The Truth About “an Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth” (Is it Meant to be Taken Literally Within Jewish Law?)

EyeforanEyeSlider

Ask your average Jew the name of Jesus’s mother and you’ll most likely get a “Mary.” Ask him the name of Moses mother and you’ll most likely get a blank stare. Despite the fact that we Jews are the people of the book, for many of us in the last couple generations, the books we know do not include our own.

What that amounts to is a very educated people which is very ignorant about its own heritage. And being that we’re a small group, often living amongst many different types of people, it’s not so uncommon for Jews to confuse their beliefs with those from other religions.

So, for example, despite the fact that both birth control and abortions are allowed at times within Jewish law, many Jews nowadays confuse Judaism with Catholicism and believe that Orthodox law prohibits both in all circumstances.

When it comes to “an eye for an eye,” many Jews also misunderstand the Jewish view here and believe that this Torah verse is meant to be taken literally, much like it is within certain branches of Islam.

Which brings me to a case going on right now in Saudi Arabia where the Islamic court has sentenced a man to paralysis. The defendant was convicted of assaulting and paralyzing another man during a fight, and the court is searching for a sugreon who will agree to cut the defandant’s spinal cord in retribution for his crime.

Such a scenario never has, nor ever would take place within the Jewish court system because according to the Talmud, if someone damages or destroys another person’s eye, tooth, or any other bodily part, the punishment is not corporeal but rather monetary.

So if the Talmud rules that the punishment only involves money, why would the Torah use the language of one body part being equivalent for another? Because the Torah is trying to teach us that on some level an eye should be for an eye.

If a human being’s eye is only worth dollars and cents, a person with a lot of dollars and cents could just go around gouging out eyes one moment and handing out money the next.

In practice we only sentence with a monetary retribution because a bodily punishment would be too barbaric according to Jewish thought. However, the deeper lesson here is that a monetary retribution is only sufficient if the perpetrator internalizes the severity of his crime – something that no one should be ignorant about.

An "A" for Effort on Rosh Hashanah (Why Results Aren't All That Matter When it Comes to Teshuva)
Changing Teams: Amare Stoudemire and the Orthodox Perspective on Converting to Judaism

Comments

comments

You May Also Like

Allison About Allison

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

Comments

  1. thought provoking.

    i (Catholic) was always told that “an eye for an eye” was meant to stop overkill in the form of retribution or revenge. it was about being even-handed when meting out justice or punishment.

  2. Hi, interesting subject for a post. I just wanted to add that the monetary compensation is meant to be the equivalent of that person’s eye– which is why a photographer, for example, would get more compensation for losing his eyes than a philosopher, let’s say. Therefore, my understanding of why we don’t take it literally is not just because of it being barbaric, but because monetary compensation is actually more just than a literal “eye for an eye.” If a philosopher pokes out a photographer’s eyes, it’s not exactly even to punch out the philosopher’s eyes, and vice versa. If an 85 year old man with cataracts pokes out a 5 year old’s eyes or vice versa, it’s hardly even to take an “eye for an eye.”

  3. aren’t Christians supposed to “turn the other cheek”?

    • Interesting point, Galit. As I’ve said many times, I’m not an expert on Christianity, but my understanding is that “turn the other cheek” is what Jesus’s approach was as opposed to “an eye for an eye.” Meaning, he stressed pacificism instead of retribution.

      Now while Jews are against corporeal retribution, we’re equally against pacificism. If someone wrongs another person we believe that they should be punished in some appropriate way (depending on the offence).

  4. When Jesus said “turn the other cheek” he meant it in terms of personal revenge, not in everything. Jesus was definitely not a pacifist as he himself said “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The New Testament upholds such things like capital punishment (in Romans 13:4), for example.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not an expert on Christianity, but I did read some of the Christian Bible for some college classes.

    I know you said that the Christian Bible upholds things like capital punishment, but how about the famous story where Jesus tells the rabbis who are about to carry out capital punishment on an adulterous woman that “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone?”

    A Christian site that I found on a random Google search said the following about this story:

    “Jesus was not arguing with the judgment. Nor was Jesus arguing the law nor the woman’s guilt. Jesus was arguing with our right to execute the woman.”

    Perhaps *this* is the place where Judaism and Christianity disagree. Jews believe that although capital punishment happens only in very, very rare circumstances (after a person has been warned that what he’s doing is wrong and is punishable by death and has had two unrelated witnesses see the act committed from two separate vantage points), people do have the right to carry out the death penalty.

    • Catholic Mom says:

      Theoretically, Christianity is a completely pacifist religion. In fact, there has always been a completely pacifist strain in Christianity throughout history, as witness the Mennonites and Amish today. In practice, once Constantine converted to Christianity, the Church started having a vested interest in the power of the state. At that point they developed a somewhat schizophrenic theology that acknowledged the authority of the secular state to punish crime and prosecute war, while remaining themselves, as an ecclesiastical body, innocent of such acts. (Even during the Inquisition, the Church made a big point that executions were carried out by the state, never by the Church. Pretty hypocritical, but that was not our shining moment.) That’s pretty much the theology of 99% of Christianity to this very day. Personally, however, we are always called to forgive unconditionally, although it is extremely rare, though incredibly inspiring, to see anyone actually do this. Consider that the Amish and Mennonites — who won’t press charges against people who commit crimes against them and won’t use weapons to defend themselves — actually suffer vastly less from crime and violence than the rest of us because they have created large communities based on love and forgiveness rather than law and punishment.

      • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

        Judaism believes in forgiveness as well, but we also believe in justice. I don’t know the statistics that you’re referring to in terms of these communities and how much violence they suffer. Pretty sure that Jewish communities have VERY low violence rates. But it’s not only just about how much or how little crime happens. We believe in the idea that when you do something wrong there should be a penalty. Just like a parent has consequences for his or her kid for misbehaving, so too there are consequences when adults hurts one another.

  6. Hi, I would like to use this as a source for my essay. What is the name of the author?
    Best regards and thanks for the insight!
    Maya

  7. Elizabeth says:

    If we all took an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, then the whole world would be left blind and toothless and now where would that leave us?

Speak Your Mind

*

More on Jew in the City