Revenge, Sweet Revenge

posted in: BasicPhilosophy | 0

Even though the Bible is the biggest “bestseller” of all time, and continues to affect believers and non-believers more than any other book ever written, many people are wholly unfamiliar with the original language. This causes some confusion and misunderstanding especially if you get your religious philosophy from Time magazine.[1] Some misunderstandings can easily be cleared up without spending years studying the language. There are some key mistakes that are the cause of major glitches that should be corrected.

Here is one of the Top Ten Mistranslations:

ין תחת עיןע – “Ayin tachas ayin” – An eye for an eye.

(Ex.-21:24, Lev.-24:20, Deut.-19:21)

Ask your average layman if they are familiar with this phrase and what it means and you’ll hear that – of course that is the famous Biblical verse advocating taking revenge on your enemies. Although other peoples all over the world have sanctioned revenge in various forms, even officially in the Code of Hammurabi and Babylonian Law, the Torah is quite clear that revenge is forbidden; it is a transgression stated in Leviticus 19:18 “Thou shalt not take revenge.” People think the Torah advocates revenge when in reality it forbids it.

This misunderstanding is so pervasive, being misquoted in books and magazines, even by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. that it is almost useless trying to convince people otherwise. But if you want to know the real Torah; the one that has guided people that follow it for 3300 years, you should know the truth.

It is truly unfortunate that not only do people misunderstand the true message of the Torah, but they use this mistranslation to malign the Jewish people, who historically are shown to be extremely non-vengeful compared with other nations.

Two types of revenge

To be clear, there are two types of “revenge” that need to be separated. One is a private type of revenge where a person takes it upon himself to exact retribution when someone did him wrong. This, the Torah says, is clearly immoral. When we do that we are playing God. It’s the Almighty’s job to right wrongs, carry out punitive justice and correct the imbalances in the world. When we are slighted we naturally want to retaliate. We want to make things “even”. But that feeling is disconnected from God and spirituality. We need to channel those feelings inward and ask why the event happened in the first place. Is there a lesson I need to learn? Am I leaving myself unprotected? Is there a message from the Almighty concerning my spiritual growth?

We need to remind ourselves that God still runs the world. If someone stole $100. from me, the Almighty has many ways of returning me the money, and many ways of taking the profit away from the thief. God doesn’t need my help in carrying out His justice. [2] Which leads us to the second type of “revenge”.

The second type is a formal revenge that a court of law carries out. The courts are incapable of carrying out true divine justice. But they do have a duty to provide society with a system of justice that is fair, promotes harmony in society, and presents criminals with punishments or consequences that help prevent crimes against other citizens. Every society tries to develop a justice system that is objective and wise. Non-Torah systems sometimes included the possibility for the criminal who maims to be himself maimed. This, even when carried out by an objective court, the Torah also says is not right, and provides an alternative through monetary compensation. We are instructed NOT to carry out either of these two types of revenge.

Courts of Law

So what does this phrase an eye for an eye mean in the Torah? It is a poetic phrase in the context of court cases and instructions for judges. If a person injures another to the point of causing that person to lose an eye, there is a monetary fine paid. An eye is priceless and can’t be replaced, but the court is mandated to issue a fine nonetheless. Some say it also means that the aggressor should feel as if they deserves to have his/her eye taken out, but of course the courts are not going to do that.

(On a side note, an interesting commentary by Rabbi Eliahu of Vilna [3] explains that since the word “tachas” literally means “under”, you can look at the Hebrew letters that spell “ayin” which are ayin, yud, nun, and pick out the letters underneath [4] which are pey, chaf, samech, – the letters that spell “kesef”, the Hebrew word for money. Gematria aficionados, enjoy.)

One eye is taken for an eye

If your neighbor leaves a severed pig’s head on your porch, you will naturally feel like retaliating. As is often the case, human beings seem to be projecting their feelings onto the Torah and finding a phrase that supports their feelings. We would like to carry out revenge or have the court carry out revenge, so we justify it by attaching our feelings to this phrase. In fact, this phrase is so catchy and poetic that books, movies, and popular songs like “Bad Moon Rising”[5] have used it many times. (Maybe the Jews should get some residuals from all this copyright infringement?)

But our feelings are holy and come from a good place, even our negative feelings. We want revenge because we crave justice and expect the world to work in a fair and honest way. Justice is part of Godliness and something our soul clings to strongly.[6] But when this feeling gets confused with personal hurt, we channel it into the wrong direction. Whenever we feel personal hurt, the spiritual challenge is to try to channel it back to God. Seek His advice how to channel those feelings in the right direction through prayer, introspection, and understanding. Of course if we are legally allowed to seek payment for damages we should do so through an objective third party legal system. But ultimately the Almighty runs the world.

In short, the Torah advocates an official system of justice with courts and judgments that preclude personal vengeance, while clearly stating that personal revenge is a transgression. There is no room for doubt in this matter.

[1] E.g. issues from Jan. ’83,

[2] The Sefer HaChinuch goes farther and suggests that hard feelings towards the person who wrongs you are misplaced because if God didn’t want it to happen the person would be powerless to harm you.

[3] Outstanding Lithuanian rabbi known as the Genius of Vilna -Vilna Gaon (1720-1797)

[4] If you place the Hebrew alphabet in a vertical row with alef at the top, each succeeding letter is underneath the previous letter.

[5] By Credence Clearwater Revival, written by John Fogerty 1969

[6] Din is the fifth of the ten kabbalistic Sefirot, and encompasses divine justice. We understand intellectually that true justice is not always immediate, and sometimes requires a next world, reincarnation, etc. however, we still desire to see justice now.