The Laws of the Eved Ivri for Ex-Servants and for Future Masters

  • Dr. Brachi Elitzur


Dedicated in memory of 
Joseph Y. Nadler, z”l, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi



In our shiur on parashat Beshalach, we examined the difference between the generation that left Egypt and their children, in terms of their complaints. The older generation had found it difficult to sever itself from the past, and its response to any unexpected difficulty was an instinctive backward glance towards "safety": "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt" (Bemidbar 14:4). The generation of the wilderness, in contrast, is impatient and wants to proceed towards the goal:  "a place of sowing, and of figs and grapes and pomegranates" (Bemidbar 20:5).


Parashat Mishpatim is made up of halakhic units, with no description of the continuation of the journey in the wilderness and its accompanying events (other than an appendix describing the Covenant of the Basins).[1] Seemingly, then, there is no possibility here of deepening our familiarity with the people and their aspirations.


In this shiur we will see how a halakhic unit in our parasha actually reveals a fundamental characteristic of the generation of the desert, which becomes radically transformed in the generation of their children, as evidenced in Sefer Devarim.


The laws of an eved ivri – an indentured Hebrew servant – are discussed in three different places in the Torah: Shemot 32, Vayikra 25, and Devarim 15. Rav Mordekhai Breuer discusses the issue of this repetition at length, treating the phenomenon as an example that helps to prove his "aspects approach."[2] We will refer to some of the comparisons that he discusses, but while Rav Breuer proposes a religious, halakhic explanation for this repetition, we shall focus on the socio-psychological dimension arising from it. We will also compare the laws of the Hebrew servant in Sefer Shemot and in Sefer Devarim, leaving a discussion of the laws as they appear in Sefer Vayikra for some other opportunity.


The Hebrew Servant – Shemot vs. Devarim


Shemot 21

Devarim 15

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve for six years, and in the seventh he shall go free, for nothing.


If he came in alone, he shall go out alone. If he is married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children will belong to their master, and he shall go out by himself.

If your Hebrew brother or sister is sold to you, he shall serve you for six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.












And if the servant says plainly, "I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free," then his master shall bring him to the judges, and he shall bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall serve him forever.

And when you send him out free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed; you shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your winepress; from that with which God has blessed you shall you give to him. And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today.


And it shall be, if he says to you, "I will not go away from you," because he loves you and your house, because he is happy with you, then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be your servant forever.

And if a man sells his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she is unseemly in the eyes of her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no power to sell her to a strange nation, seeing that he has deceived her. And if he designated her for his son, he shall treat her in the manner of daughters: if he takes another wife for himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, then she shall go out free without money.

And you shall do likewise to your maidservant.


Let it not seem hard to you when you send him away from you, for he has been worth double a hired servant in serving you for six years, and the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.


The main differences may be summarized as follows:



Shemot 21

Devarim 15

Servant-Master Relationship

If you buy

If (he) is sold

Reference to the Servant


Your brother

Servant's Family Status

Set forth in detail

No mention

Command to Furnish him

No mention

Set forth in detail

Reason for the Command

No mention

And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today

Reason for Servant's Desire to Remain

He loves his family

He loves his master

Piercing of Ear

Addition of "his master shall bring him to the judges"


Key Verb

y-tz-a (to go out)

Sh-l-ch (to send away)

Laws of Maidservant

Set forth in detail as a separate law

Appendix to the law of menservants

Reward for Master

No mention

The Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.



A comparison of these two units reveals two different aspects of the laws concerning a servant and his master. In one case (Sefer Shemot) the emphasis is on the rights and obligations of the servant; in the other case (Sefer Devarim), the focus is on the obligations and rights of the master.


