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Rabbi Yissocher Frand

There Is Capital Punishment, But Only After We Learn To Appreciate Human Life

The end of Parshas Emor contains the parsha of the Blasphemer (Megadef). The son of an Egyptian father and a Jewish mother got into a fight and uttered a blasphemy against the Name of Almighty. The people did not know what to do with such a person. His case was brought before Moshe. In the meantime, the blasphemer was placed under guard. At this point, Hashem taught Moshe that the punishment for blasphemy is stoning (s’kila) by the entire congregation. [Vayikra 24:10-16].

In order for the narrative to continue smoothly, at this point it should say, “Moshe spoke to the children of Israel and they brought the blasphemer outside the camp and they all stoned him. And the children of Israel did as Moshe commanded.” [Vayikra 24:23]

The Torah does indeed teach this, but only after a six verse tangent that seems to interrupt the narration of the blasphemer. The “tangent” reads as follows:

“And a man — if he strikes mortally any human life, he shall be put to death. And a man who strikes mortally an animal life shall make restitution, a life for a life. And if a man inflicts a wound in his fellow, as he did, so shall be done to him: A break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; just as he will have inflicted a wound on a person, so shall be inflicted upon him. One who strikes an animal shall make restitution, and one who strikes a person shall be put to death. There shall be one law for you, it shall be for convert and native alike, for I, Hashem, am your G-d.” [Vayikra 24:17-22]

How are we to understand this strange interruption in the narrative? Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, explained that this section marks the first time in Jewish history that capital punishment was being carried out. This was a very significant event.

Taking a life is not a small matter. We do not execute the blasphemer because life is cheap. The Almighty wanted to emphasize to people that they were about to kill another human being. “But you should know that killing another human being under other circumstances (when it is not because he is being executed by the Court for committing a capital offense) is a terrible thing. Under normal circumstances, one who kills another person shall himself be put to death. Not only that, but if a person even wounds his fellow man then he deserves to pay with an ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.”

We know that this expression is not to be interpreted literally. Rabbinic exegesis teaches that this means that one has to pay the value of an eye or the value of a tooth. But there is a very interesting Rashbam in Parshas Mishpatim. The Rashbam asks, why is the Almighty making life difficult for us? If the Torah wanted to teach that one is obligated to make monetary restitution for such cases, why didn’t it say so explicitly? Why do we need to hear, up until today, that the Torah is barbaric because it demands “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”?

The Rashbam explains by emphasizing there is a difference between peshuto shel mikra [the literal meaning of a text] and Rabbinic exegesis. Even though we practice halacha according to Rabbinic exegesis, we do not disregard “peshuto shel mikra” entirely. The literal meaning teaches important lessons. There is a message in peshuto shel mikra. The message in this case is that technically speaking, this is what should happen to a person: if he knocks out someone’s eye, he should have his own eye put out. So severe a sin is it to damage another person that it really should require ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’.

Were it not for the fact that there was an Oral Law (to temper the literal meaning), Hashem could never have recorded the Written Law in this fashion. People would be misled. Given the fact however that we do have an Oral Law, the literal meaning of the verse gives us another dimension of understanding in terms of what the law should morall y really be.

Once the Torah has clearly spelled out the important lesson of the value of life and the value of property in this “tangent”, then and only then can it proceed to conclude the narrative. Once the children of Israel have integrated the teaching of the importance of human life and property into their personalities, then and only then, were they allowed to go out and proceed with an execution of the blasphemer, the first execution in Jewish history.