In Exodus 21:24 we find the verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot”. It came from the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king in 1792-1750BC. It survived to be used in the Hebrew Bible and in Matthew 5:38: “Ye have heard that it hath been said; An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”.
The physical retaliation such as "An eye for an eye" etc. must be one of the most disturbing and controversial principle in the Torah. Is it possible that there is such a vengeful justice in the Hebrew Bible? Many sages of the Gemara, as we see in Babba Kamma (83b-84a), struggled with the same question and did not want anyone to think that taking a limb for a limb was acceptable. We have two full pages bringing numerous different ideas as to why this verse MUST NOT be literal. Some sages believe that the principle has to do with the appropriate monetary value of damage to a human being;
Why not take this literally to mean [putting out] the eye [of the offender]? — Let not this enter your mind, since it has been taught: You might think that where he put out his eye, the offender's eye should be put out. [Not so; for] it is laid down, 'He that smiteth any man…' 'And he that smiteth a beast … (Lev. XXIV) just as in the case of smiting beast compensation is to be paid, so also in the case of smiting a man compensation is to be paid.
Others tried to view the verse by applying the universal perspective. The assumption is that since the Torah requires that penalties be universally applicable, the phrase cannot be interpreted in this manner. What, for example, would be the law of a physical retaliation in the case of a blind or eyeless offender? The sages believe that this verse is only a parable for money and cannot be taken literally.
It was taught: R. Dosthai b. Judah says: Eye for eye means monetary compensation. You say monetary compensation, but perhaps it is not so, but actual retaliation [by putting out an eye] is meant? What then will you say where the eye of one was big and the eye of the other little, for how can I in this case apply the principle of eye for eye? If, however, you say that in such a case monetary compensation will have to be taken, did not the Torah state, Ye shall have one manner of law (Lev. XXIV, 22) implying that the manner of law should be the same in all cases? I might rejoin: What is the difficulty even in that case? Why not perhaps say that for eyesight taken away the Divine Law ordered eyesight to be taken away from the offender (Without taking into consideration the sizes of the respective eyes)? For if you will not say this, how could capital punishment be applied in the case of a dwarf killing a giant or a giant killing a dwarf, (Where the bodies of the murderer and the murdered are not alike) seeing that the Torah says, Ye shall have one manner of law, implying that the manner of law should be the same in all cases, unless you say that for a life taken away the Divine Law ordered the life of the murderer to be taken away? Why then not similarly say here too that for eyesight taken away the Divine Law ordered eyesight to be taken away from the offender?
There are two views in the Gemara that take the verse literary (but they are "proven" wrong). The first view is that of Abaye, quoting the Study Hall of Hezekiah. He states that the reason we only collect money in this situation is because it is impossible to make sure the punishment will not kill the guilty party. However, if we somehow had a way to inflict the damage while being sure that the person would not die, then an eye for an eye could be taken literal.
"Abbaye said: For the School of Hesekiah taught: Eye for eye, life for life, but not ‘life and eye for eye’. Now if you assume that actual retaliation is meant, it could sometimes happen that eye and life would be taken for eye, as while the offender is being blinded, his soul might depart from him."
The second view is that of Rebbe Eliezar who states that an Eye for an Eye is meant literally.
"It was taught: R. Eliezer said: Eye for eye literally refers to the eye [of the offender]."
The natural tendency of people is to believe that for every wrong done there should be a compensating measure of justice. When it comes for revenge it becomes a bigger problem. There is lots of anger to deal with. Let us ask ourselves –
- Is it “productive” to hurt others because they hurt us?
- Is it healing to fight “fire with fire…”?
- do you think you would be able to apply the principle “eye for an eye” in such a way that you do not hurt others more than they hurt you?