Mishpatim – An Eye For an Eye

In the Torah portion of Mishpatim, the Torah describes an argument that leads to a man injuring a woman and the punishments for these actions,”And should men quarrel and hit a pregnant woman, and she miscarries but there is no fatality, he shall surely be punished… But if there is a fatality, you shall give a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.”[1]

The tradition of our sages is that the punishments in this verse (other than “a life for a life”[2]) should be understood non-literally. “An eye for an eye” actually means that the person must pay the value of the eye to the victim.   The same is true of the other punishments listed in this verse.

The commentaries give various reasons as to why these verses should not be understood literally.

  •  The word “tachat – for” that the Torah uses here, is used in Deut. 22, 29 in the context of financial restitution.[3]
  • If we would actually take the assailant’s eye out, he may die as a result of that procedure. This would be an excessive punishment as he did not actually kill anyone. We therefore must understand the verse to mean financial restitution.[4]
  • The Torah states several verses earlier (verse 19) that if one damages his fellow, the damager must pay for the victim’s doctor’s bills and money for his unemployment. Now, if the court would be injuring the assailant in the same way that he wounded the victim, the assailant too would need a doctor, and it would be unfair to make him pay for both doctors![5]
  • The Torah states regarding one who injures someone else “As he did, so shall be done to him.”[6] If we would injure the assailant in the same way that he wounded his victim, it would be impossible to replicate the wound precisely. The Torah must therefore simply mean a financial payment.[7]

Why the Ambiguity?

 Why does the Torah state “an eye for an eye” which can be misunderstood and interpreted literally, instead of simply stating “one must pay the value of the eye?”

Several explanations have been offered,

  • In truth, the attacker deserves to be wounded in the same way that he wounded his victim. By paying the money, he can absolve himself of this liability. If he would not pay it, the punishment he warrants is to actually lose his eye.[8]
  • By the letter of the law, the assailant should lose his eye. Our sages handed down the tradition that he should make financial restitution lest we injure him excessively in our attempt to replicate the wound.[9]

Cutting Off the Hand

In Deuteronomy[10] there is a similar verse:

“If [two] men, a man and his brother, are fighting together, and the wife of one of them approaches to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she stretches forth her hand and grabs hold of his private parts. You shall cut off her hand, you shall not have pity.”

There too, most commentaries understand the verse non literally – that the woman must make financial restitution to the man she injured. They base this interpretation on various clues;

  • The words “you shall not have pity” are used elsewhere (Deut. 19, 21) in the context of making a financial payment.[11]
  • The words “her hand” is used elsewhere (Proverbs, 31, 20) in the context of a financial payment (charity).[12]
  • The very next verse says “you shall not have in your wallet.” The juxtaposition of the two verses teaches us that the previous verse is also taking about (paying from) a wallet.[13]
  • The punishment in this verse cannot actually mean to cut the woman’s hand off, since she did not cut off the victim’s hand.[14]

The Literalists

 Some commentaries understand that verse the literally means that the woman’s hand should be cut off.[15] They understand the verse to be referring to a case when the woman is in the middle of attempting to castrate the man. This is considered a deadly assault. One must save the man from this attack, and if necessary one may cut off the woman’s hand in order to do so. In fact, if one has no choice, one may even kill the attacking woman to protect her intended victim.[16]

Other Punishments Understood Non Literally

There are other occasions that the Sages explained punishments mandated by the Torah in a way that is not the literal understanding of the verse. For example,

  • The Torah says that if the daughter of a Kohen commits adultery,[17] she must be “burned by a fire.”[18] Similarly, the punishment for one who cohabits with a woman and her daughter is “to be burned by fire.”[19] The sages interpreted the “fire” in those verses to be referring to hot lead which is forcibly poured the throat and not an actual flaming fire.[20]

Mitzvot That Are Interpreted Non Literally

There are many mitzvot that are interpreted by the sages in non-literal ways. Several examples;

