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An eye for an eye?

התפתחות ההלכה, מתוך אתר בית התפוצות.

Translation by Yehoshua Siskin

There is an annoying and widespread error when it comes to proper understanding of the Torah. So many times we quote a verse from the Torah without taking account of the connection between the written and oral Torah. In fact, our lack of understanding mocks the actual meaning of the verse. On Shabbat, for example, we read in Parashat Mishpatim these words: "An eye for an eye". If we take these words literally, we would think that if someone takes out someone else's eye, heaven forbid, the one who poked out the other's eye would suffer the same fate – loss of an eye. But together with the written Torah – there is also the oral law, from the Mishnah and the Gemara to Halacha (Jewish law), whose practice and intricate details are studied from morning till night throughout the Jewish world each and every day. We are a link in the chain of uninterrupted holy learning of the oral law that has been passed down from one generation to the next.

The Halacha already explained thousands of years ago that the Torah is speaking about compensation for a lost eye in monetary terms. Someone who lost an eye needs to receive damages equivalent to the injury that has been sustained. True, the verse says "an eye for an eye," the damage is severe, but we are not going to literally take a limb for a limb but rather compensate the victim through a monetary settlement.

So too it is impossible to learn how to properly observe Shabbat from Torah verses but it is necessary to learn the Halachot that pertain to Shabbat. And the same goes for putting on tefillin, not to confine understanding of this practice to what is written in the Torah but to expand it by learning the appropriate halachot, and so on with all the Torah do's and don'ts. Whoever reads the Torah superficially might not only lose an eye, but the Torah itself.


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