The Hebrew Slave

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Hebrew Slave


By Rav Michael Hattin




            Last week, we read concerning the revelation at Sinai and God's proclamation of the Decalogue.  Just a short few months after the people of Israel had left Egypt, they expectantly gathered at the foot of the thundering mountain to hear God's word.  Overawed by the spectacle, they fearfully approached Moshe to communicate God's laws in His stead but the prophet demurred: "Moshe said to the people: 'do not fear!  For the Lord has come in order to test you and so that the fear of Him might be before you always so that you transgress not'" (20:16).  Only afterwards did Moshe then ascend on high in order to receive the remainder of God's laws.


            Parashat Mishpatim constitutes one of the Torah's most comprehensive treatments of the laws.  While it cannot be said to be exhaustive, its variegated legislation relates to every facet of human existence.  It delineates the parameters of our relationship with others – their person as well as their property – while not ignoring our relationship with God as well.  It discusses laws of indenture, torts, deposits and loans, sexual misdemeanors, as well as treatment of the convert, widow and orphan, presentation of sacrifices and celebration of the pilgrim festivals.  In short, Parashat Mishpatim presents us with the daunting challenge of building a just and kind society, a society in which the responsibilities of the individual towards his neighbor as well as towards his God are regarded with equal gravity and fulfilled with matching enthusiasm. 


            While we tend to lead compartmentalized lives, consciously separating our social connections from our God connection, often compromising one in the service of the other, the sensitive person recognizes that wholeness means integration.  The complete and fully developed personality, at least insofar as Jewish tradition is concerned, lives his life in the constancy of God's presence whether he is engaged in the narrow act of religious devotion and the fulfillment of associated observances and rituals or whether instead he is occupied by the more mundane pursuits of earning a livelihood and interacting with his employees, neighbors, family and friends.




            While much of the subject matter of the Parasha, particularly as it relates to property law and damages, is phrased in anachronistic terms – oxen and donkeys, sheep and cattle – the principles involved are nonetheless still relevant and meaningful.  The opening of the Parasha, however, presents us with material that is not only more dated, but morally challenging as well: slavery.  How are we to understand the Torah's seeming condoning of an institution that we rightly regard as a product of a bygone age, abolished, uprooted and discarded by our modern, democratic and enlightened societies?  This week, we will consider the concept of the Hebrew slave (saving the topic of the "Canaanite" or non-Jewish slave for a different occasion) in order to gain an appreciation of how the text and the Rabbinic interpreters of the text grappled with the matter, transforming in the process an ancient and unjust convention into something much more benign and unleashing a dynamic that would ultimately consign slavery to the proverbial dustbin. 


            Before we begin, we must ask ourselves a preliminary question: what it is that is so morally repugnant with slavery at all?  In the most straightforward sense, we recognize that slavery is wrong for two interrelated reasons: first of all, the imposition of bondage upon another human being is an abrogation of his or her fundamental right to freedom and a frontal attack upon his or her status as a person.  As a slave, one is not permitted to make any personal choices, even when these do not necessarily impact directly upon the slave's relationship with his master or else conflict with his will.  By definition, a slave is one who is the chattel or property of another, to be bought, sold or traded like any other commodity.  The institution of slavery thus subverts human dignity, by indifferently relating to the human being and to his or her labor as nothing more than some sort of resource to be exploited. 


            Additionally, slavery fosters oppression and cruelty, for it is clearly understood that in order to maintain an individual in its unjust and unnatural throes, intimidation, force and violence will have to be applied.  The acute vulnerability that is the time-honored lot of the slave because of his or her dire situation is often further cultivated by the unscrupulous master with brutal blows.  The most pronounced example in our tradition of this sort of slavery and its vicious excesses is of course the oppression of the Hebrews in Egypt.  Shorn of their human dignity and personal freedoms, subjected like beasts of burden to backbreaking toil and drudgery, and encouraged to churn out their daily tally of mud bricks by the taskmaster's harsh and demeaning shouts and by the sting of his whip, the Hebrews languished mightily until God redeemed them: "…the people of Israel groaned because of the hard work and they cried out, and their outcry on account of the hard work ascended heavenward towards the Lord…" (Shemot 2:23).  The Exodus from Egypt was, in fact, the first recorded instance in human history of a concerned and compassionate God proclaiming in utterly unambiguous terms that serfdom was wrong and that slavery, even in the service of a god king, must not be tolerated!  When we therefore come to consider the Torah's view of this institution and the Divine demarcation of its acceptable parameters, we do so against the backdrop of our own experiences in the land of the Pharaohs, and we must continuously ask ourselves whether in fact the "slavery" referred to in the text of Parashat Mishpatim fits this iniquitous paradigm or not.




