“Measure for Measure”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In ancient civilizations, it was not uncommon for legal systems to practice what is known as Lex Talionis, an eye for an eye or measure for measure.

Particularly well known practitioners of retributive justice were the ancient Babylonians. According to their legal system, if a person murdered his neighbor’s child, the father of the victim was entitled to murder the child of the perpetrator.

Despite the clear biblical pronouncement (Exodus 21:23-25): “Ah’yin tah’chaht ah’yin, shayn tah’chaht shayn,” an eye for an eye a tooth for tooth, that seems to affirm this type of justice, Judaism and Jewish law strongly rejected the practice of measure for measure punishment, insisting on personal accountability only, and monetary compensation.

The Talmud in Bava Kama 83b, records a discussion among the rabbis questioning the rabbinic insistence on monetary compensation. “Does not the Divine law say an ‘eye for an eye’?” ask the rabbis. Does this not mean to literally take out the eye of the offender? The rabbis however reject this reasoning, insisting that the idea of retributive justice not enter anyone’s mind. Furthermore, even if one might conclude that the offender’s eye be put out, arm cut off, or leg broken, this can not be correct because of the biblical verse in Leviticus 24 that states, “He who smiteth any man…and he who smiteth a beast.” Say the rabbis: Just as in the case of wounding a beast, monetary compensation is to be paid, so in the case of wounding a man, only monetary compensation is to be paid. Furthermore, the Bible states (Numbers 35:31), that one may not take ransom in exchange for the life of a murderer who is deserving of death. However, it is only for the life of a murderer that one may not take ransom. But, a ransom may be taken for damage to limbs, even though they can not be restored.

With these statements, Judaism revolutionized ancient legal practices, insisting that physical damages be compensated by monetary payment rather than through retaliation.

On the other hand, Judaism clearly assumes that heavenly justice is dispensed by the “measure for measure” principle. Rabbi Judah is recorded in Sotah 8b, to have said (Rabbi Meir is similarly cited in Sanhedrin 100a): How do we know that a person is evaluated in heaven in the same manner that he evaluates other people in this world? As it is said (Isaiah 27:8): “By measure in sending her away thou does contend with her.”

Frequent examples are found in the Torah affirming that heavenly punishment is meted out Middah k’neged middah, measure for measure.

The Talmud in Erachin 16b, points out that a person stricken with Tzaraat for speaking evil of others is sent out of the camp. After all, since this person separated a man from his wife, or a man from his friend by speaking evil against them, the Torah decrees (Leviticus 13:46): “Let him dwell alone.”

The Talmud in Sotah 11a, notes that the Egyptians, who cast Jewish children into the waters, were themselves punished by water. As the Bible says in Exodus 18:11 “Asher zadu,” as the Egyptians schemed, meaning literally that they were cooked in their own pot. The rabbis in Megillah 12b, suggest that Vashti was ordered by Ahasuerus to appear naked at his party to show her beauty to all, as punishment for forcing the Jewish girls to come naked and work for her on Shabbat. As it says in Esther 2:1, that which she has done, and that which was decreed against her.

Fortunately, the Al-mighty’s practice of compensating measure for measure applies not only for evil, but also for good. Therefore, in Numbers 12, when Miriam is stricken with Tzaraat for speaking against Moses, the people wait seven days for her to heal, to reward her for watching over baby Moses when he was placed in the bulrushes at the river (Exodus 2:4).

Similarly, since Joseph went to extraordinary lengths to make certain that his father was buried properly in the land of Israel, he merited that Moses would personally carry Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, to ensure that he too would ultimately be buried in the land of Canaan. Because of the kindness he rendered to Joseph, Moses was compensated as well, meriting to be buried by the Al-mighty Himself (Talmud, Sotah 9b).

The Al-mighty’s practice of compensating “measure for measure” is particularly apparent in the events governing the lives of Jacob and Joseph. When Jacob flees from his brother, Esau, he dwells with Laban, and is separated from his father for twenty-two years. Joseph, who was sold to Egypt by his brothers, was also separated from his father for twenty-two years until they were reunited. Jacob’s sons deceive their father, Jacob, by bringing Joseph’s coat of many colors dipped in goat’s blood (Genesis 37:31). Judah is similarly deceived with a goat (Genesis 38:23) when he tries unsuccessfully to send a payment of a goat to the harlot, who is really his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Jacob (Genesis 25 & 27), who deceives his brother, Esau, of his birthright and of his blessing, eventually has to pay back everything taken through deceit, by giving a great gift of tribute to Esau (Genesis 32 & 33). Jacob gets to keep none of the worldly possessions that he had been promised at that time by his father, Issac. Esau cries out a great and bitter cry when he realizes that Jacob has stolen his blessing (Genesis 27:34). Ultimately, Mordechai gives out a great and bitter cry (Esther 4:1) when he learns that Haman (a descendent of Esau) is determined to destroy the Jewish people.

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish Malbim, 1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia) points to five instances in parashat Mikeitz, where the principle of “measure for measure” is evident in the story of Joseph. In Genesis 42, Joseph has accused his brothers of being spies, and places them all in prison for three days. He then demands that they prove their honesty by having one of their brothers remain in custody while the others return to Canaan to bring their little brother. The brothers privately acknowledge their guilt to each other, recalling how they heard Joseph’s cries and ignored them, bringing upon themselves this terrible crisis. When Joseph overhears their painful discussion, he turns aside and cries. He speaks to them again harshly, arresting Simeon and imprisoning him in front of them.

The Malbim brilliantly interprets this event, noting that many of the punishments that Joseph metes out to his brothers are “measure for measure.” Just as the brothers considered Joseph to be a spy who speaks evil of his family members, Joseph accuses them of being spies. Just as Simeon had thrown Joseph into the pit with the approval of his brothers, Joseph threw all the brothers in prison for three days, before releasing them, and then holds only Simeon in custody. Just as the brothers sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver, Joseph instills fear and dread in his brothers’ hearts by returning their money to the opening of their bags. Just as the brothers sold Joseph into slavery, they eventually turn to Joseph and offer to surrender themselves and serve as slaves.

Ultimately, it is impossible for a finite human being to understand the ways of the Infinite; for mortals to fathom the conduct of the Immortal. Nevertheless, it is clear from even a cursory analysis of the Bible, that all humans are held accountable by the Al-mighty for their actions and behavior, in His own divine scheme of compensation. With that knowledge, it is incumbent upon each of G-d’s creatures to bear in mind and consider what ultimate reward or punishment awaits us for each of our actions.

May you be blessed and Happy Chanukah to all.

The festival of Chanukah began on Sunday night, December 21, 2008 and continues for eight days, through Monday, December 29, 2008.