Parshat Mishpatim 5761
- Slavery and the Torah
past week, there was a television series on the life of Abraham Lincoln,
arguably the greatest president the United States has ever had.
His greatest achievement, though bought at a terrible price, the
Civil War, was the freeing of the slaves.
At the end of the series, Lincoln was called a “secular saint.”
I would question the designation “secular.”
It seems clear that his ideas had their origin in the Bible.
the first of the Ten Utterances, HaShem
introduces Himself to the People of Israel by saying, “I am the L-rd your
G-d Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the House of Bondage” (Shemot
20:2). The task of the Jew is to be a servant to G-d.
Being a servant to a human being is incommensurate with being a
servant to G-d.
first topic in Parshat Mishpatim is the “eved ivri,” the Hebrew
indentured servant. How did
this individual wind up in this predicament?
The Talmud describes two situations, one in which a person stole from
another and was unable to repay, in which case the Jewish court can sell
that thief into the status of an “eved ivri.”
Another case is where an individual has reached the depths of
poverty, hasn’t a penny to his name, and can in no way repay his
creditors. In such a case, the
Torah permits the individual to sell himself into the status of “eved ivri.”
is the life of an “eved ivri” like?
In the first place, since he is a Jew, he is obligated in all the
commands of the Torah as is his “master.”
He serves a limited period, the maximum being six years, unless the
“Yovel,” the Jubilee Year, occurs before he has completed six years of
service, in which case he goes free, in accordance with the verse, “…and
you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land, for all the inhabitants
thereof” (Vayikra 25:10).
was his life like? The RAMBAM
describes it in the “Laws of Servants” (Chapter 1, Halachah 9), “For
every Hebrew indentured male servant or indentured female Hebrew servant,
the ‘master’ is required to provide equal (with
himself) food, drink, clothing and living quarters, as it says, ‘that
it should be good for him with you,’
that it shall not be the case that you eat fine white bread and he or she
eats an inferior type of bread, you drink old wine, and he or she drink new
(inferior) wine, you sleep on a luxurious mattress, and he or she sleep on
the straw….And the ‘master’ must conduct himself with regard to these
his servants in a brotherly manner, as it says, ‘And with your brother
Children of Israel…’ But
nevertheless the indentured servant must conduct himself as a servant with
those types of work that he is assigned.”
Torah says explicitly with regard to the “eved ivri”, “You may not
work with him harshly.”
nevertheless, If at the end of six years, he wishes to remain in his current
status, he may do so, but then the “master” is obligated to bore a hole
in his ear-lobe. Why the
explains, quoting Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud, “If this person’s ear
heard at Mt. Sinai, ‘The Children of Israel are My servants,’ and he
went ahead and sold himself (when he didn’t have to), it deserves to be
is another type of servant described in the Torah; namely, the non-Jewish
slave. With regard to him, the
Torah says that it is permitted to work with him harshly, after the manner
of a slave. But the Torah says
multiple times “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt.”
Torah, in the ancient world, which was its original context, introduced a
revolutionary idea, that of the Day of Rest.
No human being - not the master, not his family, not his servants,
Jewish and non-Jewish, must work without stop.
A Day of Rest was the
innovation of the Torah, even for the animals of the household.
RAMBAM describes the life of the non-Jewish servant (Chapter 9, Halachah 8)
as follows: “Though it is
permissible to require a non-Jewish slave to work hard in the manner of a
slave, that is only the strict law. But
it is the characteristic of righteousness and the ways of wisdom that a
person be merciful and pursue justice.
And therefore he should not make his yoke heavy upon his servant, and
he should not persecute him. Rather,
he should give him food and drink from all manner of food and types of
Rabbis of the Talmud used to give to their servants from everything they
ate, and to drink from everything they drank.
And they would give food to their animals and to their servants
before they themselves sat down to eat.
For it says, ‘we raise our eyes to G-d as a servant does to his
‘master’ or a handmaiden to her mistress.’ “
likewise the owner should not humiliate him, not (by striking him with) his
hand or by voice. For this
individual’s status is “servitude,” not “humiliation.”
And he should not shout or be excessively angry , rather speak gently
with him and listen to his complaints.
And so is it specified in the words of Iyov,
‘that I would not reject the justice of my servant or my handmaiden in
their quarrel with me - did not G-d create them in the womb as He created
And cruelty and masochism are found in the world only among
idol-worshippers, but the descendants of Avraham Avinu, specifically the
nation of Israel whom the L-rd has favored with the goodness of the Torah,
in which He commanded laws that are just, they are merciful to all.”
“And so it is with the Holy One Blessed Be He concerning which He has commanded us to emulate Him, He says, ‘And His mercies apply to all his creatures,’ and anyone who shows mercy is shown mercy, as it says, ‘And He will return to you mercy, and be merciful and bountiful with you.’ “
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel