As we learned on yesterday’s daf, our perek focuses on damage done by a person to another person. The first category of damage and payment presented by Mishna is the case of nezek – permanent damage done to another person that lowers his intrinsic value. The source brought for this by the Gemara is the famous passage, “ayin tahat ayin – an eye for an eye” (Shemot 21:24).
The Torah’s statement that we punish “an eye for an eye” is understood by the Sages to refer to a monetary obligation rather than a physical punishment. In a lengthy discussion that appears in our Gemara, a number of Sages take turns responding to the Gemara’s suggestion that perhaps the pasuk should be understood according to its simple meaning.
While all the Sages are in agreement that the passage is to be interpreted as payment, not losing an eye, Rabbi Eliezer says, “Ayin tahat ayin – mamash: an eye for an eye – literally.” Rav Ashi explains that he means to say that the person who blinded his friend will pay the value of his own eye, rather than the value of the eye that he blinded. This can be understood as based on the understanding that the payment is not restitution, rather it is in exchange for the punishment that the person really deserves – to lose his eye.
In his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Hovel U’Mazik 1:3-6) the Rambam explains that the Torah chose to use this language, rather than simply state that personal injury will result in monetary compensation, in order to emphasize that someone who injures another really deserves to suffer the same injury that he inflicted on his fellow. This notwithstanding, the laws of the Torah only require restitution, and not corporeal punishment. In a clear attempt to dispel any doubts about this interpretation, the Rambam further states that this ruling was an oral tradition received by Moses on Mount Sinai, and that this was the practical ruling of the courts in the Land of Israel beginning with the time of Yehoshua and Shmu’el haRamati and continuing until contemporary times.