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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Questions to consider:

1. What does and an eye "cost?" A tooth? A bruise?

2. What if a blind man took out a seeing man's eye? Or a toothless man knocked out someone's tooth?

3. Does the servant get better or worse treatment than the average citizen based on these verses?

The Big Question: Does an eye for an eye really mean an eye for an eye?

Answer One:

The Talmud comments (Tractate Baba Kamma, 84a):
"An eye in place of an eye" means monetary compensation; if you want to argue that it means an actual eye, look at what Rav Ashi says:

Later in the Torah, we learn (in the case of a man who has been caught having sex with an unengaged virgin) that the phrase "in place of" means monetary compensation--just as it means money there, so too it means money here.

Come on, really? Answer two:

The Talmud comments (same place):
IF the Torah really meant an eye for an actual eye, THEN there would be no way to punish a blind blinder or a toothless dental assailant.

SO the Torah must really mean monetary compensation. BUT if it meant "money," why didn't it just say "money?" BECAUSE the Torah comes to teach that taking a life, an eye, a tooth, is so wrong IT IS AS IF the offending party should lose what they themselves have taken.

But what did this mean way back when? Answer three:
Everett Fox, footnote to this passage:
This has historically been taken to indicate a kind of strict Hebrew vengeance, as in the current expression "an eye for an eye." But the passage (note, by the way, its length) may have been meant as a contrast to the Babylonian system, where the rich could in essence pay to get out of such situations. In Israel this could not be done, and thus we are dealing not with "strict justice" but with strict fairness.

A Final Thought

Whichever interpretation you find most compelling, in each case the Torah refutes a mistaken opinion that the reader held before encountering this passage. The laws of the Torah usually come to teach something unexpected, some new way of considering an ethical situation that its readers may not have considered. We read the Torah to discover these new insights; we reread the Torah, every word every year, to find new, even more relevant meanings in the insights we discovered the year before.

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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.