Parashat Mishpatim

An Eye for $100, A Tooth for About Ten Bucks

Several interpretations of "an eye for an eye" all provide valuable insights into ethical lessons of the Torah.

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Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

"If everyone lived by 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,' the world would be blind and toothless." --Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof
Tevye may not have realized it, but he summarized, very accurately, the Talmud's understanding of "an eye for an eye," which first appears in this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim.

Last week, we heard Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, the headlines of Jewish belief and ethics. Imposing and impressive, they convey moving moral messages. Yet they say little about the details of how to live an ethical Jewish life.

This week, the Torah turns its attention to the details of Jewish law and practice: "Mishpatim" = ordinances, rules, regulations. There are more specific mitzvot (commandments), more explicit commands, in this week's portion than in almost any other.

The abundance and variety of these mitzvot reinforce an ancient insight of Judaism: there is an innate connection between the ritual and the spiritual, between the ethical and the ethereal. In our portion, "mundane" matters of diet and farming mingle with "profound" issues of personal sacrifice and capital punishment. Every moment, mundane or profound, carries the potential for holiness.

The potential for holiness actualizes most acutely in matters of justice, deciding between right and wrong. In matters of personal injury, Mishpatim sets out one of the most (wrongly) infamous passages of the Hebrew Bible. Consider this oft-quoted phrase in its actual context:

Exodus 21:22-21:27

(translation Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)
When two men scuffle and deal a blow to a pregnant woman, so that her children abort-forth, but other harm does not occur, he is to be fined, yes, fined, as the woman's spouse imposes for him, but he is to give it only according to the assessment.

But if harm should occur, then you are to give life in place of life--eye in place of eye, tooth in place of tooth, hand in place of hand, foot in place of foot, burnt-scar in place of burnt-scar, wound in place of wound, bruise in place of bruise.

When a man strikes the eye of his serf or the eye of his handmaid, and ruins it, he is to send him free at liberty for the sake of his eye; if the tooth of his serf or the tooth of his handmaid he breaks off, he is to send him free at liberty for the sake of his tooth.

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Rabbi Ben Lanckton

Rabbi Lanckton received his BA in Theater Studies and Philosophy from Yale College in 1990 and his rabbinic ordination, with a major in Talmud, from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1996. He served at two Jewish Community Centers and a Hillel Center before joining the Chaplaincy at MGH and beginning his time teaching at the Boston Synagogue.