“An eye for an eye” as is set forth in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:24), is one of the most commonly quoted phrases from the Hebrew Bible. This phrase, of course, is part of Jewish civil law and serves as the original reference to monetary compensation for personal damages.

Jewish civil law is extremely vast and complex. And, while the Torah and the Talmud frequently reference oxen and donkeys, the laws are generally as applicable today as they were when most Jews lived in an agrarian society. Take for instance Exodus 21:33-34, which states: “And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit and not cover it, and an ox or an ass fall therein, the owner of the pit shall make it good; he shall give money to the owner of them, and the dead beast shall be his.”

This principle, that a person is responsible for damage caused by their negligence, is a fundamental aspect of modern civil law.

Wanting to make certain that the laws of damages stated in the Torah were not misunderstood, the sages dedicated a significant portion of the Talmud to clarifying them. The Talmudic tractate Baba Kama begins with the laws of damages:

“The principal categories of damage are four: the ox, the pit, damage to a field by humans or animals and fire.… The feature common to them all is that all four are in the habit of doing damage; and that they have to be kept under rigorous control, so that whenever any one [of them] does damage, the offender is liable to indemnify with the best of his estate” (Baba Kama 2a).

To those raised in a society based on civil law, today’s Jewish Treat may simply be read as an excellent reminder to always be aware of how one person’s actions affect others.

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