October 10, 2004

An Eye for an Eye

A couple of posts down I made the following comment: “Not only that, the way a 21st century American reads the Bible is definitely not necessarily the way it is intended to be read. How do we know how it was intended to be read? Well, we can start with a tradition that is as old as the Bible itself. But that is a subject for another post.”

I didn’t particularly mean that to be a teaser, only that that subject merited its own post. And since I’ve talked about it before (one example here), I didn’t think the answer would be a mystery. But I’ve gotten responses by comment, blog, and email asking for me to elaborate. So here it goes. 

The answer is the Talmud (root: l-m-d – learning, teaching), also referred to as the Oral Tora. The Oral Tora (תורה שבעל פה) was given alongside the Written Tora (תורה שבכתב), but around the time of the Roman conquest of Israel, when there was genuine and willful cultural imperialism by the Romans against the Jews, it began to be written down. The oldest part of the Talmud is called the Mishna, the later part the Gemara. Here is a translation of Suka – the portion of the Talmud that discusses the building of a Suka. Here is what the same page actually looks like in the original. (Hint: If you are having trouble following the meanderings of the discussion, try reading it out loud. Remember, this is an oral discussion written down, and the traditional way to study it is to read it out loud.)

After the completion of the Gemara, later scholars added their traditions. Rashi, for example, didn’t consider himself to be an innovator. He considered himself to be merely recording for posterity his encyclopedic knowledge of tradition. 

All this has sometimes surprising (to us) results. Take for example:

עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן
שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן
יָד תַּחַת יָד
רֶגֶל תַּחַת רָגֶל

`ayin tahat `ayin
shen tahat shen
yad tahat yad
regel tahat ragel

An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
A hand for a hand
A leg for a leg

Exodus 21:24

According to the usual reading of this passage, this is paradigmatic example of “Old Testament Justice” – i.e. harsh, barbaric justice that was thankfully superseded by a more merciful, loving faith. All this ignores the fact that there is a tradition, as old as the Bible itself, which tells us how to read it: The value of an eye for an eye, the value of a tooth for a tooth, etc. In other words, one who damages another’s property or person is to pay monetary damages. Do you find this reading implausible? Then imagine reading this three thousand years from now: “If you damage my eye, or my tooth, or my hand, or my leg, you’ll pay for it!”

Try explaining that that DOESN’T mean monetary compensation.

Note: The second appearance of the word “leg” is ragel instead of regel. This is the sof pasuq form of the word. In Biblical Hebrew some words have a different form when occurring before a pause – usually with longer vowels, sometimes preserving older forms of the word whose vowels have been shortened.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at October 10, 2004 11:24 PM
Comments & Trackbacks

I encountered the notion somewhere, and offer it without authentification, that what was being called for was balance. Only an eye, and not blinding, for an eye; only a tooth, and not smashmouth, for a tooth.

Posted by: triticale at October 13, 2004 07:02 AM Permalink

The Talmud gives a very reasonable explanation for the the interpretation of monetary compensation. A judicial punishment must be equal and fair in its effects in order to be properly called justice. If a person with two eyes puts out another person's eye, let's say we take out one of his eyes. He can still see. If a one-eyed person commits the same offense and receives the same punishment, he will be blind.

Posted by: Yehoshua Friedman at October 13, 2004 10:25 AM Permalink

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