“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.” (Exodus 21:24)
The old man, his white, wispy beard laying softly on his brown tunic, slowly rose to his feet. Given the seriousness of the occasion, the man’s wrinkled forehead and strained voice surprised no one.
“We are here to judge the case of Shimon ben David,” the man began. “Two witnesses testified before this court that the accused was involved in an altercation with Reuven ben Moshe, and that Shimon broke Reuven’s right arm and blinded his left eye.”
“Contrary to the idea expressed by some members of our media,” the man continued, “who say that the verse ‘an eye for an eye’ should be followed literally, Jewish courts do not enforce draconian punishments. Instead we will apply this verse figuratively, and force Shimon to pay for the value of Reuvin’s lost arm and eye.”
As this fictional episode from a biblical court shows, and as the sages remind us (Talmud Tractate Baba Batra 84a), the well-known verse ‘an eye for an eye’ is not meant to be applied literally. No Jewish court has ever blinded or injured a person, except where the Torah specifically proscribes the death penalty or lashes.
Why would the Torah state ‘an eye for an eye’ if this is not meant literally? The Torah should have stated ‘money for an eye’.
The Vilna Gaon, one of the foremost Torah scholars of the 18th century, explains that the true meaning of the verse can indeed be seen by looking closely at the words. The Hebrew words ‘ayin tachat ayin’ can either mean ‘an eye for an eye’ or ‘an eye below an eye.’ What is ‘below an eye’?
The word eye, ayin, is composed of the letters ayin, yud, and nun. If you line up the Hebrew alphabet in order, under the ayin appears a fay. Under the yud appears a kuf, and under the nun appears a samech. By rearranging the letters fay-kuf-samech, one gets kesef, which means money.
To find the punishment for damaging someone’s eye, the Torah is telling us to look below the letters. For damaging someone’s eye, one must pay ‘what is below an eye,’ namely kesef.
When the judge announced the court’s decision, he was not acting based on a hunch as to the meaning of the verse. He knew the verse’s literal meaning, because he looked into it, or rather, below it.
This column is dedicated in memory of Dan Miller.
Michael Gros, an alumni of Emory University, writes from Israel.