Question: Could you please give me the true meaning of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc (see Exodus 21:23-25), as recorded in Jewish law and tradition?
Answer: The Talmud (Bava Kama 83b – which offers a number of logical and legal proofs) makes it very clear that the law of “an eye for an eye…” requires only that appropriate financial compensation be paid to a victim, and not that his attacker be physically mutilated. Yet, a careful reading of the text of the Torah itself easily bears out this conclusion. See, for instance, Exodus 21:19-20, in which one who intentionally inflicts injury on his fellow man is, if his victim recovers, only required to compensate him for medical expenses and lost time from employment. There is certainly no discussion of physical punishment. However, “an eye for an eye, etc, refers to someone who injured accidentally. If so, why would the Torah impose a far heavier punishment on accidental damage than on an intentional one?
Furthermore, the word “tachas” (“for”) is, according to Rabbi S.R. Hirsch in his commentary to the Torah, almost never used to mean negative punishment. Rather, it is used in reference to a replacement (as in “this should serve in the place of that”). See, for example, Genesis 2:26, Numbers 25:13, Deuteronomy 28:18, and Isaiah 60:17. Here too, the verse should be read “an eye to make up for an eye.” Yet, if it is to be taken literally, how would the loss of a second eye or limb (that of the one who caused the damage) “make up” for the loss of the first one (that of the victim)?
That’s a brief introduction to the issue. I hope and expect that you will build on this good start to your life-long “career” of Torah study, and find your way to enjoy the very pleasant and stimulating depths of knowledge to be found in the Torah – our national inheritance (see Deuteronomy 33:4).
Rabbi Boruch Clinton
[Editor: See here for another discussion of “An Eye for an Eye”.]