  • Do not place a stumbling block in front of a blind man“[21] is interpreted to mean that one should not give advice to one who is blind in his knowledge of that matter.[22]
  • And you shall count for yourselves from the day after Shabbat“[23] is interpreted to mean that you should count from the day after the first day of Pesach.[24]
  • You shall bind them as a sign on your hand“[25] is interpreted to mean (to put Tefillin on) the upper arm.[26]
  • And they shall be a sign between your eyes“[27] is interpreted to mean (to put Tefillin) above the hair line in an area corresponding to between the eyes.[28]
  • Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk“[29] is expanded by Rabbinic interpretation to include cooking, eating or getting benefit from the meat of any kosher animal that is cooked in the milk of any kosher animal.[30]
  • The eighth commandment “Do not steal” is interpreted to mean not to kidnap.[31]

Removing or Adding to the Literal Meaning

The Talmud says that the sages generally do not remove a verse from its literal meaning. They simply add another meaning to the literal one. Both meanings are therefore true. The one exception to this is regarding the mitzvah of yibum (Levirate marriage).[32]

The Torah says “And it will be that the first born son which she will bear will be established by the name of his brother.”[33] This seems to mean that the living brother and his (sister-in-law turned) wife should name the first born son that they have, after the deceased brother. In fact, the sages remove the verse from its literal interpretation completely and expound the verse to teach us various other laws;

  • It is the first born of the brothers that has the first right to marry the deceased brother’s widow. This is derived from the words “And take her for a wife… And it will be the first born.”[34]
  • The widow must be able to bear children. Otherwise, this marriage is not performed. As the verse says “which she will bear.”[35]
  • The brother who marries the widow receives the entire estate of the deceased brother. This is derived from the words “will be established by the name of his brother.” [36]
  • They thus have no obligation to name their first born child after the deceased brother.[37]

Stories that are Interpreted Metaphorically

There are several stories in the Tanach which are interpreted by some of the commentaries as allegories and not as factual events. Several examples;

  • There is an opinion in the Talmud that the entire book of Job is an allegory and that in never actually occurred.[38]
  • According to Maimonides,[39] whenever the Torah mentions that an angel communicated with a human being, it means that the conversation happened in a prophetic vision. For example;
    • The story of Abraham and the three angels. [40]
    • When Hagar was met by angels in the desert.[41]
    • The story in which Jacob wrestled with the angel.[42]
    • The story of Balaam, his donkey and the angel.[43]
    • The story of Mano’ach and his wife (the parents of Samson) meeting the angel.[44]
    • Although Maimonides does not specifically mention these, the same would seem to apply to the story of Moses and the burning bush,[45] and when Gideon met an angel and served him a meal which the angel burned.[46]
  • In the beginning of the book of Hosheah, the prophet is instructed by G-d to marry a harlot and have children with her. Some say that this was only occurred in Hosheah’s prophetic vision but it did not actually happen in “real life.”[47]
  • The prophet Isaiah was instructed to walk around “naked and barefoot”[48] for three years to represent the punishment G-d would mete out on the Egyptians and the Ethiopians. Some say this was simply a vision that Isaiah had.[49]
  • Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel was instructed to shave himself with a sharp razor.[50] Some say that he had to do within his prophetic vision, but not in real life.[51]
  • Also, when Ezekiel was commanded to eat barley cakes “baked it with human excrement,”[52]some say this was merely a vision.[53]
  • Some are of the opinion that the story of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones was only a vision and that no people were actually resurrected.[54]
  • Some say that the snake in the story of Adam and Eve[55] was simply the desire for pleasure (the Yetzer Hara) within them and not a physical snake.[56]

Other Verses

 There are many other verses in the Torah which are interpreted in a non-literal manner.[57] Nevertheless, as mentioned above, in most cases, the literal meaning of the text remains true as well.


Some say that many of the prophecies regarding the era of Moshiach should be understood as a parable.[58] But all agree that the promise of his arrival is to be understood literally.[59]


May it be G-d’s will that this happen very soon.