The laws of the Hebrew servant, as they occur in parashat Mishpatim, are addressed to a generation of servants. These people are unable to escape the mentality of their accustomed status. The desire, expressed repeatedly in their complaints, to return to Egypt, arises from their fear of taking responsibility. Any problem that crops up along the way leads them to despair and to a desire to turn back. The freedom that has been forced upon them threatens their sense of security. The people who have just left Egypt prefer the familiar situation of economic dependence, passivity, and submissiveness to the unfamiliar concept of taking responsibility for managing their own lives. The unit on the Hebrew servant in parashat Mishpatim tries to combat this tendency among the people. It reflects disapproval of the situation of servitude by setting forth an array of legal possibilities for leaving, at different stages and situations in the servant's life.


Sefer Devarim is addressed to the next generation, those who will be entering the land. The journey towards the longed-for destination brings with it anticipation and plans for the inheritance that awaits them, developing it, and managing their lives in Eretz Yisrael. The generation of the children has heard from Moshe about the economic and agricultural possibilities offered by the land:


"For the Lord your God brings you to a good land, a land of water courses, of fountains and depths that spring forth from valleys and hills. A land of wheat and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil, and honey. A land in which you will eat bread not out of scarceness; you shall not lack anything in it; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you may dig brass. And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given to you.” (Devarim 8:7-10)


The younger generation is ready to enter the Promised Land and start managing its affairs there.


Here the Torah comes and sets forth some rules concerning these affairs. The Torah does not seek to create an egalitarian, socialist society, but it does encourage a closing of social gaps, and it mandates concern for the weak and destitute on the part of the strong and wealthy. In this framework, the Torah sets forth laws that are aimed at helping the weak and taking care of their basic needs. Tithes must be taken, and the poor must be provided with a means of subsistence; the Levi’im must be helped to pay off their debts. In the case of a person who is sold into indentured servitude there are directives as to how the master must treat him in such a way that at the end of his service, he will be able to rehabilitate his life and regain his status in society. The laws of the Hebrew servant in this parasha reflect the attitude that the master is expected to adopt towards his servant; his concern is expected to extend "beyond the letter of the law."


Let us now go back to the list of differences between the two textual units, and explain them in light of the respective aims of each unit:


Servant-Master Relationship: Sefer Shemot speaks in neutral, legal terms of "buying" a servant, while Sefer Devarim speaks of the servant "being sold." This is a situation that is not entered into out of choice; rather, the servant is compelled by his circumstances, as Malbim explains:


This means to say that the addition of the title “ivri” (Hebrew) indicates that this situation goes against his will; it is not fitting for him, since in truth he is “your brother."


The use of a verb that implies an element of involuntary cause (he “is sold”) comes to arouse the master's compassion towards the servant who has been sold into his service.


Reference to the Servant: In Sefer Shemot, the text presents the reality as it is, without any attempt to moderate it through euphemism. A person who serves his master is called a servant or slave (eved). In stating the situation plainly, with no attempt to modify the degradation inherent in this status, the text expresses its disapproval.


In Sefer Devarim, the person who is sold is referred to as "your brother." From the point of view of the master, who is commanded to behave in a humane manner towards the servant, it is important to emphasize that the servant is someone close, from a similar background; he is an unfortunate individual who has no choice, in view of his circumstances, but to be sold into servitude. The term "your brother" seeks to arouse the master's compassion towards the servant.


Family Status of the Servant: The servant's family status is relevant to the legal conditions governing his going free, but it entails no obligations for the master that go "beyond the letter of the law." In parashat Mishpatim, the verb "y-tz-a" (to go out) appears three times in three different situations, negating, as it were, any possible thoughts of legal conditions that might justify keeping him.


Commandment to Furnish the Servant with Gifts: This command is not presented as the servant's right, but rather as the master's obligation. The servant has no right to ask for any gifts; he is fortunate to be going free at the end of six years, unlike the slaves of other nations. Sefer Devarim addresses the moral obligations of the master, and this is the foundation of the commandment to send the servant off with gifts.


