As a rule, the Torah says what it means and means what it says. There is one glaring exception to this rule: An eye for an eye. This verse in Exodus 21: 22-25 is interpreted Talmudically to mean “monetary compensation for damages.” The obvious question is, why didn’t the Torah just say what it means? Why didn’t it say, “monetary compensation for damages'' instead of saying, “an eye for an eye?” Could there be a deeper message encrypted in the verse?
It is fascinating to note that other ancient legal codes, such as Hammurabi’s Code, included the law of “an eye for an eye,” but it was understood and practiced literally. Although Hammurabi’s Code may seem extreme, it nevertheless was consistent – how do we reconcile the literal reading of our Torah with its rabbinic interpretation?
Maimonidies, in his Guide to the Perplexed, explains the matter in the following way. He explains that the Torah exacts precise justice and precise justice would require an actual eye for an eye. Since doing so would be practically difficult and lead to unnecessary deaths and injuries, the Talmud mandates monetary compensation instead. However, since the Torah would not want us to think that paying money is actual compensation for physical damage, it was divinely codified “as an eye for an eye.”
There is a fascinating hint to exacting monetary compensation for physical damage in the Hebrew language itself. The Hebrew word for eye is עין (Ayin), spelled: Ayin-Yud-Nun. If you advance one letter further in the Aleph-Bet you will find the letters Pey-Chaf-Samech. When you put the letters together you get the word כספ (Kesef), which means money—FASCINATING!
The Torah and the Talmud team up here to teach the ideal, the real, and the practical all at once. May we merit continuing to learn the depths of the Torah together.
Rabbi Ephraim Epstein
Community Scholar in Residence