “toward merit,” “favorably,” etc. Harry writes about this:
“It seems to me that a better translation would be, ‘and judge every man according to his merits.’ Such a translation would draw a distinction between a predisposition to judging other people favorably or ‘meritoriously’ and a dedication to judging them impartially or ‘according to their merits.’ What do you think?”
I think Harry is right that none of the common translations of l’khaf z’khut is very felicitous. But I think he is wrong in suggesting that “according to his merits” would be an improvement. To explain why, let’s examine the literal meaning of l’khaf z’khut.
Z’khut in rabbinic Hebrew indeed means “merit.” The original meaning of the word kaf (which becomes khaf in l’khaf z’khut because of phonetic rules) is “hand,” “palm” or “paw,” and in the combination kaf-regel, “the kaf of the leg,” it means “foot.” Yet it also has two other meanings that derive from these: that of a spoon and that of the pan of a balance scale, and this is because of the latter’s resemblance to the palm of a hand — and the rabbinic expression kaf z’khut clearly means “the pan of merit,” just as its antithesis, kaf ḥova, means “the pan of blame” or liability.
The image is a simple one: Men’s deeds are weighed as though in a scale with two pans, their good deeds put in one and their bad deeds in the other, to see which pan weighs more. In Jewish tradition, this is associated with the judgment of the soul after death. Probably the best-known literary treatment of the procedure is in I.L. Peretz’s story “Three Gifts,” in which a pair of angels empties all the deeds of a newly deceased man onto a scale placed before a judge. “The pans floated slowly up and down. One moment one was higher, the next the other. The needle of the balance shifted back and forth, now a hairsbreadth to the left, now a hairsbreadth to the right…. Each time the needle moved a hair to the right, there was rejoicing in the heavens; each time it moved back to the left, there was such a sigh of sorrow that it reached all the way to the mercy seat.”
In the end, the needle lands exactly in the middle and the soul is made to return to earth for another, tie-breaking life. Yet had the judge followed the advice of Yehoshua ben Perahya, he would have admitted the soul to heaven, judging it l’khaf z’khut, that is, “in favor of the pan of merit” — or, as we say in English, by giving it the benefit of the doubt.
Indeed, “give every man the benefit of the doubt” might be the best modern translation of Yehoshua ben Perahya’s maxim. Judging someone l’khaf z’khut does not imply the rigorous impartiality that Harry proposes. Rather, Yehoshua ben Perahya tells us, in cases where it is difficult to decide whether a person is right or wrong, innocent or guilty, be partial in his favor. Or, as we again might say today, be charitable.
As rooted as the metaphor of the scales of justice is in Jewish tradition, it’s far from an originally Jewish one. It goes as far back as Pharaonic Egypt, where it was connected with the figure of the goddess Ma’at, the embodiment of order, harmony and justice. In pictorial representations of Ma’at, she is generally shown wearing an ostrich feather in her hair, and in Egyptian myth, the souls of the dead were judged in the “Hall of Ma’at,” their hearts weighed in a balance scale against Ma’at’s feather. If their hearts outweighed the feather because of the sins that adhered to them, they were cast into a lake of fire; if the hearts were lighter than the feather, they were granted eternal life. And if the scale balanced exactly? In that case, eternal life was theirs, too. Yehoshua ben Perahya was not the first to believe that every man should be judged l’khaf z’khut.
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A Guide for the Judgmental