Weekly Torah Portion: Damages and Capital Crimes
The following is a taste of our Israel Bible Reading Plan. Follow the weekly portion with summaries, insights and lively conversation. To register, click here.
In this extended passage, the Torah deals with a variety of cases involving damages and capital crimes. These include theft, property damage, loss of another’s belongings, injury, accidental death and even murder.
The laws in this section emphasize a person’s responsibilities to his fellow. For example, the owner of a dangerous animal (the text specifies an ox known to be aggressive) is held personally accountable if his animal kills someone — the text calls for his execution. A borrower is obliged to replace a borrowed item if it breaks in his care, and someone who is guarding a friend’s property must do the same.
The penalties for theft are detailed in this section. In specific cases, the thief must repay four or five times the value of a stolen animal, but generally the repayment rate is double. The Israel Bible cites Rabbi Moshe Lichtman, who explains the implementation of penalties such as these can only be imposed by a court authorized by the ordination passed down through the generations from the time of Moses. Although this chain of ordination was lost during the time of the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century CE, Maimonides believed that when the Jews returned to their homeland, Rabbinic authority to revive the chain of ordination could be reinstated.
In addition to the obvious case of murder, several other capital crimes are listed in this section. These include striking or cursing a parent and kidnapping. The general rule laid out in the text is the famous verse, “an eye for an eye” (21:24), but the Sages explain that it is not meant to be understood literally. Rather, they determine that one must repay the value of an eye if one takes out his fellow’s eye, and so forth. The Hebrew “ayeen tachat ayeen” literally means an eye under an eye. The Hebrew letters which immediately follow the ones that spell ayin — eye — spell “kesef”, which is Hebrew for money.