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

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.

If you found this content meaningful and want to help further our mission through our Keter, Makom, and Tikun branches, please consider becoming a Change Maker today.



Sort by

  • Avatar photo Lark says on September 3, 2010

    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.

  • Avatar photo Debi says on September 7, 2010

    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.”

  • Avatar photo Galit says on September 8, 2010

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

    • Avatar photo Allison says on September 8, 2010

      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).

  • Avatar photo Jacqueline says on September 26, 2010

    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.

  • Avatar photo Allison says on September 27, 2010

    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.

    • Avatar photo Catholic Mom says on June 12, 2013

      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.

      • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on June 25, 2013

        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.

  • Avatar photo Maya says on May 14, 2013

    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!

    • Avatar photo Allison says on May 14, 2013

      I’m the author – Allison Josephs. Good luck!

  • Avatar photo Elizabeth says on August 8, 2014

    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?

    • Avatar photo Am Israel says on June 18, 2017

      And if there was no punishment ppl could do whatever they want as they did before the torah. The saying you use sounds nice poetically but it doesnt make it true. The torah doesnt mean an eye for an eye literally. There are punishments yes but if someone injures someone else you dont go injure them (and you dont need the talmud to understand this it is in the bible itself)… This quote puts down something it doesnt understand.

  • Avatar photo Horatio says on January 24, 2018

    In response to Steve Brudney’s comment above -(I don’t know how to insert my comment there because it seems that you have to first subscribe to facebook)- from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism it is axiomatic that Talmudic interpretation was there since Sinai. In the case of “eye for an eye” there is also a very extensive discussion in the Talmud showing why it must mean monetary compensation. Perhaps you will find additional evidence there that will show clearly enough that even earlier than the Talmud period only monetary compensation was taken.
    See here http://www.halakhah.com/rst/nezikin/31c%20-%20Baba%20Kamma%20-%2062b-93a.pdf p. 68 ff.
    Many later authorities, too many to list here, have also shown by either logic or analysis of scripture that “eye for an eye” can’t be literal and that it was never understood as such.


Contact formLeave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related posts

Noa Argamani’s Redemption Gives Us A Model To Dream Of

The Truth on How Israelis are Fighting this War (Despite What the Media Says)

Previous post

Changing Teams: Amare Stoudemire and the Orthodox Perspective on Converting to Judaism

Next post

What's Considered a Valid Reason to Convert To Judaism?

We’ll Schlep To You

In Your
Inbox Weekly