Shabbat Emor, May 1, 2021
Triennial Reading, Leviticus Chapter 22, verse 17 though Chapter 23, verse 22.
We find a momentous passage at the end of this week’s Torah portion. It is a reiteration of law first set forth in Mishpatim: Shever Tachat Shever, Ayin Tachat Ayin, Shane Tachat Shane, a break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Or was it first set forth somewhere else?
When Hammurabi’s Code was re-discovered in the early twentieth century, many scholars noted the resemblance to Mosaic law. After all, it predated Moshe by at least 400 years! Many of the stories of Breishit conform to references in Hammurabi’s code. And there are no less than 24 instances of resemblance between the two codes-in regard to the laws of kidnapping, burglary and assault. The most obvious parallel, though, is Lex Talionis, break for break, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. This seems to support the supposition that the Torah relies on the Code for its legal underpinnings.
Many people, however, challenge this conclusion. They say that the common points can be attributed to the shared geography of the two civilizations and to common human experience which is much the same everywhere.
The best proof of the independence of Torah law from Babylonian code is this passage we read today, the law of taliation. Hammurabi’s law understands this concept as a cold, literal maxim. If a man causes the tooth of a man who is his equal to fall out, one shall make his tooth to fall out. If a house builder causes the death of the owner by poor construction, he is killed, but if he causes the death of the child of the owner, he is not killed, but his child is.
In contrast, the Torah’s mitzvah is interpreted as a call for monetary compensation in the case of bodily harm to a person. This is begun even before the Rabbinic period as we can see from a sentence in Numbers, “You shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer that is guilty of death.” This makes it clear that other, lesser offenses would yield to money compensation. There is no instance in recorded Jewish history of the literal interpretation being implemented.
Torah law also is a principle applied to all in society. John Michaelis, a dean of modern Torah exegesis, states that this law is appropriate only for free people because the poorest inhabitant has the same rights as his most aristocratic assailant. It deems the tooth of the poorest peasant as valuable as that of the nobleman, even more so perhaps, because the peasant must bite crust, while the nobleman eats cake.
The idea of inflicting punishment on children for the acts of their parents is alien to Torah law. This is illustrated in a section dealing with an ox that gores others. The passage concludes, “Whether it has gored a son or a daughter, according to this judgment shall it be done to him.” Later, the Torah states in even clearer language. The father shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin,”
Hammurabi’s Code, therefore, can be seen as a precursor to Torah law. It deals with the same societal problems of crime and punishment, but in markedly different ways.
The Torah places great emphasis on Midah K’Neged Midah, measure for measure. Abraham is a party to a lasting covenant of kindness from God because of his own deep reservoir of kindness. Joseph treats his brothers harshly in Egypt to awaken them to their treatment of him in Canaan. But the Torah also prohibits revenge, which was clearly in Joseph’s power had he chosen that course. We are bound to answer goodness with goodness and respond to crimes with just and appropriate punishment. This is what sets Judaism apart from the Babylonians, and what makes it a pioneering philosophy for all moral societies.