Whoever hits you on the right cheek…

The Midrash* on the Mount, Part 3

In the Sermon on the Mount, why did Jesus refer to the right cheek (Mt. 5:39)? He could have said left cheek or not have specified any cheek at all. Was this an arbitrary choice or was it deliberate?

Imagine someone standing before you preparing to hit you. Whether with an open-handed slap or a clenched fist, most people would likely strike your left cheek, not your right. To hit your right cheek, a person would probably be left-handed. Scientific estimates for left-handedness range between five and 30% of the population. So was Jesus just referring to a minority of violence-prone left-handers?

There is, however, another possibility: A backhanded slap with the right hand would typically land on the other person’s right cheek. But again, why would Jesus refer specifically to such a blow? What does a backhanded slap in the face represent? An insult.

The rabbinic discussions in the Talmud record that the courts at that time assessed different penalties for various types of assault based on the degree of humiliation (Bava Kamma 90a). If a man punched another, he was assessed a fine of a sela (i.e. four zuzim or Roman dinars). According to a popular old Passover children’s song, that would suffice to buy two baby goats. Another opinion regarding the same offense was considerably higher: 100 dinars.

If, however, a man slapped his fellow on the cheek, he had to pay 200 dinars. But if he slapped his fellow on the cheek with the back of his hand, he had to pay the highest penalty–400 dinars. That’s a lot of goats! We learn, therefore, that a backhanded slap was the ultimate form of insult. By referring to the right cheek, Jesus was urging self-restraint in situations involving extreme humiliation.

Some Christians interpret Jesus’ reference to offering “the other cheek” as advocating pacifism, even in situations that might be life threatening, as in wartime. His audience, however, would have understood that Jesus was referring to disputes between people in daily life–between neighbors, between buyer and seller, even between brothers–the type of disputes which could lead to reciprocal blows.

That the principle of “turning the other cheek” is limited to responses to humiliation is borne out by Jesus’ additional reference immediately following to one who takes someone’s coat (Mt. 5:40; Luke 6:29). Both of these examples of affronts are also cited together in the same Talmudic passage referenced above dealing specifically with assaults on someone’s honor, that is, humiliation. Jesus was clearly aware of this contemporary rabbinic discussion.

A common misunderstanding or two

In daily life, people frequently resort to revenge for real or assumed slights and injuries. They may even justify their attacks, quoting the biblical principle of “an eye for an eye,” while they behave in some petty way to get their revenge. For this reason, Jesus juxtaposed the principle of “turning the other cheek” with the principle of “an eye for an eye.”

God never intended the rule of “an eye for an eye” as permission for the general public to exact revenge. It was a guideline for the judges of Israel only, within the strict confines of the judicial system. Self-justice, taking revenge, is a complete perversion of the biblical principle and perpetuates violence. This is why Jesus taught the virtue of accepting insult silently rather than personal recourse to reciprocal violence.

Further, suggesting that the Jewish people historically applied the principle literally and brutally, as is often done by uninformed Bible teachers, is a misrepresentation. We have dealt with this topic in HASHIVAH several times. In brief, apart from cases of willful murder, the penalty for a physical assault resulting in humiliation or injury was always payment of a fine. The value of an eye had to be paid for an eye injury. The value of a limb for a limb injury and so on, not the value of an eye for a limb injury. A survey of all biblical references to this principle reveals that a monetary payment was implied.

Also, the judges included in their judgment five elements of indemnity that had to be paid, if relevant, namely, (1) damage or actual injury, (2) pain, (3) humiliation, (4) medical costs and (5) loss of livelihood.

Jesus sought to reduce the urge to seek revenge. Instead of uprooting the Torah (Law), Jesus endorsed it (see Parts I and II in previous issues). Understanding the Sermon on the Mount correctly is not only a benefit for Christians for its own sake, but will also remove ill will towards Jews caused by a misunderstanding of a key text of the New Testament.

*rabbinic homily