“Eved Ivri” – Hebrew Servant

June 7, 2006

The “Eved Ivri” is treated extremely well by the Law of the Torah. He or she is a full-fledged Jew or Jewess in all respects, is obligated in all the Commandments of the Torah, and is included in most respects as a member of the owner’s family. The “Eved Ivri” may bring in his own family, including wife and children, and his “owner” is obligated to support his family as well as himself. The owner has the right to unite him as well with a non-Jewish female servant, and children produced from that union remain with the master.

The Torah describes in Parashat Mishpatim how a Jewish male or female can become a Hebrew servant. There are two ways for a male – if an individual stole from his neighbor, but was not able to repay his victim, the Jewish court can sell him into the status of “Eved Ivri,” Hebrew servant, and use the proceeds to pay the victim. Alternatively, if an individual is having trouble making ends meet, he has the option as a last resort of selling himself into that status. A female child can be sold into the status of a Hebrew servant only by her father. Both male and female would work a maximum of six years, or until the “Yovel,” which interrupts the six-year period even if only one day was worked (of course the buyer is aware of this), and sets the servant free. The female, in addition, is freed upon attaining physical maturity.

The Jewish male Hebrew Servant may choose foolishly to prolong his remaining in the status of servitude beyond six years, until the Yovel. In that case, a hole is punctured in the cartilage of his ear. Our Sages give two explanations for why the ear was chosen for this dubious honor. In the case of the thief who was sold into slavery, the message is this: “The ear, which heard on Mt. Sinai in the Ten Utterances, ‘You shall not steal’ (Shemot 20:13) and yet its owner violated that Command, deserves to be pierced.” Alternatively, with regard to the individual who sold himself, the message is this: “The ear, which heard on Mt. Sinai ‘For the Children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt… ’ (VaYikra 25:55). They are My servants, and not servants of servants, and yet its owner acquired a human master for himself, deserves to be pierced.”