The command of gifts – which, in Rashi's view, is the reason for the repetition of the laws of the Hebrew servant – is at the heart of the unit. More than any other detail of the law, it expresses the Torah's view of the moral obligations of the powerful or well-established towards the weak. According to this view, in the encounter between someone who has met fortune and success and someone else whom fate has treated less favorably, the moral concepts of compassion and "going beyond the letter of the law" take the place of the usual principles of law and justice that guide one's everyday dealings.


Reason for the Law: The justification for the requirement of providing gifts to the freed servant – "You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today" – should seemingly have appeared as the reason for the law of the Hebrew servant in Sefer Shemot. The personal, immediately memory of slavery should encourage and nurture the aspiration to go free. However, this reminder appears in Sefer Devarim instead. Its absence from Sefer Shemot suggests that for the generation that left Egypt, a situation of servitude does not represent any sort of real threat. On the contrary, it is raised on various occasions - by the ex-slaves themselves - as a desirable alternative.


The recollection of the Exodus in Sefer Devarim, on the other hand, explains the basis for the moral perspective that guides the master's obligation towards his servant. The memory of servitude in Egypt will remind the master of what it means to live in a reality devoid of moral laws. This will cause him to understand the need for them and to maintain proper social relations.


The Reason for the Servant's Request to Stay: In parashat Mishpatim, the text quotes the servant's request directly and presents it as the only condition under which his remaining with his master is justified. The servant's request cannot include any reason related to an area of his duties which he enjoys; it can only be based on his love for his master and for his family, who will not be able to go free with him. A beraita in Kiddushin lists nine conditions that must all be met in order to permit the servant to remain in service:


1.           "If the servant says plainly (amor yomar)" – [from here we deduce that] he has to say it and reiterate it.

2.          If he says it at the beginning of the sixth year but not at the end of the sixth year, his ear is not pierced.

3.          If he says it at the end of the sixth year but not at the beginning of the sixth year, his ear is not pierced.

4.          If he has a wife and children but his master has no wife and children, his ear is not pierced.

5.           If his master has a wife and children but he himself has no wife and children, his ear is not pierced.

6.          If he loved his master but his master does not love him, his ear is not pierced.

7.          If his master loves him but he does not love his master, his ear is not pierced.

8.          If he is ill and his master is not ill, his ear is not pierced.

9.          If his master is ill and he himself is not ill, his ear is not pierced,

As it is written, "with you." (Kiddushin 22a)


The need to establish such extensive and detailed conditions reflects Chazal's understanding of the Torah's disapproval of servitude. The purpose of these conditions is to prevent a situation whereby a servant remains in servitude due to his fear of going free. His motivations are evaluated in a very precise manner, in terms of the timing of his request, its reasons, and his psychological state.


In contrast, the conditions for remaining in servitude in Sefer Devarim are far less exacting. The words that the servant utters do not appear as the required formula, and the reason for his remaining is defined in a far more general way: "I will not go away from you." Here the reason for the servant's desire to stay is not part of his declaration; rather, it is explained in the text: "For he loves you and your house, for he is happy with you." When the declaration is written from the point of view of the servant, it must be precise and absolute, since we are speaking of an unfavorable change in his legal status: from a free person to a servant forever. When the text is orientated towards the master, the Torah wants to encourage him to invest in his servant and treat him well. He is told that this investment may lead to the servant deciding to stay on in his service.


The Act of Piercing: The description of the procedure in Sefer Shemot includes the requirement that "his master shall bring him to the judges." This legal act, like the precision in the formulation of the servant's declaration, is necessary from the perspective of parashat Mishpatim. The servant needs to internalize the ramifications of his improper choice to remain in his master's house, as well as the fact that it is irreversible once it has been recognized by the beit din. The legal, official ceremony surrounding the act of piercing may lead the servant to reevaluate the situation and to make the better choice.


In Sefer Devarim, the description of the piercing expresses the long-term bond that can develop between the servant and his master if the conditions of his service, and the master's treatment of him, are to his satisfaction. The details of the legal act are not needed here to encourage the proper attitude on the part of the master towards his servant.

