An Eye for an Eye in the Bible?
[Based on an article by Matan Gringer (Mekor
Rishon, 17 February 2012, Shabat).
We are all familiar with the Biblical expression "an eye for an eye". We
usually automatically assume that it should mean that if someone pokes out the
eye of another then they should have their own eye poked out. The Rabbis said it
meant just the opposite: If you poke out the eye of someone else you should pay
monetary compensation. They said they were relying on an Oral Instruction
explicitly given by Moses himself. The technical term for this and similar
cases falls under the category of Haleca me-Moshe Rabbeinu i.e. Law from Moses
our Teacher. Even so, the Hebrew Bible supports such an interpretation! in other
words the Rabbis were not changing or twisting the simple literal meaning of the
Hebrew text but rather clarifying what it actually said!
In the Literature one may well find several different though complementary
explanations as to how the Hebrew text indicates what the Rabbis say.
Recently we came across an article on this subject in an Israeli Hebrew-language
newspaper whose insights we consider worth recording.
This is not our normal field of specialization but rather an exception. It is
however of interest to Biblical Study in general and therefore worthy of
It should be noted that the argument is not that a plus b = c. We already have
c. The question is: Do we also have a and b and do these add up to c and thus
explain what c is doing there.
The answer already exists. We may have found indications that support the answer
but if these should be considered insufficient then other explanations need to
be found. The answer will not be affected!
An eye for an eye means monetary compensation according to the Law.
We may have found intonations in the text supporting this interpretation but the
interpretation itself is not dependent on how right or wrong we are!
Matan Gringer (Mekor Rishon, 17 February 2012, Shabat) discussed the subject of
eye for eye.
22 'If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth
prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the
woman's husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But
if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth
for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound,
stripe for stripe.
This section is part of the Judgements Section of the Book of Exodus.
In the Synagogue the section from Exodus 21:1 to 24:18 is one unit of the weekly
reading, known as "Mishpatim" meaning "Judgements".
It is a continuation from the section dealing with the Ten Commandments.
1 And God spoke all these words, saying:
2 'I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the
house of bondage.
3 'You shall have no other gods before Me.
4 'You shall not make for yourself a
carved image, any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in
the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow
down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God,
visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth
generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who
love Me and keep My commandments.
7 'You shall not take the name of the
Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His
name in vain.
8 'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do
all your work, 10 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it
you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male
servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is
within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth,
the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord
blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
12 'Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land
which the Lord your God is giving you.
13 'You shall not murder.
14 'You shall not commit adultery.
15 'You shall not steal.
16 'You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 'You shall not covet your neighbor's
house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his
female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your
The Judgments section is an expansion on the Ten Commandments. It adds to and
clarifies the Ten Commandments by either giving additional laws and injunctions
of a similar nature or by elaborating more about the laws already given.
Each of the Ten Commandments as well as being an injunction in its own right
also represents a section of the Laws given later in more detail.
The First Commandment is to believe in God who took you out of Egypt.
The Judgments section has an injunction not to oppress the sojourning stranger,
9 'Also you shall not oppress a
stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in
the land of Egypt.
Both the First Commandment and the warning not to oppress the stranger are
linked to the Redemption from Egypt. We may therefore take them as making a
section of their own.
Similarly we are commanded to honor our father and mother (Exodus 20:12). This
relates to the Judgements section condemning whoever curses their father or
mother (Exodus 21:17).
The injunction against a witch (22:17) relates to the Commandment forbidding
idolatry (20:3,4). The injunctions against cursing the judge and/or a prince
(22:27) relate to the Commandment not to take the Name of God in vain (20:7).
The injunctions to keep the Festivals and the Sabbatical Year (23:10-19) relate
to the Commandment to keep the Sabbath Day (20:8).
The injunctions concerning homicide and manslaughter and death caused by a
goring bull (Exodus 21:28-36) relate to the Commandment not to murder (20:13).
Injunctions concerning seduction (22:15) and bestiality relate to the
Commandment not to commit adultery (20:14).
The laws of theft (22:1-4) relate to the Commandment not to steal (20:15).
