An Eye for and Eye? Really?

Misunderstanding and its Consequences

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-124:18) has one of the most often quoted yet misunderstood verses in the Torah.

And this misunderstanding has had serious consequences about how non-Jews view the “Old Testament” and Orthodox Judaism.

Here is the verse…

“… thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Exodus 21:23 (KJV)

Most people (Including MLK, and Pope Francis) seem to think that the strict justice of the Jewish Old Testament means that if Reuven pokes out Shimon’s eye, the courts will have Reuven’s eye poked out as a punishment in order to serve justice.

However, every teenager studying in Yeshiva knows that this cannot be, and it is not the Torah Law.

If Reuven is a blind telemarketer and Shimon is an airline pilot, how is justice served if blind Reuven has his eye poked out as his punishment for destroying Shimon’s career as a pilot?!

Reuven gets to keep working and making money and Shimon can never work as a pilot again! How is that just?

This is also obvious from a careful reading of the Hebrew text and studying these verses in context.

What does the Hebrew say?

עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן – Ayin TACHAT Ayin – Literally means “an eye UNDER (i.e. in the place of) an eye.” The implication is that the aggressor Reuven must ‘replace’ Shimon’s eye.

That means if Shimon can no longer work as a pilot, his lost eye could be potentially worth millions in lost income awarded by the court. However Shimon was a telemarketer, the value of his lost eye would be a lot less in damages imposed by the court.

(The term for literally taking an eye for an eye would be עַיִן בְּעַיִן which is used in Deuteronomy 19:21)

It’s about payment for damages…

Note that the verses preceding the “eye for an eye” statement are talking about the aggressor taking responsibility for financial damages..

Exodus 21:25 – When [two or more] parties fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning [by the court].

But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be [the reckoned value of a] life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

To further make the point, the very next verse talks about a master who strikes the eye of his slave. The master’s eye is not taken out. Instead he must make recompense for the eye (the word TACHAT – in place of the eye is used). What is given in place of the eye? The slave is set free.

וְכִֽי־יַכֶּ֨ה אִ֜ישׁ אֶת־עֵ֥ין עַבְדּ֛וֹ אֽוֹ־אֶת־עֵ֥ין אֲמָת֖וֹ וְשִֽׁחֲתָ֑הּ לַֽחׇפְשִׁ֥י יְשַׁלְּחֶ֖נּוּ תַּ֥חַת עֵינֽוֹ׃

Exodus 21:26 When a slave-owning party strikes the eye of a slave, male or female, and destroys it, that person shall let the slave go free on account of (TACHAT – in recompense for) the eye.


Right now Israeli society is in a turmoil because the Netanyanu Government wants to institute legislation to reform the Supreme Court.

Shmuel teaching Torah
Shmuel Teaching Torah

The details of the argument between the Right and the Left in Israel about this issue are beyond the scope of this newsletter.

However the shrill cries from the Left of “This is the end of democracy in Israel and will result in economic devastation!” and the response of the Right saying “our changes will bring us in line with other democracies” are complete opposites.

The source of the uncivil discourse comes from each side assuming (wrongly) what the other means. It is time to start listening to each other and asking questions instead of telling our foes what their positions and intentions are.

With blessings from the Galilee for peace and harmony among brothers!

PS. If you have any questions or comments, you can simply hit reply to this email and it comes straight to my inbox. I love hearing from you!

An Eye for and Eye? Really?

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