These are the statutes that you shall place before them: If you purchase a Hebrew slave then he shall labor for six years, but in the seventh he shall go forth to freedom for nothing.  If he arrived alone then he shall go forth alone, but if he had a wife then his wife shall go forth with him…(Shemot 21:1-3).


Considering the above passage, we are immediately struck of course by the fact that the Hebrew slave does not serve his master in perpetuity but rather for a set duration of six years, and this time frame is not subject to adjustment.  Thus, he and his master both understand that his servitude may not be absolute.  Additionally, after this period the master can exercise no rights over his slave's wife and cannot hold her hostage, so to speak, at the conclusion of his slave's term of service in order to compel him to extend it.  In fact, the traditional interpretation (see Talmud Bavli Tractate Kiddushin 22a) goes one step further, for it insists that for the whole period that the Hebrew slave labors for his master, not only do his wife and children remain free but the master is actually obligated to support them financially!  Even without this additional and remarkable insistence upon the slave's spousal maintenance, both of these simple provisions are pronounced departures from the conventional forms of bondage practiced in the ancient world at the time, and begin to define an institution that is intended to be more benevolent.  And while the text does go on to discuss provisions for a lengthier term of service as well as situations in which the wife of the slave and his children do not go forth to freedom with him (i.e. if the master assigned a Canaanite woman to his Hebrew slave for the purpose of procreating), the Torah's fundamental premise that a slave possesses certain inalienable rights remains in place. 




            The section does not spell out under what circumstances a Hebrew might become a slave in the first place.  Our tradition, however, based upon an oblique reference later in the Parasha as well a statement in Sefer Devarim, limits the practice to only two situations.  Concerning the first of these circumstances, our Parasha goes on to detail other sundry laws that pertain to torts and to damages, and then parenthetically indicates (22:2) that in the case of theft of property the apprehended thief must make restitution and pay a fine.  If he is unable to pay the principle, then "he shall be sold on account of his theft."  The Rabbis understood that to mean that only a thief who could not repay the theft is to be sold into slavery by the convicting court so that the funds could be restored to their rightful owner.  In other words, this form of slavery is interpreted to be not a callous mistreatment of a vulnerable and poor member of society but rather an act of restitution for a crime, with the sale to be carried out under the watchful eyes of the judiciary.


            The second situation is spelled out in Parashat Re'eh and we will quote the passage at length because it contains other material that pertains to our investigation:


If your Hebrew brother or sister becomes indigent and serves you for six years, then in the seventh year you shall send him forth free from you.  When you do send him forth free from you, then you shall not send him forth empty-handed.  You shall surely provide him generously from your sheep, from your threshing floor and from your winepress – that with which God your Lord has blessed you, you shall give of it to him.  You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and God your Lord liberated you, therefore I command you this day to do this thing…(Devarim 15:12-15).  


Here, it is acute poverty that precipitates the sale into slavery, not at the behest of the convicting court but rather at the initiative of the poor person himself.  In this scenario, the utterly destitute person whose other prospects had been exhausted could, at last resort, secure a steady source of sustenance by agreeing to serve others for the set period of six years, and in the end go forth not only in freedom but with substance as well.  As the Rabbis understood it, only one who was so desperate that he possessed not even clothes upon his back could sell himself into servitude, but no other man had the right (not even his rapacious creditors) to initiate that sale.  Once again, the "slavery" that the Torah condones in this situation is more like a form of proto-social welfare for those members of an agrarian economy that had no other means at their meager disposal.  And how astonishing that at the conclusion of the term of service the master is commanded to generously provide his freed slave with the products of his toil, so that his return to independence might commence on a more solid footing!