The laws to return a lost object and the prohibition against cheating the orphan
and widow (22:21) relate to the commandment not to covet what belongs to your
And so on.
Matan Gringer points out that we can categorize all the injunctions in the
Judgements sections very nicely each one under an appropriate heading regarding
the Commandment they directly pertain to.
There is however one group that appears to be exceptional..
This groups encompasses the injunctions not to take bribes, and twisting court
cases such as swearing not to have misappropriated that was deposited for
safekeeping (22:6-15). These relate to the Commandment not to bear false witness
(20:16). There are quite a few injunctions in this category. They all concern
monetary matters and the payment of compensation.
The case regarding an eye for an eye also fits under this heading.
The expression in Hebrew for "An Eye for an Eye" is "ayin tachat ayin".
Literally this means "an eye [ayin] under [tachat] an eye [ayin]". This use of
the adjective "under" in place of the preposition "for" is not the usual usage.
The word "tachat" meaning under connotes here in place of. Whatever is given is
meant to be in place of that which was lost.
# How do we know concerning the loss of limbs that the expression "an eye for an
eye" involves monetary compensation?
It says [just before this verse]
"If men contend with each other, and one strikes the other with a stone or with
his fist,...He shall only pay for the loss of his time, and shall provide for
him to be thoroughly healed (Exodus 21:18-19)". We learn for this that "tachat"
(under, in place of) as recompense for wounding involves payment of money. The
same applies concerning "tachat" (under, in place of) regarding the loss of an
eye or any other limb #
[Rambam, Hilchot Chovel veMazik, 1;5).
The logic of this conclusion states that in the one verse we have the case of
one man striking another and cause him injury. In this case it is EXPRESSLY
stated that monetary compensation must be given.
In the next case (two lines down) we have men fighting and a pregnant woman
giving birth prematurely. There it is stated that the punishment should be an
eye for an eye. BUT the context in which the ruling an eye for an eye is given
involves monetary compensation and the verse could even be so understood as
literally meaning it. In other words monetary compensation is not a twisting of
the simple meaning but rather an optional way of interpreting it and it fits
better into the overall context!
18 Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, animal for [tachat] animal.
19 'If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it
be done to him? 20 fracture for [tachat] fracture, eye for [tachat] eye, tooth
for [tachat] tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be
done to him.
The expression "so shall it be done to him" is from Hebrew [cain Yinatayn bo]
meaning, "So shall be put on him" i.e. so he will be charged to make
Here we say again the usage of the expression "tachat". In the same way if one
kills the animal of another then restitution of the animal must be made.
The offender does not have his own animal killed but rather pays the value of
the dead animal of his neighbor. So too, if he causes injury, he pays the value
of whatever loss he is responsible for.
The upshot is that the ORAL Tradition of the Sages upon examination is found to
accord with the LITERAL import of the Biblical Text.
An additional note is pertinent concerning the expression "tachat" meaning
literally "under" but also understood in implying "in replace of".
"An Eye for an Eye" could be translated from the Hebrew as "An eye in replace
of an eye".
This is illustrated by a discussion in the Talmud (Temurah 27;a) on another
The Talmud quotes from the Prophet Isaiah where the word "tachat" is used in a
17 Instead [tachat]
of bronze I will bring gold,
of iron I will bring silver,
of wood, bronze,
And instead [tachat]
of stones, iron.
I will also make your officers peace,
And your magistrates righteousness.
The Talmud declares that legally the expression "tachat" means in replace of.
This is also the simple and correct meaning of the Hebrew text!!!
The expression "an eye for an eye" should therefore be rendered as:
"An eye in replace of an eye" (Exodus
This does not mean that if one poked out the eye of another (by accident or
intent) then their own eye should be poked out.
It means that (apart from any other punishment that the court may impose) the guilty party should by
rights provide the use of an eye in place of that which he had caused loss of.
Since they cannot do that then it stands to reason that they should make an
equivalent monetary compensation for the damage they had caused.
One thing in place of another.
This is NOT stretching the Literal Meaning. It is the correct application of