Emor: Personal Injury Law

Financial Compensation

If any party mains another [person]: what was done shall be done in return – fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury inflicted on a human being shall be inflicted in return. – Lev 24:19-20

The Torah’s tit-for-tat law of personal injury seems, on its face, to be a recipe for disaster. As Gandhi quipped, “an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” But this literal interpretation is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Torah and Judaism. We don’t follow the Torah’s commandments based on the plain meaning of the words as understood by ourselves; we rely on the teachings of the great sages over millennia to understand what the Torah is actually saying.

In the case of this verse, the great medieval commentator Rashi says it shouldn’t be understood literally but rather means that financial compensation must be paid to the victim. If someone God forbid pokes out your eye, how will poking out their eye help you? Chizkuni defends Rashi’s interpretation by pointing out that “in many instances it would be impossible to carry out the literal meaning of the text, and it would even be totally unfair, for instance, for a one eyed person to have to lose one eye if he had gouged out the eye of a person who had two good eyes with which to see.” In order to exact justice, one must consult with a court of learned judges whose extensive knowledge of Jewish law enables them to put a monetary price on bodily injury.

Image: “The Three Judges” by Honore Victorin Daumier, c. 1859

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