One of my favorite descriptions of Jewish living is that we are not supposed to live according to what the Torah says; rather, we are to behave according to what the Rabbis say the Torah says. The difference is at times rather significant, to say the least. In this week’s portion, we have a classic example of the discrepancy between the words of the Torah and the way the rabbis insisted they be applied.
In Parshat Emor, we read the following: “If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him” (Leviticus 24:19-20). Known in legal circles as the principle of lex talionis, it’s an expression of the idea that justice must be meted out in absolutely symmetry.
Before you begin visualizing a court poking out eyes and chopping off digits and limbs, see what the rabbis did with this verse in the Talmud:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai said: “Eye for eye” means money. You say money, but maybe it literally does mean an eye? In that case, if a blind man blinded another, or a crippled person maimed another, how would I be able to apply “eye for eye” literally? After all, the Torah states (24:22), “One law there shall be for you”–a law that is equitable for all of you. (Bava Kamma 84a)
This and other rabbinic passages go out of their way to soften the Biblical words. But one wonders what motivated the Biblical author–justice? Or maybe something else–revenge, perhaps?
On Shabbat morning, we’ll elaborate on this passage, using a fun, poetic modern midrash on the concept of “eye for an eye.”
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise