Moses ten commandments

There has never been a Jewish court in history that took out an eye from one who caused another to lose an eye, or cut off the hand of someone who caused another to lose a hand.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Mishpatim” (Exodus 21:1–24:18), which means “Civil Law.” As one would guess, this week we learn all about Jewish civil and monetary law.

Although many people believe that Judaism is all about ritual law, such as what to eat, how to rest on the Sabbath, how to observe the holidays, how to write a Torah and the like, nothing could be further from the truth. Judaism has its own independent code of civil law that covers every single aspect of business, financial, and interpersonal relations. There is nothing in life that Jewish law doesn’t cover. We even have our own courts, known as the “Beit Din,” in which Jews are required to go to have their differences resolved according to Jewish law.

As most readers will certainly know, the Torah is, in theory at least, in favor of corporal and capital punishments. One who intentionally murders another person is to be put to death, and lashes were administered in ancient times for many violations of Torah law. A similar type of punishment that is written in the Torah (in several places) is the mysterious  “an eye for an eye.” So the question is asked: If, when the Torah says that one is to get lashes for certain transgressions, and lashes were indeed given, and that the punishment of death was given for intentional murder just like the Torah demands, does that mean that one is to lose an eye for causing someone else to lose an eye in fulfillment of the verse “an eye for an eye”?

The answer is a resounding and unanimous no. According to Oral and Talmudic tradition, the passage is a directive for monetary compensation to the injured party. This passage has never been taken literally, and we’ll learn why.

It is explained that “an eye for an eye” cannot be meant to be taken literally. For example, what if the perpetrator for such a crime is already blind? How, then, could we fulfill the injunction “an eye for an eye”? What if one of the parties had only one functioning eye before the incident? Or what if the victim’s eyesight was only damaged but yet he still has some ability to see? These and such other considerations make it nearly impossible to properly and fairly implement such a punishment of an “eye for an eye.”

In the words of Maimonides:

“How do we know that when the Torah says “an eye for an eye,” it means financial payment? Look at the continuation of the verse which reads “a blow for a blow.” Now we know that when one person strikes another, it says the “ . . . he [the perpetrator] should pay for the victim being unable to work and for his medical expenses.”

So we see from here that when the Torah uses that word “tachat” with regards to a person striking his fellow, and it implies a financial payment, so too, when the Torah uses the word “tachat” when it is used in context of someone knocking out the eye of someone else [“an eye FOR AN eye”],  it means financial restitution.

It is also noted that when it comes to the punishment of an intentional murderer the Torah specifically says that the murderer must be put to death and that financial restitution is not possible. This seems to imply that in other severe offensive of bodily harm financial compensation is adequate.

It is also worth pointing out a “lesser-realized” truth about observance of the Torah. It is a misconception that Orthodox Jews observe the Torah. It is not true. Well, at least it is not true to say that Orthodox Jews observe the Torah as it is written. Orthodox Jews observe the Torah as interpreted by the Talmud and as practiced in accordance with Oral tradition.

As such, even without getting into the logical interpretations or commentaries to this passage, it is simply enough for us to know that this is how the passage was always interpreted. There has never been a Jewish court in history that took out an eye from one who caused another to lose an eye, or cut off the hand of someone who caused another to lose a hand. The financial payment is the Oral tradition. It is the Talmudic tradition. This is Jewish law.

Not everything in the Torah is meant to be taken literally. There are many passages in the Torah that are simply considered to be “a figure of speech.” For example, all the passages that speak of God having physical features or body parts are only a figure of speech because God is without body. The Torah is written in a manner that relates to human understanding. When you tell your kids to take a shower, does it mean you want them to rip out the shower stall and tub from the wall and take it somewhere? Of course not. It means that they should clean and bathe themselves. A figure of speech.

Today we don’t administer any type of physical punishment in the Jewish court. Today’s Jewish courts, the Beit Din, only arbitrate financial disputes between parties. All the rest is left to God (and the secular authorities!) to decide how to punish perpetrators of severe physical injury.

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah reading, click on the links below.