An ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’


One of the well-known halachot found in our parasha, Emor, is the law of retributive justice (lex talionis), known popularly as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (ayin tachat ayin)” — “And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him [namely], fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him.” (Vayikra 24:19-20)

This is the second time we have encountered this halacha, as it initially appears in Parashat Mishpatim: “But if there is a fatality, you shall give a life for a life, ayin tachat ayin, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.” (Shemot 21:23-25) 

It seems that our four verses suggest that if the mazik (one who physically injures another) is to receive his just consequences, his punishment must consist of receiving the exact same injury he inflicted on the nizak (harmed individual), a practice known as “mirror punishment.” In fact, such an approach was followed in the ancient Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi (circa 1750 BCE). 

A very different interpretation, however, is found within the rabbinic tradition. In one of the earliest of these texts to analyze our pasukim is the second century work, Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael. Rabbi Yishmael categorically rejects the concept of mirror punishment and asserts that the Torah champions monetary payment in its stead. Moreover, both he and Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai are quoted as maintaining this position in Talmud Bavli, Baba Kama 84a.

This is the accepted p’sak din, as we find in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chovel u’Mazik I:1-6: “What is meant by ‘damages’? If a person cuts off the hand or the foot of a colleague, we theoretically consider the injured colleague as a servant being sold in the marketplace and evaluate his value before the injury and his value afterwards. The person who caused the injury must pay the depreciation in value. This is alluded to in the Torah’s phrase, ‘ayin tachat ayin.’ The oral tradition interprets ‘tachat,’ translated as ‘for,’ as an indication that the verse requires financial recompense (l’shalame mammon).”

The Rambam utilizes ayin tachat ayin as a platform for expounding upon the inextricable link that obtains between the Written and Oral laws: “Although these interpretations are obvious from the study of the Written Law, and they are explicitly mentioned in the Oral Tradition transmitted by Moshe from Mount Sinai, they are all regarded as halachot from Moshe. This is what our ancestors saw in the court of Yehoshua and in the court of Shmuel of Ramah, and in every single Jewish court that has functioned from the days of Moshe our teacher until the present age.”

The Rambam’s first sentence is more or less what we would expect in reference to the connection between Torah She’Bichtav and Torah She’Ba’al Peh. What, however, does the phrase, “this is what our ancestors saw in the court of Yehoshua and in the court of Shmuel of Ramah,” add to this analysis? Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik addresses this unusual formulation in his 1964 Yahrzeit drasha for his father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik.

The Rav calls this act of bearing witness, massoret ha’ra’iyah, a unique aspect of Torah She’Ba’al Peh that is acquired through having seen actual court cases and the decisions that were rendered. In our particular instance this refers to the countless piskei din (halachic decisions) that conclude that ayin tachat ayin must be understood as mammon. 

How is this massoret ha’ra’iyah to be differentiated from other parts of Torah She’Ba’al Peh?

The Rav notes that in almost all areas of Torah exegesis, it is acceptable to explain a verse according to its peshat, rather than according to the drashot found in Oral Law. In the case of massoret ha’ra’iyah, however, it is forbidden to follow such an approach.

The Rav’s examination of the Rambam’s words, “this is what our ancestors saw in the court of Yehoshua and in the court of Shmuel of Ramah,” is a conceptual tour de force, for, in so doing, he reveals to us a new aspect of Torah She’Ba’al Peh that brings us to a deeper level of understanding. While the phrase might seem to be a simple narrative assertion by the Rambam, the Rav teaches us that massoret ha’ra’iyah is emblematic of an entire class of statements within Torah She’Ba’al Peh, and serves as a crucial conceptual and halachic link between Torah She’Bichtav and Torah She’Ba’al Peh. 

May our deeper appreciation of the multiple aspects of Torah She’Ba’al Peh and its unbreakable connection to Torah She’Bichtav bring us ever closer to the Almighty. V’chane yihi ratzon.