An eye for an eye? Laws, lies and corporal punishment

What we are dealing with here is technical idiom: not literally gouging out an eye or pulling out a tooth, but having, as it were, a tariff of compensation.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple ,

Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond Apple
Larry Brandt


Hebrew has several words for law. From this past week’s Torah reading we derive the term mishpat; from many other places in the Torah we get the word halakhah.

Halakhah, based on the verb halakh ("to go"), is the path which the believing Jew makes into a way of life.

Occasions (e.g. Shabbat and the festivals), activities (e.g. eating kosher food), spiritual patterns (e.g. prayer), intellectual duties (e.g. Torah study) and moral attitudes (e.g. generosity) are all part of halakhah. We live by and with them because that is the will of God.

In a sense we could translate halakhah as progress. Life according to halakhah is true progressive Judaism because it brings us closer to the Almighty.

Mishpat (civil and criminal law) is part but not all of halakhah. Religious believers regard it as a duty to God to live by the Jewish legal code but some people regard mishpat in secular terms. They say "Do not steal" is a national Jewish ethic, but religious believers say it is law because it comes from God.

Eyes and teeth



"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" – the lex talionis – has a bad reputation.

Those who believed the Jewish God was a harsh, vengeful God decided that this law proved their case.

You can understand why. If someone injured you, so the critics read the verse, you go and injure him. Measure for measure. Tit for tat.

It sounds like the Code of Hammurabi which said that if a house collapsed and killed the son of the occupant, then the son of the builder could be executed.

Yet in Judaism there is no evidence of any such act of retaliation being carried out. On the contrary. This was not a law of physical vengeance but of monetary compensation.

The very context in which the law appears (Ex. 21:24) proves it, and indicates that "an eye for an eye was not a law of retribution but of compensation… An eye for an eye expressed the need for justice, for correct compensation, not for vengeance… The Mosaic law set limits: the punishment must fit the crime" (S. Levin).

What we are dealing with here is technical idiom: not literally gouging out an eye or pulling out a tooth, but having as it were a tariff of compensation that would ensure that the victim is not under- or overcompensated, and that the compensation payable does not vary according to the socio-economic status of the person concerned.

Unfortunately, the fairness and sensitivity of Jewish law has still not been universally emulated in human thinking.

Wild revenge is still far from obsolete. A minor slight brings massive over-reaction. Even when a person has not opened their mouth or done a single thing, the mere shape of their face or the colour of their skin can provoke victimization and violence… "Why are you hitting me?" "Because you’re black, or old, or fat, or a woman, or a Jew…!"

It’s not even an eye for an eye: it’s an eye without an eye, a tooth without a tooth. There’s no justice here, or decency, or humanity, or morality. I much prefer the Jewish system.


I am not a liar



The Torah says, "Keep away from anything false" (Ex. 23:7).

In the Ten Commandments we are warned against distorting the truth; in the Torah we are not only told not to tell lies but not to be anywhere near an untruth.

The rabbi of Lublin once gave advice to the hasidic personality, the Seer of Lublin. He told him to minimise his greatness and not let people acclaim him. He should just say to people, "I am just a simple person like anyone else!"

The Seer did precisely that and when people heard him saying he was an ordinary person they praised him because of his modesty.

Sometime later the Seer said to the rabbi, "I did what you advised but it didn’t work. People praised me all the more!"

The rabbi now said, "Tell your followers you are a great man, a Talmudic giant, a tzaddik!"

The Seer said, "I can’t do that. I am prepared to say I am an ordinary Jew because that’s the truth. But if I show off that means I am really great and that’s just not true. It would make me a liar!"



Q. Does Judaism still believe that "He who spares the rod hates his child" (Proverbs 13:24)?

A. In theory, Jewish law does believe in corporal punishment.

The sentence you have quoted justifies parental discipline (cf. Prov. 19:18, "Chasten your child, for then there is hope"), though it is a rhetorical exaggeration to say that to avoid physical punishment is to hate the child. The second half of Prov. 13:24 says, "He who loves (his child) sometimes chastises him".

However, it is better to try other methods, and to use corporal punishment only as a last resort. Otherwise a parent can end up being a hated bully.

The same can be said about teachers – today, very rare – who use the strap or the cane on their pupils. The halachah allows a teacher to use a shoe latchet on a refractory child (BB 21a), but in modern education, corporal punishment is ill-advised and likely to invite pupil violence or at least court action.

The Torah refers to flogging with forty lashes (in practice, 39: Makk. 3:10) as a punishment for various offences (Deut. 25:2). This procedure remains on the statute book but its applicability has been legislated out of existence, especially since it could be imposed only if there were a Sanhedrin.

In certain cases of emergency, a Jewish court sometimes had the power to inflict corporal punishment as a deterrent, but this was hora’at sha’ah, a procedure required by the needs of the moment.

A modern Beth Din does not flog anyone, and corporal punishment has been banned by Israeli law.

Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.



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