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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Eye for an Eye - Baba Kamma 83b-84a

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?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Yishar Koach and Matan Torah – Shabbat 87a

         Did you ever wonder where the term Yishar Koach (יישר כוח) comes from? It literary means “may your strength be firm” and is one of the most common ways to congratulate somebody after an Aliya to the Torah. Eliezer Segal wrote that it can probably be traced to ancient times.  While the Sephardic Torah scrolls were housed in a special box that can stand safely on the reading table, the Ashkenazic Torah was hand held by the reader. It could be understood that by-standers would encourage the reader to maintain the requisite vigor. Thus, Yishar koach became an encouragement to the reader, “May you have strength not to cause the Torah to fall.”

            The Gemara relates Yishar Koach in Shabbat 87a within the context of giving the Torah at Sinai. The sages teach us that when Moses broke the tablets God approved it and said: “Yishar Koach that you broke them” (Shabbat 87a).

'He broke the Tables': how did he learn [this]? He argued: If the Passover sacrifice, which is but one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts, yet the Torah said, there shall no alien eat thereof: here is the whole Torah, and the Israelites are apostates, how much more so! And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave His approval? Because it is said, which thou brakest, and Resh Lakish interpreted this: All strength to thee that thou brakest it.

            Certainly, God and Moses had a special relationship. We further learn from Rabbi Yosi that God wanted to give the Torah on Friday, but Moses asked him to delay it by one day, so that the Torah will be given on Shabbat, the 7th day in Sivan. God agreed to this as well and gave the Torah on the 7th day of Sivan. The problem is that we celebrate Shavuot - Zeman matan Torateinu - the time of the giving of our Torah - on the 6th day of Sivan, not on the 7th.

            To exercise your power and create your own midrash, what in your mind is significant in Moses’ action of breaking the tablets, and why did God approve such an action?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Shabbat 86b

We had our first class and loved it. What was it like to wait for Moses to come down the mountain?