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AN EYE FOR AN EYE

by Avi Wagner    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The opening verse of this week's Torah portion states, "And these are the laws which you shall place before them. . ." (Exodus 21:1).

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The opening verse of this week's Torah portion states, "And these are the laws which you shall place before them. . ." (Exodus 21:1).

And - why "And"? Any self-righteous fourth grader can tell you that a new sentence, and certainly a new paragraph, should never begin with the word "And". Rashi, the classic 11th century French commentator, explains that the word "And" is here to connect Parshat Mishpatim's laws to those of the altar at the end of last week's portion. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century leader of German Jewry, defines that link: just as the altar was not to be built using metal utensils in order to separate violence and the metal sword from the divine realm, so too the mishpatim, laws of this week's portion must be administered without cruelty so as to promote real justice.

Bearing this in mind, one is shocked to come upon the verse, "ayin tachat ayin, shayn tachat shayn - an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (ibid. 21:24) later in this week's portion. Upon simple glance, the Torah seems to prescribe vengeance and barbarism as punishment for damaging another person. Where is the divine justice in the Torah's punitive scale?

The Ibn Ezra, a classic commentator on the Torah, explains based on simple logic that the Torah cannot be advocating what the literal meaning of the verse implies. It is simply impossible to damage another person's eye as punishment and be assured of causing the precise amount of damage that was inflicted on the original victim. Because of the impossibility of this literal meaning, Rashi cites the Talmud's (Tractate Baba Kama 84a) explanation of the verse: One who blinds someone else's eye pays the damaged person money in proportion to the damage done. How do the sages see this interpretation in the words of the verse?

Rabbi Hirsch translates the word "tachat" in this verse not as "for" as translated above, rather "instead of", as it often means throughout the Torah. Thus the compensation payment is intended to fill the void of the missing eye, whereas poking out someone else's eye would only offer the damaged revenge. Still, it is not clear how are sages deduce from the verse that it is money which shall replace the gauged eye!

The Vilna Gaon, the brilliant Torah scholar of the 18th century, explains the hint to money in the verse: The word "ayin - eye" is spelled with the three Hebrew letters ayin, yud, and nun. The word "tachat" most literally means "under", and therefore alludes to the three Hebrew letters respectively following each of the aforementioned letters in the Hebrew alphabet: peh, kaf, and samech, which spell "kesef", the Hebrew word for money.

Thus, after examining the verse carefully, we find that the Torah tells us what the Oral Tradition passed down from Mt. Sinai always understood it to mean, albeit in a subtle manner. The verse also demonstrates that without understanding the Torah through the eyes of our sages and the Oral Tradition, divine truth is easily perverted.

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Avi Wagner, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying abroad at the Yeshiva Bais Yisrael in Jerusalem.

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