An eye for an eye

From Academic Kids

The phrase "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" expresses a form of retributive justice also known as lex talionis (Latin, 'law of retaliation'). It may have originated in ancient near-Eastern and Middle Eastern law, such as Babylonian law.

In societies not bound by the rule of law, if a person was hurt, then the injured person (or their relative) would take vengeful retribution on the person who caused the injury. Often the retribution would be much worse than the crime; it was often death. Babylonian law put a limit on such actions, restricting the retribution to be no worse than the crime.

In the Hebrew Bible, God issues many denunciations of ancient near-Eastern morality and law; the Torah (Exodus 21:24) offers its own statement of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". Read in context of the surrounding verses, and based upon a critical interpretation of the original Hebrew text, this biblical concept is seen to entail monetary compensation in tort cases.


Lex talionis in Judaism

The oral law of Judaism holds that this verse cannot be interpreted as mandating exact physical retribution. The rabbis of the Talmud ask, "How can any person be certain that the punishment they inflict is definitely no worse than the initial injury?" They answer that this is one indication that the Bible, when stating "an eye for an eye," does not refer to physical retribution. They proceed to cite several more indicators for this thesis.

The Oral Law explains, based upon the biblical verses, that the Bible mandates a sophisticated five-part monetary form of compensation, consisting of payment for "Damages, Pain, Medical Expenses, Incapacitation, and Mental Anguish" - which underlie many modern legal codes. Some rabbinic literature explains, moreover, that the expression, "An eye for an eye, etc." suggests that the perpetrator deserves to lose his own eye, but that biblical law treats him leniently. - (Paraphrased from Union of Orthodox Congregations website [1] (

It should be noted that Judaism, while not allowing physical retribution for torts, does contain provisions for corporeal and capital punishment to be carried out for certain crimes under rare circumstances.


Many Christians see the New Testament as superior to the Hebrew Bible, and have traditionally read many of the laws in the Hebrew Bible as outdated, or even as immoral. Outside of the Jewish community, the Christian view of the Hebrew Bible has become standard for many non-Christians. As such, many non-Christians have a critical view of the Hebrew Bible's conception of justice, and also of rabbinic Judaism's concept of justice. One example of this point of view is the quote "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind" by Mohandas Gandhi.

Jews disagree with this criticism, stating that it is a Christian interpretation of the commandment, which assumes that the directive encourages bloody retributive justice. Since Judaism holds that the original intent was to limit retribution, the criticism is held to be misinformed and thus invalid.

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