Eye for an Eye
The oft-repeated slur on Judaism is that it is cruel and inhuman, expecting obedience to primeval laws which have no place in a modern society. We examine the truth of this in relation to this week’s portion The concept of “an eye for an eye” or lex talionis as it is called in Latin, is one of the earliest aspects of any legal code. It can be found in many early legal codes, including the Code of Hamurabi (Babylon 1727 BCE). Indeed it is repeated in the Torah in three places – Exodus, here in Leviticus and Numbers.
The problem is that in earlier times, Christianity was at pains to find Judaism antiquated and therefore barbaric. Using the Torah’s text, they took every opportunity to show how our religion was no longer relevant and that the true way was now the one they were pushing. This necessarily led to misrepresentation and a willingness to take texts literally, in isolation from their context and thus their true meaning.
The Rabbis go to great lengths to show that this text, repeated as it is, was never meant to mean a strict retaliation. This has the result that the text is actually understood as a rule of monetary compensation – if you cause someone to lose an eye or a tooth, to be beaten black and blue or hurt in any other way, the compensation is to be assessed according to the degree and location of the damage. For example, Tractate Sanhedrin informs us that we assess the damages according to the reduction in the value of a slave in the market – if say he only has one eye, his usefulness is reduced and commensurately his sale price, and so that reduction is the compensation value for an eye. Similarly a one-legged servant is going to be worth much less than one with two. I suspect that these days when there is no slavery the assessment would be along the lines of the diminution in the person’s earnings, which is an aspect of their value. If the earnings are assessed in the manner of a house – as 10 years’ being worth approximately the notional monetary value of a person (ignoring, of course the priceless notion of a precious human life) – then one can arrive at a fair assessment along the same lines as in the days of slavery.
The Rabbis say that the value has to be exact – no more than the value of the part lost or damaged. That is why it says “eye for eye” and so on: the value of an eye and no more for an eye, is the implication. It is interesting to note that there is also a system of assessment for compensation for pain and embarrassment. All these are designed to ensure that this law is fairly implemented.
In view of all the above, we can confidently assert that far from being barbaric this sophisticated system is perhaps even more just than our British system of compensation. And to understand what it is really about, all we really need to do is read the context, and examine the Halacha for ourselves.
This year is the Shemitah year, the Sabbatical year. What are the rules in Israel and how does it affect us? The start of this week’s Torah portion talks about the Shemitah year, the fallow year for planting land. During that year we are supposed to leave our land (in Israel) untended. We are allowed to pick the fruit for our own use but not in a commercial manner and not to store it up for the future. The produce which naturally occurs without human intervention is considered hefker or belonging to nobody, and is intended for anyone to use. The implication is also that there is no need to tithe the produce either, it being outside the normal scheme.
The implications of this would be very serious in Israel if it were not for several factors. For a start, we are not definite about which year is the Shemitah. The practice is rabbinic today rather than Toah, as it is very possibly the wrong year. Moreover there have been several efforts to ensure that the Shemitah is not a serious problem for farmers, notably by the Chief Rbabinate in Israel, which organizes the land ot be sold to someone who is not Jewish thereby allowing cultivation during this year.
There are, however, several companies which grow food for export on non-Shemitah proofed land. This means that today we need to check the origins of our Israeli produce if we want to buy it during the year 5775, so that we can ensure that it is Shemitah friendly.
Perhaps another use for our smartphones?
Rabbi Zvi Solomons
The only Orthodox Rabbi in Berkshire