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The great Tannaitic sage Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: “He who performs one mitzvah acquires for himself one praklit (a Heavenly defender) while he who violates one transgression acquires for himself one kategor” (Heavenly accuser) (Avot 4:11).

Rashi (to Avot 4:11, to Zevachim 7b, Bava Batra 10a), Machzor Vitri (Avot 4:11), and Rambam (to Avot 4:11) define praklit as meilitz yosher or meilitz tov.

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Both Rashi (to Chagigah 13b) and Rabbeinu Chananel (to Rosh Hashanah 26a, Kiddushin 5a) similarly define sanegor as meilitz yosher.

What is the difference between praklit, sanegor, and meilitz yosher if they all mean “defender”?

We see that when Joseph’s brothers mention their lost brother in front of the Egyptian viceroy, they do not realize that Joseph understood what they were saying “because there was a meilitz between them” (Gen. 42:23). In this context, meilitz refers to a translator or interpreter who interfaces between two parties who speak different languages. More broadly, a meilitz is a “middle-man” who serves to mediate between interlocutors.

The term meilitz yosher is derived from Job 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, while a prosecutor emphasizes a person’s evil and criminal deeds.

Targum renders this verse as “a single praklit from amongst one thousand kategors.” Thus, a meilitz yosher is the interface between judge and defendant who highlights the defendant’s worthiness and saves him from an unfavorable verdict.

The word meilitz has several meanings. In the case of the translator or defender, meilitz (mem-lamed-tzadi) 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 lamed-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. Ibn Janach and Radak also trace it to the root mem-reish-tzadimeretz, meaning fluency, persistence or, in modern Hebrew, “march,” – based on the interchangeability of lamed and reish.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau sees the core meaning of lamed-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 as the misuse of logical expressions for evil purposes.

Of the three terms discussed here, only meilitz yosher is truly Hebrew; the other two – praklit and sanegor – are actually loanwords that come from Greek. The word praklit appears in Targum as the Aramaic rendering of meilitz (Targum to Job 16:20, 33:23). Although the word is typically pronounced praklit, Melechet Shlomo (to Avot 4:11) vowelizes it as paraklet, and MS Kaufmann (the oldest vowelized manuscript of the Mishnah) vowelizes it is 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, or 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 a standing counsel who would intercede on one’s behalf in court when needed. Some scholars 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’s praklitim 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 with bringing 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).

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 mitzvah of 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: because 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).

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.