[1] Exodus, 21, 22 – 25

[2] See Rashi and Sanhedrin 79a that there are two opinions regarding the meaning of this verse

[3] Bava Kamma 84a

[4] Rabeinu BaChayeh, see ibid

[5] Ramban, see Bava Kamah, ibid

[6] Levit. 24, 19

[7] Ibn Ezra in the name of Rav Sadyah Gaon, see also Rabeinu BaChayeh.

(This Monday will be the Ibn Ezra’s Yohrtzeit)

[8] Ibn Ezra

[9] Seforno

[10] 25, 11 and 12

[11] Sifri, see Bava Kamah 84a

[12] Ba’al HaTurim

[13] Ibid

[14] Rabeinu BaChayeh

[15] See Targum Yonatan ben Uziel

[16] Rav Yehudah in the Sifri

[17] See Sanhedrin, 51a

[18] Levit. 21, 9

[19] Ibid, 20, 14

[20] Pesachim 75a

This is derived from the fact that the Torah uses the word “sereifa –  burning” which, in the context of the death of the sons of Ahron, means that their soul burned but their bodies remained intact (See Levit. 10, 6).

In addition, since the Torah says “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (ibid, 19, 18), it is logical to say that the Torah intended for a Jew to be killed in a humane way (Pesachim, ibid).

[21] Levit. 19, 14

[22] Rashi based on Torat Kohanim, but see Ibn Ezra on the verse

[23] Levit. 23, 15

[24] See Rashi and commentaries on the verse, Menachot, 65a – 66a, Rambam, Laws of Temidin and Musafin, 7, 11

[25] Deut. 6, 8

[26] Menachot 37a

[27] Deut. ibid

[28] Menachot 37b

[29] Exodus, 23, 19 and 34, 26, and Deut. 14, 21

[30] Chullin 113b-115b

[31] Rashi, Sanhedrin 86a

[32] Yevamot, 24a

[33] Deut. 25, 6

[34] Rashi on the verse, Yevamot, ibid

[35] Rashi, ibid

[36] Ibid and ibid

[37] Yevamot, ibid

[38] See Bava Batra 15a

[39] Guide for the Perplexed, 2, 42

[40] Gen. 18

[41] Gen. 16, 7 – 13 and 21, 17 – 18

[42] Ibid, 32, 25

[43] Numbers, 22, 21 – 35

[44] Judges, 13

[45] Exodus, 3

[46] Judges, chapter 12

[47] Ibn Ezra, Radak. But see Pesachim 87b

[48] Isaiah, 20, 2 and 3

[49] Radak, Ibn Ezra on Hosheah, 1

But see Shabbat 114a that the verse doesn’t mean he was literally naked and barefoot. Rather, he was wearing patched clothing and shoes with patches.

[50] Ezekiel, 5, 1

[51] Radak

[52] Ezekiel, 4, 12

[53] Radak on Isaiah, ibid

[54] Opinion of Rabbi Yehudah in Sanhedrin 92b. See there that several rabbis disagree with his view.

[55] Gen. 3

[56] Seforno

According to his view, “the snake’s” punishments should be understood as follows:

You should be cursed from all the animals and the beasts of the field” – Mankind has more difficulty in achieving pleasure than all of the animal kingdom.

You shall go on your belly” – Man will only attain sustenance with difficulty.

You shall eat dirt” – Even the pleasure man achieves will never be the same as it was before the sin.

He will strike your head” – Man can overcome his evil inclination.

And you will strike his heel” If man doesn’t overcome his evil inclination, it will eventually lead to his demise.

[57] See Kiddushin, 34a

[58] See the opinion of Shmuel in Berachot 34b, Rambam, Laws of Kings, chapters 11 and 12

But see Raavad there and Sanhedrin 93b

[59] See Sanhedrin 99a


Rabbi Aryeh Citron was born in California and learned in Yeshivahs around the world before receiving his Smicha in Melbourne Australia. He lives in Miami where he teaches Torah to Jews of all ages. He sends out a weekly email called Parsha Halacha and recently authored a book called “The Practical Parsha” Weekly Halacha for Daily Living. To subscribe to his email you can contact him at rabbicitron@yeshivahcollege.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *