An Eye for an Eye - Rabbinical Interpretation

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Posted ByNeal Walters on February 09, 1999 at 00:01:28:

An Eye for an Eye, and a Tooth for a Tooth
A summary of Rabbinic interpretation of this phrase as monetary damages.
By Neal Walters


Stone Chumash Translation - Exodus 21:22-25 If men shall fight and they collide with a pregnant woman and she miscarries, but there will be no fatality, he shall surely be punished as the husband of the woman shall cause to be assessed against him, and he shall pay it by order of judges. But if there shall be a fatality, then you shall award a life for a life; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot; a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.

Neal note: context is for injuring a pregnant woman who then miscarries but she does not die.

The Stone Chumash – page 423

Vs 22
Causing the death of a fetus is not a capital offense, but the person responsible must pay damages. These damages are assessed by the court in response to a claim made by the father. Such monetary damages are computed in the following manner: The court evaluates the woman as if she were a slave with a market value. She would be worth more when she is pregnant, because a prospective buyer would receive not only here services, but also her newborn as a slave. The reduction of value as a result of the accident is the damage that the court requires the assailant to pay (Rashi). Such a method can be employed regardless of whether or not slavery is practiced. A person’s “market value” consists of an assessment of his life expectancy, health, talent, experience, and so on, as if such as person’s services could be “purchased” for the rest of his life. If the person were injured, his “value” would go down according to the extent that his abilities were impaired.

Vs 24
In case there was no fatality, but the woman suffers injuries, the assailant must pay damages to her, which are computed as explained above (vs 22).
It is clear from the Talmud (Bava Kamma 83a-b) and the Mechilta that this term was always known to mean, as the Oral Law explains it, that the responsible party must pay the monetary value for an eye, in restitution for the eye that he had blinded. Never was there a Jewish court that ever blinded or otherwise inflicted a physical injury in revenge or retribution; the only corporal punishments ever imposed are the death penalty and lashes, where provided by the Torah. The question that remains, however, is why the Torah expressed this monetary punishment in terms that could be taken literally to mean that Jewish courts routinely mutilate people. Rambam and other commentators explain that in the Heavenly scales, the perpetrator deserves to lose his own eye – and for this reason cannot find atonement for his sin merely by making the required monetary payments; he must also beg his victims’ forgiveness- but the human courts have no authority to do more than require the responsible party to make monetary restitution.

Rashi – (a 12th Century French Rabbi famous for his commentary – which I have just the one volume for Exodus)
a burn – “and now the Torah discusses injury which does not cause depreciation of value, but causes pain alone…
a laceration – that is a blow that bring forth blood …. And if the victim became bedridden, he gives compensation for loss of income, for healing, for embarrassment, and for pain.
a hand – For although he gives the value of his hand – they do no exempt him from compensating for the pain
a bruise – It is a blow within which the blood coagulates but does not escape. Rather it reddens the flesh opposite it.

Stone Chumash Translation - Leviticus 24:17-22 And a man – if he strikes mortally any human life, he shall be put to death. 18 And a man who strikes mortally an animal life shall make restitution, a life for a life. 19 And if a man inflicts a wound in his fellow, as he did, so shall be done to him: 20 a break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; just as he will have inflicted a wound on a person, so shall be inflicted upon him. 21 One who strikes an animal shall make restitution, and one who strikes a person shall be put to death. 22 There shall be one law for you, it shall be for proselyte and native alike, for I, HaShem, am your God.

The Stone Chumash – page 693

VS 16-22 Laws of murder and damage. This passage contains perhaps the most misunderstood phrase in the Torah: an eye for an eye. The unlearned maintain that it is originally meant literally, but was later reinterpreted by the Sages to mean monetary compensation. This is wrong. The Torah never required anything other than monetary damages. In addition to the Oral Tradition from Sinai, the Talmud proves on logical ground and through Scriptural exegesis that the verses cannot be understood in any other way (Bava Kamma 83b-84a).

Vs 18 A life for a life - i.e., one who killed an animal must pay its market value.

Vs 20 So shall be inflicted upon him – The Sages expounded that these penalties are to be understood as monetary payment for damages. For example, a singer with a mangled finger would lose little of his value, but a pianist would lose a considerable part of his value if he lost the use of his hand.

