By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I recently heard a talk from my rabbi where she explained “an eye for an eye” in the Torah. As society has become less barbaric, the rabbis reinterpreted the verse to mean one pays the damages for the eye, instead of actually taking out the eye of the perpetrator as it used to be done in the olden days. I have a big problem with the fact that the Torah originally had the punishment of taking out someone’s eye. What does it say for the Torah if it began as a barbaric set of laws, and only later rabbis try to smooth it out?
The verse you are referring to, discussing a fight between two Jews, says the following: “…an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.” (Exodus 21:24-25).
This verse, taken literally, truly sounds like one must be punished in the way you said, to put out the eye or the tooth, to chop off the hand, etc. I, however, respectfully take strong issue with the assumption of your rabbi that this verse was ever taken literally. There is no evidence anywhere, literary or archaeological, that a literal “eye for an eye” was Jewish practice at any time. Nor is there the slightest hint in the Talmud, the principle body of Jewish law, that this verse was ever taken literally. It is simply an erroneous assumption based on the literal reading of the verse.
Logically it doesn’t follow to say that as Jewish society was becoming more humane and civilized they changed this particular law. There are many laws that would seem to be more barbaric than this one, such as the law requiring the extermination of the Canaanite people, which were allowed to remain unmodified and un-reinterpreted. Why would this law only be subject to the new enlightenment of the Jews?
The Talmud records a lengthy discussion of this verse, (Bava Kama 83b – 84a). The Talmudic sages bring a number of compelling proofs, both logically and from the inference of other verses, showing one should not even entertain the thought that “an eye for an eye” is to be taken literally. Maimonides, the renowned 12th century sage, further cites the verses in Exodus 21:18-19 which openly speak of damages in terms of monetary payment. Hence, a few verses later when the Torah speaks of “an eye for and eye…” it is obviously referring to the same sort of payment. Other early sages bring additional proof: if literal, if the perpetrator injures another and minimizes his sight by one third or half, how is it possible to do the same in punishment, no more and no less?
The key principal is that the Torah cannot, and was not meant to be understood literally. Only with the oral tradition given together with the written can the Torah be understood correctly and accurately.
One big question still remains: If the Torah meant to pay monetary damages, why did it write this the way it did, which seems to be misleading?
The answer offered by Maimonides and Maharal (16th century sage) is based upon a profound sense of responsibility for ones actions. The Torah, by expressing the payment in this way, is teaching an important and crucial lesson. Had the Torah simply ordered the aggressor to pay damages, he might have thought that it is sufficient to write a check to the victim and he is done. The Torah is teaching that if one perpetrates a loss of limb to his fellow, he truly deserves to have the same done to his self. He should contemplate the profound damage to the quality of life of his fellow, his pain and suffering he is forced to endure for the rest of his life. He has done a terrible thing and the slate will not be cleared by monetary payment alone. He must beg forgiveness from the injured party for what he has done, and perform Teshuva, repentance to G-d, coupled with making serious life changes that will ensure a similar act will not be repeated.
With proper interpretation and understanding, lessons can be gleaned from our holy Torah.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.