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February 13, 2012 / conservadox

an eye for an eye

I think most Jews know that the Torah’s phrase “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24) is not to be taken literally.  But why not? 

One might rely on oral tradition.  But Nachmanides goes beyond this to the language of the Torah itself.  A few passages earlier, the Torah states that a tortfeasor (one who injures another) “shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.” (Exodus 21:19).   Nachmanides reasons that this passage bars literal interpretation of an “eye for an eye” rule, because someone who is busy being healed for the loss of his own eye (or other body part) is in no position to work to compensate his victim.  Thus, 21:24 must require monetary compensation.

Broader point: a law in the Torah (or for that matter, a secular law) has to be interpreted with reference to the overall set of laws of which it is a part.


One Comment

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  1. Shira Salamone / Feb 24 2012 11:22 am

    Good point. I’ve always wondered whether that law was ever applied literally. Apparently, it was not, because it wouldn’t have been to anyone’s benefit to apply the law literally .

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