Thoughts on Mishpatim

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, (rules or judgments) Exodus 21:1 – 24:18.The Haftarah is from Jeremiah 34:8-22 and 33:25-26 and the reading from the Apostolic Writings is John 7:14–24.

I am a southern boy from Biloxi, Mississippi. As far as I can remember, I was eighteen years old before I traveled any further north than a couple dozen miles from the Gulf Coast. At the time, I was a grits, fried chicken and watermelon eating boy who liked Conway Twitty, Lorette Lynne, and Bobbie Gentry, as well as a bit of rock and roll to my parent’s dismay. I was elated when I heard that my first duty station in the Marine Corps was in Southern California. It did not long for me to discover that there was nothing southern about Southern California except maybe its geography. But I adapted, met some really nice people, one of whom became my wife. Vered was born and raised in southern California and very few people could understand what the two of us had in common. During one pre-marital counseling sessions, our counselor said that we also needed cross-cultural counseling, because though we were both English-speakers, we were from two different worlds. He was right, and after forty-five years of marriage, at times we are still from different worlds. But one thing piece of advice that has stuck with us is to avoid hyperbole, especially when arguing. “Never say never and never say always” has been a constant theme throughout our marriage.

I propose that hyperbole is being used in this week’s Torah portion. The phrase eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc. עין תחת עין, (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:21, and Deuteronomy 19:21) has been the source of much disparagement against the God of Israel, the One who suggests acts of vengeance upon those who perpetrate harm and even death. But is this actually what HaShem was commanding? Tevye’s answer in the 1971 movie, Fiddler on the Roof, to the desire of some of the villagers to respond in kind after a mini-pogrom in their shtetl of Anatevka is enlightening:

Villager: We should defend ourselves! An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!

Tevye: Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.

As Tevye implied, HaShem is not demanding that we maim one another to “even the score.” Instead, as the Sages understood these passages call for making compensation for wrongs committed.

[However,] Scripture says here, “… for” (Exod. 21:36), and Scripture says above,
“… for” (Exod. 21:24). Just as “for” stated above means one may only make damage payments with money, so too does “for” stated here mean that one may only make damage payments with money.2

It has been said that no Jewish court has ever blinded or otherwise maimed an individual as restitution for crimes against another person – corporal punishment yes, lashes, even death but never maiming. The Rambam argued against maiming by questioning where the compensation is for the injured party if the one who committed the act lost his eye – what benefit is his loss to the injured individual.

One of the nuances of tachath תחת, refers to “things mutually interchanged, in place of, in exchange or return for,” which includes monetary compensation. We see this plainly expressed earlier in chapter 21,

When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery. (21:18-19; italics are mine)

If compensation was HaShem’s intention, why did He use words that could be misconstrued negatively? The Rambam suggests “that in Heavenly Scales, the perpetrator deserves to lose his own eye – and for this reason cannot find atonement for his sin merely by making the required monetary payments; he must also beg his victim’s forgiveness – but human courts have no authority to do more than require the responsible party to make monetary restitution.”3 Another possible explanation is that He was using hyperbole the point across that people are responsible for their actions and their consequences.

In the Apostolic Writings, Yeshua uses the same words but seemingly with a different intention.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matthew 5:38-41)

Remember, just a little earlier Yeshua had said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). So, the plain text of Exodus 21:24 seems to adjure the maiming of the perpetrator in retaliation of the crime against the victim, while the rabbis understood this as monetary compensation.  Then Yeshua adds a new twist, “Do not resist an evildoer.” As extreme as the acts of vengeance in Exodus may be, Yeshua’s words seem to remove all recourse for the victim. I suggest that this too is a hyperbolic statement, causing the crowd, as well as the rest of us, to sit up and take note.

When we read something shocking in the Scriptures, we are challenged to pay attention and to discover exactly what HaShem is trying to tell us. Sometimes, a prayerful study will bring us to a satisfactory understanding, sometimes not. But as Amy-Jill Levine observes concerning Yeshua’s use of parables, his teaching challenges our stereotypes, and helps “us to locate both our eccentric traits and our excellent talents; they can inspire and humble, challenge and comfort.”4 I would go a step further and suggest that all his of teachings challenge our stereotypes and inspires us to live godly, responsible lives in a world that has far too many blind and toothless individuals in need of assistance.

Shabbat Shalom


1 Unless otherwise noted the Scripture readings are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

2 W. David Nelson, Mekhilta de Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, 69:2, 8B., Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006, 316.

3 Nosson Scherman & Meir Zlotowitz, gen. eds., The Chumash, The Stone Edition, Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd. 9th edition, 1998, 423.

4 Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, New York: HarperCollins, 2014, Apple Books ePub, 534.

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