Key Verb: The key verb in the law of the Hebrew servant in Sefer Shemot is "y-tz-a" – going out – since this is the aim. The parasha calls upon the servant to leave his situation of servitude at the first possible opportunity.


The key verb in the unit in Sefer Devarim is "sh-l-ch." The text addresses the master, reminding him that the servant's stay is temporary, and that the obligation to help the servant to leave behind his status of servitude persists even after the period of service is over.


Laws of the Maidservant: Sefer Shemot deals with the laws governing the departure of the servant from his master's house, and therefore a separate unit is devoted to the laws of freeing a maidservant, since this situation is different. The three verses concerning the maidservant serve to limit the possibilities of her sale and the time when she may serve: there is a limit on the age at which she may serve; marriage to the master or to his son cancels her status of servitude; the possibility of redemption with money ends her obligation towards her master; and, of course, she is freed, like a Hebrew manservant, after six years, if none of the other conditions for freedom are fulfilled before then.


These legal details are superfluous in the context of Sefer Devarim, since the master's obligation to provide a generous send-off, as detailed here, are identical whether it is a manservant or a maidservant who concludes service with him.


Reward to the Master:


“And the Lord your God will bless you…” – Wherever the text warns of a monetary sanction, it also mentions blessing; and likewise where there is monetary loss. (Sifri Devarim, Va’etchanan 123)


Abba Chanun said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: “Wherever the text mentions a fine or monetary loss, it establishes a blessing [if the opposite conditions prevail], as it is written, ‘in order that the Lord your God may bless you.’" (Midrash Tanna’im Devarim 14)


The demands made of the master in Sefer Devarim fall into the category of charity and giving that goes beyond the strict limits of his obligation; therefore, the Torah offers him encouragement by promising blessing that will make up for his loss.


In parashat Mishpatim, the focus is on the legal aspects of the situation, pertaining to the rights of the servant and the obligations of the master. Hence, in this context there is no room for discussion of the blessing.


A comparison of the laws of the Hebrew servant as they appear in Sefer Shemot and in Sefer Devarim reveals something of the generation gap that has developed during the forty years of wandering. This gap finds expression, inter alia, in the individual's self-image and in his attitude towards others. The suffering of the Egyptian slavery has all but obliterated the individual's personal identity and confidence in his ability to manage his life and take responsibility for his future. In these circumstances, servitude looks like a secure solution that exempts him from having to worry about his sustenance and how he will manage. The servant simply casts his lot with his master, leaving himself dependent on his master's whim. The laws of the servant as set forth in Sefer Shemot try to combat this submissive mentality and to minimize the situations in which servitude can occur, as well as their duration. The servant's only right is the freedom that awaits him after his years of service are complete.


The laws of the servant as they appear in Sefer Devarim are aimed at the younger generation, those who are proudly journeying towards the Promised Land. As they confront the challenges along the way, they comfort themselves with visions of their future as owners of estates that are run with the help of servants – individuals whom fate has dealt a miserable lot. The laws of the Hebrew slave do not seek to combat these dreams of future independence; rather, they seek to channel them in a positive direction, depicting a situation in which one person's success will not lead him to trample upon the dignity of others who are subservient to him. The laws of the servant mold the master's moral behavior around the memory of where he, too, came from – the common servitude of Egypt. The stories of this servitude, which the younger generation has heard from their elders, will strengthen their sense of the tremendous kindness that God has performed for them. In gratitude for their own situation, in which the promise of inheriting the land has been realized, they will aspire to show kindness towards the servants of their own times.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] See Rashi ad loc; he maintains that this unit belongs, chronologically, to the period prior to the Revelation at Sinai.

[2] See: R. Mordekhai Breuer, "Limmud Peshuto shel MikraSakkanot Ve-sikkuyim", Ha-Ma'ayan, Nissan 5738.