From: Everyman’s Talmud, p 327
…the Gemara discusses the meaning of the lex talionis as ordained in Scripture. The Rabbis emphatically rejected the interpretation that a physical injury is to be inflicted upon the person who damages the limb of another, and argued that in justice monetary compensation only must be paid. ‘”Eye for eye” (Exod 21:24) that means a payment of money. You say that it means payment of money; but perhaps the intention is that the actual eye must be forfeited! Supposing, however, that the eye of the one was large and of the other small, how can I in that case apply the Scriptural dictum “eye for eye”? . . . Or supposing a blind man had knocked out the eye of another, or a man with an amputated arm had cut off the arm of another, or a lame man had made another lame, how can I fulfill in this case “eye for eye”? And the Torah declared, “Ye shall have one manner of law” (Lev 24:22) – that means a law which shall be the same for all of you’ (Bava Kamma 83b et seq.). [Footnote: And since the literal interpretation of ‘eye for eye,’ as shown, cannot be always justly applied, the words must bear another interpretation which would be universally applicable, viz. compensation in money.]

Other common misconceptions about Torah’s death penalty:

The death penalty:
…but there was great reluctance to resort to capital punishment and every endeavor was made to avoid it. Indeed, it was remarked: ‘A Sanhedrin which executed a person once in seven years was called destructive.’ (Mak I.10)

Warning Required
There is a concept that for the offender to be convicted, he must be warned by the witnesses that he is violating a commandment of Torah. The only reference I can currently find on this is:
“One who violates the Sabbath despite a warning from witnesses that he is committing a capital offense is liable to the death penalty imposed by the court. But one who does so intentionally, without being warned or witnessed, is punished by God with kareis, i.e., his soul is cut off from the nation.” See Exodus 31:14, Stone Chumash Commentary p 491

What is stoning?
The judgment having been delivered, the prisoner is taken out to be stoned….Even if the prisoner said, “I have something to plead on my behalf,” he is taken back to the Court four or five times, provides there is some substance in his words. Should they find in his favor, he is set free; otherwise he goes forth to be stoned, and a herald walks in front of him, announcing, “So-and-so is going forth to be stoned for having committed such-and-such crime; the witnesses against him were so-and-so; let whoever knows anything in his favor come and declare it for him.
The place of stoning was a height equal to that of two men. One of the witnesses pushes him by the loins, and should he turn himself over on his face, the witness reverses the position. If he die through the fall, the law has been carried out; but if not, the second witness takes the stone [must be of such weight as to require two men to carry it] and hurls it upon his heart. If he die from it, the law has been carried out; otherwise his stoning must be done by Israelites generally, as it is said, “The hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people” (Deut 17:7). The bodies of all persons stoned are subsequently hanged, so declared R. Eliezar; but the Rabbis say, Only those convicted of blasphemy and idolatry are hanged. …
The agonies of the execution were alleviated for the condemned criminal by his being given a drink which produced a state of stupefaction [cf. Matthew 27:34, Mark 15:23]. ‘He who goes forth to be executed is given a grain of frankincense in a cup of wine, that his senses should become numbed; as it is said, “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter of soul” (Prov 21:6). It has been taught that gracious women in Jerusalem used to provide this potion voluntarily; but if they failed to provide it, it was supplied from the funds of the community.’ (Sanhedrin 43a)
Source, “Everyman’s Talmud”, A. Cohen, Schocken Books, New York, 1949, pp.318-320.

Circumstantial evidence, however convincing, was not accepted. A witness was only allowed to testify who saw the crime actually committed. As an example of testimony which was not considered admissible the following is cited: ‘We saw the accused run after a man with a sword in his hand; the man who was pursued entered a shop on account of him and the accused entered the shop after him; there we saw the man slain and the sword, dripping with blood, in the hand of the murdered’ (Tosifta Sanhedrin VIII.3). It follows, therefore, that no charge could be sustained unless the actual commission of the crime was seen by two men of repute.

Source, “Everyman’s Talmud”, A. Cohen, Schocken Books, New York, 1949, pp.309.

Also see Deuteronomy Chapter 17 for general rules about trials, witnesses, etc…

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