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Beholder of the Eyes

by Mordechai Kamenetzky

Hammurabi just didn't get it. The author of the code that took the Biblical command "an eye for an eye" to mean the literal extraction of an eyeball as compensation for the same damages inflicted, clearly missed the point.

The Talmud discusses various proofs that the command cannot be taken in a literal sense. Firstly, there are specific verses that discuss monetary compensation for inflicting bodily injuries. Second, if the Torah would want us to remove the said organ from the defendant, why would it use the expression, "just as he gave (inflicted a wound on) a person, so shall be given to him," it should rather say, "thus shall be taken from him" (Leviticus 24:20). The expression "shall be given" applies to monetary compensation.

Therefore, Jewish law dictates that the injured person is compensated according to the value of the eye, as it is applicable to the injured party. Thus, a diamond cutter who needs his eye to perform his job receives more than a singer. The value of one's voice on the other hand is quite different for an opera singer than it is for a jeweler. Thus, compensation would once again vary according to the loss incurred.

Maimonides explains that monetary compensation in instances of bodily harm is a law passed directly from Moses, from Sinai.

The question is raised: If the Torah meant monetary compensation, why not just say so? "Money for an eye." Why complicate the matter with the words "an eye for an eye," and then interpret it as the value of an eye, the value of a break, etc. There does not seem to be any mystical meaning behind the use of the words "eye, foot, and break," so why not explicitly say money?

[A story:]

Famed Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, toward the end of his career, began to lose some of the artistic appreciation of his works. He replaced it with the appreciation of the enormous prices that his pieces were fetching.

On one occasion, an American millionaire visited the studio, clearly unappreciative of the artist's style. "And what does this one represent?" he asked.

"Two hundred thousand dollars," answered Picasso.

The Bais HaLevi explains that if the Torah explicitly had warranted money for an eye, then the true value of the eye could very easily have been transformed into a commonplace compensation. A person could damage an eye and merely shrug it off by saying: "I can pay money and be absolved."

Thus, the Torah commands, 'An eye for an eye." The Torah's goal is to define an eye as irreplaceable -- one who inflicts the loss of an eye truly deserves that his eye be taken as well. But the Torah is merciful. With the defendant bearing in mind the true gravity of his misdeed, the Torah instructs him that in this circumstance, all that one can do is pay for the lost value of the eye.

But never shall it be thought that a limb truly can be evaluated with a dollar value. Because the organs that God has given us are not valued merely in the eyes of the beholder, rather they are valued in the Beholder of our eyes.

Reprinted with permission from



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