If the one who testified is a false witness, having testified falsely against a fellow Israelite, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to the other. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst; others will hear and be afraid, and such evil things will not again be done in your midst. Nor must you show pity: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot. (Deuteronomy 19:18–21)
As we’ve previously discussed, in a society that depends on oral testimony, bearing false witness is a scourge, which is why it makes God’s short list: the Ten Commandments. That’s also why this passage in Deuteronomy suggests an exacting punishment.
The principle of retributive justice, that punishment should exactly match harm done, is called lex talionis (Latin for “law of retaliation”). The memorable formulation of “an eye for an eye” is familiar not only from the Hebrew Bible, but from other ancient Near Eastern law codes, most famously that of Hammurabi. Lex talionis offers a vision of fairness that is both vivid and crude: If my false testimony robs someone — whether of $200 or their life — then the exact same should be done to me to make things even.
It’s not difficult to see the pitfalls of such a system, from the impracticality of applying tailor-made punishments to the way it seems to encourage vengeful escalation, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it so eloquently:
“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.” (Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story)
This counter maxim — an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind — has, in our day, also achieved the level of adage. Some attribute it originally to Mahatma Gandhi, but it likely originated with the early 20th-century Canadian politician George Perry Graham. I offer King’s formulation here because it reveals something else, a condescending attitude toward the law and the scriptures that purvey it: Lex talionis belonged to an ancient, benighted people. Nowadays, we know better.
It turns out, 1,500 years ago the rabbis also knew better. Here is a teaching from Rabbi Ile’a about the Bible’s formulation of lex talionis brought in the last few lines of today’s daf:
Since it states: “And you shall do unto him as he conspired to do unto his brother” (Deuteronomy 19:19); why do I need: “A hand for a hand” (Deuteronomy 19:21)? This indicates an item that is given from hand to hand. And what is that item? Money.
This is a masterful piece of subversive exegesis. Rabbi Ile’a understands perfectly well that the Torah says a false witness is punished by having the damage he has caused another inflicted on him. But he employs a standard technique of rabbinic interpretation to subvert the plain sense of the text. When Deuteronomy 19:19 says “you shall do unto him as he conspired to do to his brother” it has already made the notion of proportionate punishment clear.
Why then does the Torah continue to list examples: an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand? Since every word of the Torah is imbued with meaning and nothing is extraneous, Rabbi Ile’a argues, verse 21 must be teaching something else. “A hand for a hand” calls to mind the image of something passing from hand to hand. And what do people pass from one hand to another? Money. Therefore, the Torah’s punishment for bearing false witness is monetary payment in proportion to the damage inflicted. With one stroke, Rabbi Ile’a upholds the sanctity of Torah and defangs its punitive law.
It is difficult to argue with the chorus of contemporary voices warning that eye-for-eye leaves the whole world blind. The rabbis, too, were profoundly uncomfortable with lex talionis. Their response, however, was not quippy dismissal, but a reinterpretation that evinces both respect for Torah and a commitment to a more just system.
Read all of Ketubot 32 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 7th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.