“An eye for an eye” (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. (The expression, “Eye for an eye,” sets maximum limits, for monetary compensation.)
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 damages caused by one’s 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 tractate Baba Kama begins with the laws of damages:
“The principal categories of damage are four: the ox, the pit, the damages to a field by humans or animals and the fire. ... The feature common to them all is that they 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’s actions affect others.
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