Shabbat is more than a day of refraining from worldly activity.

When experienced to its spiritual fullest, its holiness enlightens all other days of the week.

We invite you to enhance your Shabbat with these words of Torah.


Man staring at the sunset at the kotel while praying

An Eye for An Eye? Really?

An Eye for An Eye? Really?

Jacobson, Rabbi YY
January 27, 2022

[The sages have] concluded that what the verse meant with the words ‘a wound for a wound,’ or ‘an eye for an eye,’ ‘a tooth for a tooth,’ etc. is monetary compensation. If a person was hired to work for you for his entire life on all possible jobs, how much would the value decrease if he was missing an eye? That must be paid up, in addition to all of his or her medical expenses, and in addition to covering his or her wage during his illness, and in addition to paying for the pain and the humiliation.

The Gaon of Vilna offers a… brilliant insight. The Torah does not say, ‘an eye for an eye,’ It says, literally, ‘an eye beneath an eye.’ In correct Hebrew grammar, ‘an eye for an eye’ should have been stated in these words: ‘ayin bead ayin,’ instead of ‘ayin tachat ayin,’ an eye beneath an eye. Why did the Torah not use the more appropriate ‘ayin bead (literally, for) ayin‘ instead of ‘ayin tachat‘ (literally, underneath)?


This hints to us that the punishment is beneath the eye. The three Hebrew letters for the Hebrew word ayin—’eye’—are ayin, yod, nun. If we take the letters that are directly ‘beneath’ each of these letters, i.e., that follow them in the alphabet, we get the three letters pei, kaf, samech, which, when rearranged, yield the Hebrew word kesef, ‘money.’

This truth is really expressed in the very word ‘tachat.’ The word tachat connotes not identical substitution, but one item substituted for a different item. This strange phraseology of tachat is found in one other place in the Torah, in the Book of Genesis. After Abraham lifts his sword ready to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, he was suddenly told by the angel of G-d not to sacrifice Isaac, ‘Abraham went and took the ram and brought it up for a burnt offering instead of (tachat) his son.’ We see from here that tachat does not imply a duplicate substitution (retaliation), but rather implies monetary compensation.


The Talmud dedicates two pages in which nine of the greatest sages delve into the text and deduce that the meaning of the Torah is not physical punishment but monetary compensation…


But why doesn’t the Torah simply say what it means? If the Torah never meant to mandate physical punishment in cases of personal injury, why wasn’t the text more clearly written? A great deal of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and trouble could have been avoided had the Torah simply stated, ‘The court shall levy the appropriate compensatory payment in cases of personal injury.’


Some even want to say that 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. Yet this is simply untrue. Throughout all of Jewish history, we do not have a SINGLE RECORD of any Torah judge implementing ‘an eye for an eye!’

It is here that we come to discover the nuanced way in which Judaism has been presented. The biblical text is not a blueprint for practical law; the fact is that there is almost not a single mitzvah in the Torah that can be fully understood when reading the biblical text…


What then is the purpose of the biblical text? It describes not so much practical law, but rather the full meaning of a person’s actions from G-d’s perspective. Its words, written often in code, capture the full scope and meaning of every single action of a person, on the most spiritual, abstract level, all the way down to the most concrete plane.


Maimonides, [explains]… that the Torah confronts a serious dilemma as it moves to convey its deeply nuanced approach to cases of personal injury: using the tools at its disposal, how can Jewish law best reflect the discrepancy between the ‘deserved’ and ‘actual’ punishment?


An eye for an eye is the ultimate statement of human equality. Every person’s eye is as precious as anyone else’s. The eye of a prince is worth no more than the eye of a peasant. This was completely new in history, transforming the landscape of the moral language of civilization. (The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, for example, legislated that the eye of a noble was of much greater value than the eye of a commoner.)


Had the Torah, however, mandated financial payment from the outset, the full gravity of the crime would not have been conveyed. The event would have been consigned to the realm of dinei mamonot, monetary crimes, and the precious nature of human life and limb would have been diminished.


The gravity of the crime is such that, on a theoretical level, on the level of ‘deserved punishment,’ the case belongs squarely in the realm of dinei nefashot, capital law. The perpetrator may deserve the physical loss of a limb in return for the damage inflicted upon his victim. Torah law, however, will not consider physical mutilation as a possible punishment for a crime. The penalty must therefore be commuted into financial terms.


The Torah, therefore, proceeds to express, with delicate balance, both theory and practice within the law. First, the written text records the punishment for wounding your fellow, in terms of compensation. Then the Torah goes on to express the ‘deserved punishment’ without any mitigation: ‘…an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…’ In this way, the severity of the crime is immediately made clear to all. The Oral Law serves as the vehicle of transmission, so we don’t err in practice.


Jewish law thus finds a way to memorialize both the ‘deserved’ and the ‘actual’ punishments within the halachic code.

Why is this so crucial? So that you never think that maiming someone’s body is merely a monetary issue, like breaking his watch. It is not! It is something you have no way of atoning for even if you pay him all the money in the world. Even if you did it by mistake, you can never compensate for it via finances alone.


It also teaches us the truth that there are no exceptions. An eye of a peasant child is no less of value than the eye of a powerful monarch. If I poke out that eye, I have done something for which there is no real way of atonement through money.

Here we have one example of how one verse in Torah, far from expressing the harshness of Judaism, actually served as a blueprint to teach our people the infinite dignity of the human body carved in G-d’s image.


This we must teach the world.”