You’ve heard the phrase “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand…” And you’ve likely heard frightening stories of societies in which this biblical rule is applied literally.

This verse, found in Exodus (21:24), is a primary example of the importance that the Oral Law plays in understanding that which is written in the Torah. It has never been the practice of the Jewish people to apply abusive punitive measures such as disabling a man because he disabled another. Beyond the fact that this form of punishment is of no benefit to society (and only makes the injured or the family of the injured feel avenged), it is not a true system of justice.

Instead, the Oral Law uses this verse as the basis for understanding the extensive system of monetary compensation for injuries that is spelled out, at length, in the Talmud. Indeed, the laws that are practiced in civil courts the world over are based largely on these ideas.

In developing a system of compensation, the sages noted that the qualities and quantities of damages, pain, medical expenses, incapacitation and mental anguish must be taken into consideration. The loss of an eye to a man who draws water from a well might be of quite different significance than the loss of an eye to a scribe.

Why does scripture formulate this law in such an unusual way? Torah commentators have explained that it comes to set limits on monetary compensation: A person cannot demand compensation for two eyes in payment for the loss of one. As it says, “An eye for an eye” – maximum!