Our Torah portion this week contains what, at first reading, could seem to be a draconian or even primitive decree: "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" [Leviticus 24:20]. Yet nowhere in Jewish tradition is this understood according to how it might be read without further information.

In the Name of ReligionRead in context, one finds an unusual use of language, describing these injuries as cases where a man "shall give" a wound to his neighbor. The same verse concludes, "as he shall give a wound in a man, so shall it be given in him." The Talmud teaches that the compensation must be something which can be given from hand to hand — namely, money.

This week we saw the demise of a mass murderer who claimed he was following religious teachings. What is worse, he was able to motivate a cadre of murderers to carry out his evil plans. Why is it that two major religions built upon our Bible have both produced armies of "crusaders" who believed that murder was justified in the name of religion — while despite calls to arms found in the text of our Bible, Jewish history is devoid of similar mobs?

There are many reasons, but one of them is surely the Oral Law which guides all rabbinic thought. The Oral Law prevents a person from taking a phrase out of context and misusing it for evil. It forces us to read everything under its guidance, with what may appear cruel in one place contextualized in another.

Under its restrictions, religious leaders are not free to rip a phrase from its moorings and misuse it. Much of what we call today "civilized thought" is based upon principles found in the Oral Law… and, of course, the moniker is accurate!

Good Shabbos!
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org


  1. Thanks, Rabbi Menkin, for your timely message!

  2. This piece explains nothing about the “eye” phrase and how it should be interpreted. That’s a let down, however small when one reads the rest of the thought of the piece.

    As to mass killings, while I despise bin Laden and the Crusades (obliquely refererenced in the piece), two things occur to me: first, the numbers of Jews pale in comparison to the other two religions; and second, scale. For example, what does the Bible say regarding what God told the Jews (Hebrews?) to do to Canaan’s inhabitants, and what did the Jews do? Is that massive enough to qualify?

    People are people. Aberrations abound. Everywhere.

    I don’t like “we’re better than them” implications when indiscriminantly utilized.

  3. I absolutely agree with your article. Thank you. One must never isolate a scripture and make it doctrine. God is in the fullness of all the scriptures and He is a good God.

  4. A quick quesiotn and a comment.

    Why do we repeat the amidah?

    I am always irritated when people interpret the writings as they see fit. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and so forth, the intent seems pretty clear to me. And I don’t like it. If we can fool with., “interpret,” the meaning of that, why can’t we fool with the genesis story, make it not liitral? And Saul was told who to annihiliate, down to the last man, and he was punished for not doing so. When is a bible story not to be taken literaly? IS this the word of God or not?

    • Hi Michael – Thanks for submitting your comments. Re: your question please see these 3 articles: 1, 2, 3.

      Re: your comment – it’s an excellent point and it really touches on the necessity for an Oral Law. The Torah Moses received at Sinai was deliberately written in a manner rich with multiple levels of meaning. The nature of any text, especially one that uses metaphor and various other literary techniques, is that it risks being interpreted to mean whatever the reader wants it to mean. Who can argue that one mans interpretation is more correct than the others? No one — except the author. The author in this case is Gd Himself and Judaism says that Gd Himself gave an Oral Law, including specific methods of interpretation to Moses at Sinai as a companion to the written law. To learn more about the validity of the Oral Law I’d suggest listening to this podcast on the subject – and to learn more about Oral law itself read this article.

  5. The two religions which have their roots in the Jewish Bible both insist that only those who follow the teachings of their derivative holy books will have the opportunity to experience some form of reward in the life hereafter. The Jewish Bible states that “the righteous of all nations shall inherit the world to come.” This defines the merit of human beings by their actions, by their righteousness, not by their beliefs or their professions of loyalty to a specific set of instructions. Judaism measures human beings by what they do and not by what they say or profess to believe. Our Bible does not insist that the unbelievers must be slaughtered by man and by G-d. There are exceptions to this in the Jewish Scriptures. It has been made clear to us that we cannot negotiate or compromise with evil. When we live surrounded by evil, we will either destroy that evil or be destroyed by it. This has led in the past to wars against evil as has been has been well defined in our Bible. Again, evil is defined by what people do and not what they profess to believe. Some of the comments which precede this do not show an understanding of this vital difference between Judaism and its derivative religions. Judaism is different in that it does not insist that all humanity must believe in the exact way that we do or be subjugated and forced to comply with the demands of these latter day departures from Torah, Tanakh and Talmud.

  6. Re Christianity, and murderous mob.

    Taking into consideration the ‘Crusades and the ‘inquisitions’. These events were carried out by SO CALLED CHRISTIAN RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS! If one takes time to read Jesus’ teaching concerning what his followers position in these matters should be, you find that they were to—— “Pray for their enemies, Bless those who curse you and return good for evil” Thus those who name Jesus as the one who they follow and do these evil deeds are false Christians and destined to live and suffer eternally in Hell.!

    Those who accuse the ‘Jews’ of such deeds read and interpret things out of context, the God of the Bible judges all evil actions of mankind and brings about their destruction by various means. To days evil generation will also be judged as was the Hitler and Lenin’s regimes were!

  7. Thank you for clarifying the “… an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth…”
    I enjoy your informative site and presentations.

  8. This verse relates to the natural behavior of mammals that includes, mankind. It is a defensive behavior. The teachings in the Bible elaborated how a person would react if a physical wrong would be committed at him or she. In other words, if you commit a wrong against another, don’t be surprised if the other party does minimally, the same to you. Eg. If you knowingly disobey your parents instruction from pulling your neighbor’s dog’s tail, chances are that you may be bitten. If you were forbidden to drive an automobile at night and got into an accident and caused severe injuries to others, chances are that you may get beaten up, minimally by their family and friends.
    Even in a case of an accident, the human mind that has absorbed the pain, doesn’t have the sufficient time to recapacitate and allow his or her intelligence to understand the event. Pit animal instinct takes over our emotions. God understands us. We are of nature. Therefore, he teaches us that it is always better to prevent disorderly conduct(s) in order to prevent painful repercussions.
    Good morning.


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