Mishpatim – Rishon

Abolitionists?

By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

The name of this parsha means “laws” and that sums it up quite nicely. Most of the parsha is taken up by a variety of laws that G-d commands through Moshe.

It starts with the laws of the Jewish slave, though the term “slave” is unfortunate, as the Torah’s definition bears no resemblance to what the Jews endured in Egypt or, for that matter, black slavery in America. A Jewish slave was a person who was sentenced by the courts to pay off a debt, specifically if he was convicted for stealing. His sentence was six years, after which his slate was clean and he was free to go. If he was married, his wife goes free with him, but if his master married him to a non-Jewish slave girl, then she remained behind.

Jewish slavery was not an oppressive situation – it was a job with room and board. The slave might want to stay on after his term expired. If so, the master took him to the court, who pierced the cartilage of the slave’s ear as a sign of his chosen station. Then, the slave would serve until the next Jubilee year, however long that might be. (The Jubilee occurred every fifty years and in that year all debts were canceled and slaves went free. We’ll read more about that in parshas Behar, in the Book of Leviticus chapter 25.)

If a person became absolutely impoverished and was unable to support his family, he was permitted to “sell” a minor daughter as a servant girl. This is a different arrangement. In this scenario, the master is like he’s betrothed to the girl, whom he must either marry or release. He is not allowed to re-sell her to another (and the father may only sell her to someone who would make a suitable husband). The master could designate her as a wife for his son instead of himself and, if he does, he must treat her like any other daughter-in-law. If he does marry her, he may only marry another wife if doing so does not diminish this girl’s situation as far as food, clothes or marital relations. If the master can’t abide by these terms, the girl goes free.

Murder is a capital crime, but manslaughter is punished with exile, as will be detailed in later parshas. Intentionally wounding one’s own parent is a capital crime, as is kidnapping and selling another person. If someone injures another person in a fight, he must pay damages.

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