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.
All that being said, there is one section of this parasha that goes back to the mitzvot concerning human relations. In it we find one of the most often quoted passages in the Torah, yet one of the least well understood, “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 in part because the text most likely was never intended to be taken literally. The rabbis interpret the phrase, ayin tachat ayin, an eye for an eye to be the basis for legal compensation for injuries. In the rabbinic mind, ayin tachat ayin, most often meant monetary compensation rather than physical compensation. For example, 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.
We find this 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.”1 Not only that, it is quite possible that the Israelites also understood the passage to be interpreted along these same lines.
Sadly, there are many who take our written tradition and speak of it with little to no ambiguity. Torah was always intended to be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it. This is why we study Torah in chevurta, in partnership with the interpretive tradition and with others. Torah is never meant to be studied alone. For this is a warning and a caution against an absolute, fundamentalist, literal reading of the text. This is in part why our rabbinic interpretative tradition is so useful as our guide. The foundations of Jewish justice are more often than not found in the spirit rather than in the literal writing of the Torah.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Plaut, Gunther, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 830