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Mishpatim: Hebrew Slaves and their Masters

Exodus 21:1–24:18

"Should you purchase a Hebrew slave [eved ivri], he shall labor for six years and go free, gratis, in the seventh." This week's portion commences with a topic that is of poignant and almost eerie pertinence in this period of upheaval caused by economic straits, when many Jews have increasingly been compelled to depend on communal and philanthropic welfare. How does a Jew become a slave? And can another Jew become a slave master?

First of all, let us clarify the terminology. The three-letter verb-stem e-v-d signifies "to labor," and the noun eved signifies a laborer. When that laborer is a voluntary hire, receiving a regular wage, he is a servant; but an unpaid or enforced eved is, ipso facto, a slave. The laws of Hebrew slavery are elaborated in Leviticus 25:39 ff.: "If your brother is destitute and is sold to you, you shall not treat him as a slave." The passage answers both of our questions above. First, a severely impoverished Jew can indeed become a slave, if he seeks out bondage as a remedy to privation—that is, in order to work off a debt or otherwise rehabilitate himself economically. But, second, even if Jews can become slaves, they may emphatically not become slave masters.

Three times in Leviticus 25 the Torah proscribes: "Do not subjugate him with rigor," invoking the identical noun, parekh (literally: breaking the body or spirit), used to describe Hebrew slavery in Egypt (Exodus 1:13-14). The contrast between the treatment of an indentured Jewish slave and the oppressed Hebrews is made explicit here in God's own voice: "For they are My servants, whom I liberated from Egypt; they may not be sold as slaves." Moreover, God's declaration of His singular attachment to the Jewish nation—"I am the Lord, your God"—is  predicated on that same liberation from slavery: "I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the Land of Egypt, from the house of bondage."

Jewish slavery appears to be one of those issues (like capital punishment) so perturbing to the rabbis that talmudic jurisprudence effectively nullified them by imposing conditions that could not be readily met. If, for instance, the slave is married with children, the master becomes responsible for the family's support. If the master possesses only one blanket, his slave has first claim to it. So much did the law seek to frustrate slavery that an adage was struck: "Whosoever acquires a Jewish slave has acquired himself a master."

And when the slave's six-year term of service has expired and he goes free, not only is his entire previous debt wiped clean ("gratis"), but his master is obligated to bestow upon him gifts of sheep, grain, and wine (Deuteronomy 15:12 ff.)—for, after all, "you were a slave in Egypt and God redeemed you." Indeed, the Torah regularly invokes the experience of Egyptian slavery to inspire Jews to generosity, particularly toward the disadvantaged among them.

Maimonides (1138–1204) extends this proposition further, maintaining that acts of cruelty toward fellow Jews cast suspicion on the Jewish bona fides of their perpetrators: "Anyone who acts with cruelty and lacks compassion, we must suspect his lineage, because cruelty is a trait of idolaters . . . while Jews regard one another fraternally." That injunction, ringing with authority, has been a charge upon every Jewish community to this day.

That the biblical view of slavery has also exercised and continues to exercise broader, world-historical relevance, not least in this sesquicentennial year since the inception of the American Civil War, goes without saying.

Moshe Sokolow is professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.



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