Mishpatim: The Coded Meaning Of An Eye For An Eye

Our Sages have always understood this verse as calling for financial damages.

Table for Five: Mishpatim

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist


An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, -Ex. 21:24 

Rivkah Slonim, Educational Director, Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life, Binghamton University

Some of the most famous in our Torah, the words “ayin tachat ayin,” most often translated as “an eye for an eye,” have historically spawned accusations against the cruel judicial system of ancient Jews. The Mishna’s interpretation, however, rules categorically that one is obligated to compensate the injured party monetarily; there is never discussion about actually blinding someone.

Many think this is a novel re-interpretation conveniently introduced as enlightened people found the literal meaning barbaric. Its veracity, however, lies in properly understanding the Biblical word tachat which literally means “under”, and contextually means “instead of.” In Leviticus 24:18 we find the same term employed: One who slays an animal [that belongs to another] shall pay for it: nefesh tachat nefesh, a life for a life. The words “a life for a life” follow the words “shall pay for it;” it must mean that a live animal or its monetary value is given to the owner in place of the dead animal as compensation.

So why does the Torah use terminology that can be so easily misunderstood? The verbiage, our masters teach, is exact and contains strata of additional information.

The kabbalists interpret ayin tachat ayin to teach us that the human eye corresponds to, and is directly beneath the divine eye, just as certainly as each of our limbs is sourced in and corresponds to one of God’s spiritual qualities. When understood this way: who would attack or hurt another? Who would seek to assault a reflection of the Divine?


Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, VP of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

The Vilna Gaon noted that this verse doesn’t actually say “an eye for an eye,” but rather “an eye beneath an eye.” He noted a hint in the verse that it refers to monetary compensation for injuries. The letters beneath (subsequent to) the letters in the Hebrew alphabet for the word ayin (eye), are the letters of the word kesef (money).

As this pandemic drags on and intensifies, our eyes are pained and weary. Our vision blurs from endless hours staring at screens. In our exhaustion, this teaching offers a different perspective. This verse teaches that to understand what God wants from us, instead of looking ahead at the screen, we must look “beneath.” When our friend tells us on the phone that they are fine, can we hear the pain under their words?

Chris Burkard described photographing surfers in the arctic as: “Riding the storm surf with crazy undertows and huge currents and winds from some of the roughest seas in the world, but it all kind of comes together when the storms subside and there’s these glimpses in between these harsh moments when you get perfection.” May we live to see the day when the storm of this pandemic subsides. Until then, may we glimpse the glimmer of hope hidden beneath our sorrows.

As Amanda Gorman wrote in her inaugural poem: “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, If only we’re brave enough to be it.”


Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein, Milken Community School

I recently asked my eighth grade Jewish Studies class to compare our pasuk to the Mishna (Bava Kamma 8:1): “One who wounds their fellow is liable to compensate them on five counts: for injury, for pain, for healing, for loss of income and for indignity.” I tried to help my students see that there is a vast ocean of difference between the Written and Oral Torahs in this case. The pshat [simple meaning] of our verse suggests a justice system based on vengeance whereby if someone injures you, you can harm them back. The rabbinic tradition completely reinterprets this law by requiring financial payment instead of physical retribution.

Such a bold departure invites us to stop and marvel at the vision behind the rabbinic project. Our sages were reimagining Judaism, making it both livable and logical in the tumultuous period that followed the destruction of the Temple. Their creative interpretations were deeply radical, incensing Karaites and other biblical literalists who claimed that the early rabbis went too far beyond the original written text.

In our specific case of physical harm, the rereading of our verse promotes a less cruel and more restorative justice system. It is this creativity and sensitivity that I convey when introducing my students to the Oral Torah. I remind them that while the Written Torah is our tree of life, the Oral Torah allows us to hold fast to it. Without the rabbinic tradition, we might all be walking around blinded, maimed or worse.


Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at AJU

How can the Torah possibly call for in-kind repayment for an injury? “You hurt me, I hurt you” just doesn’t jive with the value we place on human life nor would it be legally defensible. In a pre-biblical society, one could actually retaliate against an attacker. But imagine the endless cycle of fighting and revenge that would continue through the generations. Maybe the Torah’s intention is to limit the punishment by taking the decision out of human hands by imposing some outside standard.

Still, ours is not the first generation to find the verse challenging. Rabbis of the Talmud (Tractate Baba Kamma) developed comprehensive standards for monetary compensation for damages, pain, expenses, incapacitation, and mental anguish. Drawing on an extreme example for proof, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai asks: ‘if a blind person damaged the sight of another – how would he be able to give an eye for an eye?’ The blind man’s eye being injured as repayment would not, he says, have the same impact if the blind man is already unable to see.

Biblical Scholar, Nechama Leibowitz, points out that this interpretation is a direct reading: “eye for an eye” (ayin tahat ayin). While usually translated as “for” tahat means “instead of.” In place of the eye something different is substituted – money.

I am amazed at the open admission that the verse was never intended to be literal, teaching us that Torah truly lives when those who hold it use its intention to adapt its meaning into perpetuity.


Rabbi David Block, Associate Head of School, Shalhevet High School

That this law refers to monetary compensation is incontrovertibly clear: The Gemara brings a plethora of evidence to support the notion (Bava Kama 73); the Rambam insists this understanding was part of the Oral Law that Moshe received directly from God (Hilchos Chovel U’Mazik 1:6); and even scholars note that monetary compensation was quite in line with the norms of the Ancient Near East (Alter; Berlin & Bretiler).

The question, though, is this: If the verse only ever intended to make the perpetrator financially culpable, why doesn’t the Torah just say that? Why is the text ostensibly misleading?

R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Mipninei HaRav) suggests that the wording of the Torah demonstrates a deep understanding of the experience of the victim. Money cannot ever fully repay the loss that the victim suffers. Our limbs perform physical functions, but they are also infused with limitless spiritual and personal potential. How dearly would it cheapen one’s loss to simply assign it a monetary value, for the Torah to explicitly write that culpability for inflicting that pain is just a number? Theoretically, the only way to truly appreciate the loss one inflicts on another is for the perpetrator to experience the totality of that pain him/herself. So, while the Law limits culpability to monetary restitution for practical (and other) reasons, the Torah sensitively uses language that more accurately speaks to what the perpetrator deserves, language that empathetically acknowledges the victim’s loss.

With thanks to Rivkah Slonim, Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, and Rabbi David Block

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