“Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Exodus 21:24).
If you close one eye and look ahead, you will be able to see a lot. But if you open both eyes, you will have clearer perception with more depth and perspective. The Bible is meant to be read with both eyes. Let me explain.
Jewish courts never mutilated an assailant who damaged another human being. There are at least three major problems with taking this verse literally:
It would be barbaric.
It would not help the victim.
It would almost never be fair.
For example, if the attacker only had one eye to begin with. The victim who lost one eye will still be able to see with his remaining eye. Removing the perpetrator’s eye will leave him totally blind. Or, if a surgeon cuts off the hand of an opera singer – the victim will still be able to sing with one hand. The surgeon will no longer be able to practise medicine if the judge takes off one of his hands.
Judaism claims that God’s revelation at Mount Sinai was not limited to the text written by Moses. This text is part of what God revealed, but not the whole. God clarified, reinforced and explained to Moses how to understand the written text. It was here that God explained that we should not actually cut out an attacker’s eye. Instead, the attacker should financially compensate his victim for the value of the lost limb, the cost of medical treatments, lost wages, pain and shame.
The Gaon of Vilna noted that this is alluded to in the text itself, which says “ayin tachat ayin” – an eye instead of (or literally under) an eye. The Hebrew word for eye is spelt with the three letters ayin yud nun. The Gaon explained that the three letters that appear after (or below) these letters in the alphabet are fay, chaf and samech. These three letters spell “kesef” – money. So, if you take out someone’s eye – ayin – the punishment is seen in the letters that appear “below” the letters of this word: kesef, money.
Now there is a very obvious question to be asked. If it is God’s intention all along that we give financial reparation for injuring someone, why is it not simply stated in the Torah? Why does the text say “an eye for an eye” if that is not what God intended?
If the Torah had simply written that we pay money for taking out someone’s eye – that would have been incredibly crude. It would have trivialised the monstrous act that was committed. The criminal cuts off an arm and writes a cheque. By saying “an eye for an eye”, the Torah expresses its disgust at the horribly vicious act that was committed and teaches the perpetrator that on some level – he deserves exactly what he did to his victim. But, as we have seen, if the court did this, it would be barbaric and unfair and would not help the victim. Therefore, in practice, the attacker makes financial restitution.
When we read the Torah with two eyes, it gains stereoscopic richness and depth. The written text talks about what the criminal deserves in theory, while the oral Torah teaches what should be done in practice.
By Rabbi Michael Skobac
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