This week we will be reading from Parashat Emor. Unlike Kedoshim, last week’s portion, Emor returns the focus to the laws of the Levites and the sacrificial offerings. There is also a section concerning holidays and festivals and a curious incident involving someone who blasphemed the name of God.
Then there is one of the most often-quoted passages in the Torah: “If anyone maims another: as that person did, so shall it be done in return – shever tachat shever, ayin tachat ayin, shayn tachat shayn, – fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury inflicted on another shall be inflicted in return. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Eternal am your God” (Leviticus 24:19-22). This reading is often interpreted to mean that violence is to be responded to with violence.
But the rabbis take a different approach to this text. They interpret ayin tachat ayin, an eye for an eye, to be the basis for legal compensation for injuries incurred. In the rabbinic mind, ayin tachat ayin most often meant monetary compensation rather than physical compensation. An eye is worth X and thus someone who has caused damage to a person has to pay restitution equal to the amount of damage they caused. This in the rabbinic mind was a better form of justice than people seeking engaging in physical violence to restore the balance.
Or, as is argued in the Plaut Torah commentary, “There is no record of a single instance where a rabbinic court carried out physical retaliation; and Jewish tradition all but unanimously understood the language as referring to financial compensation” (pg. 830). Not only that, it is quite possible that the Israelites also understood the passage to be interpreted along these same lines.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff