Vort from the Rav: Emor

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Vayikra 24:20

עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן – eye for eye.

Although the Written Law contains the prescription of an eye for an eye, the Oral Law interprets this statement to signify monetary compensation only. Why is the wording in the Written Law so misleading? Man’s organs do not merely perform organic functions; they drive fundamentally human responses. For example, when a person gazes upon a tree, he sees not only the tree, but also apprehends its beauty. Furthermore, on a strictly moral plane, the offender indeed deserves retribution in kind for imparting such incalculable pain and suffering. While on a moral level the loss that he imposed deserves punishment in kind, on a practical level no court is allowed to exact such a penalty. (Mipeninei Harav, pp. 376-382; Boston, 1977)

After providing an exegetical argument for the interpretation of עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן as monetary remuneration, Maimonides (Hilchos Chovel U’Mazik 1:6) adds: This ruling is what our ancestors witnessed in the court of Joshua and in the court of Samuel, and in every court that has functioned from the days of Moses our teacher until the present. The added word “witnessed” lends this specific interpretation a specific veracity. For most other verses in the Torah, one is allowed posit various interpretations, some more in consonance with the simple text, others less so. However, in this case, if one interprets eye for eye literally, he is considered a megaleh panim batorah, one who interprets the Torah in contradiction to halachah. In a similar way, if one interprets the phrase פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר, the fruit of goodly trees (23:40), to mean anything other than an esrog, he also engages in this form of heresy.

There are certain verses in the Torah that over many generations have been uniformly interpreted in a specific way—the interpretation was “witnessed”—and in these cases such interpretation has the veracity of Torah Shebichsav, the Written Law. The traditional explanation is ironclad and the verse is not open to alternate explanations. (Divrei Harav, p. 101)

About Arnold Lustiger

Dr. Arnold Lustiger is a research scientist and has edited multiple volumes of the Rav's Torah, including the recently published Chumash Mesoras HaRav.

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