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Topic: Eye for an Eye, Explanation of

Barbara Beran of Rockville, Maryland wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

Please explain why it is said that 'an eye for an eye' refers to monetary recompense for an injury. I have heard that it has something to do with the letter ayin - but I do not know the link.


Dear Barbara Beran,

The phrase 'an eye for an eye' is one of the most well known yet misunderstood in the entire Torah.

Obviously, an eye is of inestimable value. You can never replace it or put a price on it. Certainly, blinding the offender will do nothing to help the victim.

However, an eye does indeed have a monetary aspect to it. Let's say, for example, that the victim is a football player who earns a million dollars a year. After losing an eye, he can no longer play big-league ball. His best job prospect is coaching a minor-league team, which pays an average salary. Losing his eye cost him millions of dollars in actual financial loss.

This financial loss is what the Torah refers to when it says "an eye to replace an eye." The eye can't be replaced, but at least the victim can reclaim the financial loss caused by the loss of his eye.

In addition to the financial value, the Torah requires four types of punitive damages: The offender must recompense the victim for pain, embarrassment, unemployment, and medical expenses.

But how do we know that 'an eye for an eye' is not literal? First of all, 'an eye for an eye' is a bad translation. The correct translation is 'an eye to replace an eye.' The word 'replace' connotes payment rather than revenge.

But to understand any verse properly, you need to look at the context.

The verses before and after this verse describe someone who accidentally kills another person's animal: "Whoever kills an animal must pay for it - a soul to replace a soul." (Leviticus 24:18) Obviously, the term "a soul to replace a soul" means payment. We don't kill the person, or his animal, because he killed an animal! It says explicitly 'he must pay for it.' Therefore, it's logical that 'an eye to replace an eye' also means payment. To say otherwise is to take the verse out of context.

Furthermore, if the verse were literal, what would happen if a blind person poked out someone's eye? Would he be exempt? And what if a person with only one eye poked the eye of someone with two eyes, or the other way around?

Above all, taking out someone's eye is dangerous and could easily cause his death. Would the Torah require that an offender be put at risk of death, especially in the case where his offense was accidental?

Probably the strongest indication that this verse is not literal is the very fact the Jewish people say so. Our tradition is a faithful, unbroken chain dating back to Sinai. (The evidence for this is a topic for another discussion.) In all Jewish history there is absolutely no record of this verse ever having been implemented literally. The very idea is abhorrent to any Jew.

The Vilna Gaon discovered an ingenious clue, hinting that "an eye to replace an eye" refers to paying money. Very literally, the verse reads 'an eye under an eye." Take the three letters 'under' the three letters of the word 'eye' in the Hebrew alphabet. They spell 'kesef' - money! [Eye in Hebrew is 'ayin' - spelled 'ayin yud nun.' The letters immediately after ('under') each of these letters are 'Feh Kaf Samech.' ('Peh' and 'Feh' are the same in the Torah.) These letters spell 'kesef' - money!]

Sources:

  • Leviticus 24:18-21
  • Talmud, Tractate Baba Kama 83b
  • Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Exodus 23

 
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