            Finally, we turn to the nature of the servitude and to the type of activities that the Hebrew slave could not be made to perform.  Here, our main passage is from the Book of Vayikra that describes the laws of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee:


If your brother who is with you becomes indigent and is sold to you, then you shall not make him labor as a slave.  He shall rather be like an employee and a dweller with you, and he shall serve you no longer than until the Jubilee year.  The he shall go forth from you, he along with his children, to return to his family and to his ancestral estate.  For they are My servants that I have taken forth from the land of Egypt, so that they shall not be sold after the manner of slaves.  You shall not oppress him harshly, but you shall fear your Lord…(Vayikra 25:39-43).


Here the text outlaws maltreating the Hebrew slave or even relating to him from the outset as a slave.  His servitude is to be considered more like employment and his status is to be considered more like that of a paid employee.  Considering the definition of the outlawed "labor of a slave" and the nature of prohibited "harsh oppression," the Rabbis mention a number of striking examples:


Do not make him labor as a slave – this means that you shall not make him carry your towel after you or your garments before you to the bathhouse…Do not oppress him harshly – this means that you shall not tell him to heat a cup of water when you do not need it or else to cool a cup when it is unnecessary.  Do not say to him to "dig beneath the grape vines until I return"…(Sifra Parashat Behar; Chapter 7:2, Section 6:2).


Here, the carrying of the towel or the garments to the bathhouse is not forbidden because it is physically demanding but rather because it is demeaning, for it clearly proclaims to one and to all the lowly status of the bearer.  Thus it is to be outlawed.  As for "harsh oppression," this is understood to mean any sort of activities that the master conjures up simply to keep his slave occupied (heating/cooling the cup) or else the performance of duties (even reasonable ones) that have no clearly delineated limit.  One cannot ask the slave to perform labors without indicating their extent (digging until the master's return, whenever that might be!).


            Once again, the Rabbis went beyond the straightforward reading of the text in their desire to restrict slavery's corrosive effects, but their interpretations should not be regarded as unwarranted and fanciful innovations but rather as the natural and organic extension of the spirit of the Torah legislation as it is expressed in these passages.  If the Egyptian experience is our gauge, then identification with the less fortunate among us is our goal.  And where there is sincere identification, there cannot be harsh oppression.




            Perhaps we should leave the last word on the matter to the Talmud (Kiddushin 22a), that comments upon the curious phrase "your brother that is with you," quoted above from Vayikra 25:39.  The Talmud understands that this is not simply an idiom describing location but rather a statement of relationship – "your brother that is with you must be treated like yourself":


"With you" indicates that he shall be equal to you with respect to food and to drink.  Do not consume fine bread while giving him coarse bread to eat; do not drink old wine while giving him new wine to have; do not sleep upon soft mattresses while providing him with straw to rest upon.  Based upon these provisions it has been said that one who purchases a Hebrew slave has in reality acquired a master for himself!


We all of course realize that the Torah's noble laws in this respect are one thing while the actual practices of less noble people were quite probably something else entirely (see for instance Yirmiyahu's harsh condemnation of his late First Temple period compatriots concerning the maltreatment of their Hebrew slaves – Yirmiyahu Chapter 34:8-22).  But at the same time, we also appreciate that the most powerful engines for social progress are education, identification and internalization.  The institution of slavery as practiced in much of the world up until the modern era (and still popular in some countries today) provided nothing even remotely as enlightened as the laws of the Hebrew slave.  It is no wonder indeed that for most Jews, the thoughts of slavery and of its associated injustices are repugnant and vile.  Our Torah is a teaching of life and its laws are laws of compassion.  Though we may find within its ancient statutes (admittedly revealed at a particular moment in human history) echoes of a seemingly departed era, we also find within those very laws the seeds for the positive transformation of human society. 


Shabbat Shalom


For further study: See the Rambam's coherent and concise formulation of the laws pertaining to the Hebrew slave in his monumental Code, Book of Acquisition, Laws of Slaves, Chapters 1-3.