top of page


An Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth, So the Whole World Will Be Blind and Toothless

A Drop of Torah

This week's Parsha, Parshat Emor, continues the Levitical theme of ritual cleanliness, specifically concerning the Kohanim (Aaron and his sons) and more sacrifices. It also tells us to observe Shabbat and the holidays of Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. At the end of the Parsha, Leviticus 24: 17-21 presents some interesting scenarios. The passage reads: "And he who strikes any man mortally shall surely be put to death. And he who smites a beast mortally shall make it good: life for life. And if a man maims his neighbor; as he has done, so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth; as he has maimed another man, so shall it be rendered unto him. And he who kills a beast shall make it good."

There are several interpretations of this passage. First, there are those who understand it literally. This leads to the quote, which is usually misattributed to Mahatma Gandhi, that if we actually followed this teaching as revenge, "the whole world would be blind and toothless." The Rabbis, however, interpreted it as monetary compensation. They ascribed a standard as to how much the damage would cost and the amount of money necessary to cover the damages inflicted. The Kabbalah explained this passage through the process of reincarnation, but that is for another conversation.

Verse 18

As interesting as all of this is, I’d like to focus on verse 18.

וּמַכֵּ֥ה נֶֽפֶשׁ־בְּהֵמָ֖ה יְשַׁלְּמֶ֑נָּה נֶ֖פֶשׁ תַּ֥חַת נָֽפֶשׁ

“Whoever smites a beast mortally shall make restitution for it: life for life.”

It's pretty clear verse 18 says if someone kills an animal that belongs to another person, the perpetrator must replace the animal with another one of equal value. Note that the Hebrew word to describe the animal is בְּהֵמָה (Behaymah), which is not anything specific, but instead, we understand it as a large animal. The Hebrew word has even made it into the English language as Behemoth, which Merriam-Webster identifies as a noun and defines as "something of monstrous size, power, or appearance." But, of course, the true behemoths on our planet are not found on land. The real behemoths are in the water. On land, the largest terrestrial animal is the African elephant. In water, it's the Blue Whale which is, in fact, the largest being ever to have lived on our planet. An adult blue whale can reach lengths of over 100 feet and weigh up to 200 tons, as much as 33 African elephants. Now that's what I call a behemoth.

Regarding terrestrial wildlife, the rights of "ownership" fall to those who own the land on which the animal was killed. So, for people who hunt, if they do so on state or federal land, they pay for a hunting license and are allowed to kill a certain number of animals with clear and specified regulations. On the other hand, if someone kills an animal on private property, they could be subject to criminal prosecution or fines. A rancher in Montana can kill a wolf on his land (assuming the wolf isn't protected) and not be penalized. Technically, if the wolf is on the Rancher's land, the Rancher owns the wolf. In section IV of Legal Trends in Wildlife Management put out by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, laws concerning the ownership of wildlife are discussed in great detail.

Restitution for the Ocean

But how do we address this Mitzvah as it applies to the Ocean? First, consider that there have been attempts to define ownership of the Ocean. Most notable of these efforts was the first United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea in 1958. At that convention, representatives determined the Ocean and the Deep-Sea Bed to be the "Common Heritage of Humanity," meaning no one can own the Ocean, the life within it, or the minerals on the Ocean floor. Then came the EEZs (Economic Exclusion Zones) and the expansion of territorial waters, all in an effort by nations to lay claim to their parts of the ocean and everything in it for exploitation. In his book A New Blue Deal, Chris Armstrong gives an excellent history of the Common Heritage theory and an analysis of the complexities of ownership of marine "resources."

However, how we address this Mitzvah as it applies to the Ocean is more straightforward for our examination of the Parsha. "He who kills a beast (behaymah) shall make it good; life for life." It's relatively clear on land, but the damage done to the aquatic environment is so profound and has gone on for so long. Is it possible to make restitution, and to whom would restitution be made? Life in the Ocean has no "owner." Or rather, Life in the Ocean has no human owner. Once again, I quote Psalm 95:5, "The Sea is God's."

Additionally, Psalm 24 says:

לַֽ֭ייָ הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְי֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ: כִּי ה֖וּא עַל־יַמִּ֣ים יְסָדָ֑הּ וְעַל־נְ֝הָר֗וֹת יְכוֹנְנֶֽהָ:

"The Earth (meaning the entire planet) is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and all that dwell therein. For God founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods."

If this is so, then the "owner" of all the Life in the Sea… is God. If such is the case, then the exploitation and violation of the Sea represent the ultimate in human arrogance and hubris. What are we humans to take more than we need? What are we humans to think we have been given everything on this planet?

"Whoever smites a beast mortally shall make restitution for it: life for life." How will we fulfill this command from the Torah?

The Current State

The Blue Whale population today is 10% of what it was before the era of commercial whaling. How can we make restitution to the Owner for that? A hundred million sharks are slaughtered every year for their fins. How can we make restitution for that? Phytoplankton, that tiny marine organism that collectively produces more oxygen for our planet than all the rainforests combined, has been reduced by 40% since 1950 because of the reduced number of marine mammals and because humans are harvesting it for livestock feed. How can we make restitution for that? Trillions of fish are taken from the water every year, so 90% of the Ocean's fisheries are fully exploited, over-exploited, or collapsed. How can we make restitution for that?

The current buzz phrase in the environmental world is "Climate Change." Please, remember that the Ocean creates Earth's climate. Yes, we are pumping too much carbon into the atmosphere. However, a healthy ocean would absorb far more carbon than our current sick ocean can. Healthy whale and fish populations could absorb more carbon, and healthy phytoplankton populations would produce more oxygen. Unfortunately, all of these are quickly reaching the point of no return. There is no question that if the climate continues to get warmer, it will be extremely difficult, and life on Earth will not be that to which we have become accustomed. But we humans will adapt. If the Ocean dies… we all die.

"Whoever smites a beast mortally shall make it good: life for life." If we humans don't change our current practices of exploitation and pollution of the Ocean, the life we pay in restitution may be our own.

bottom of page