The Torah in Parashat Mishpatim presents laws that impose limits on servitude, requiring masters to release their servants in various situations. In the case of a Jewish servant (“eved ivri”), the master must release the servant after six years of work (21:2), though the servant then has the option if he so desires to remain with his master “forever” (21:6), which Chazal (as Rashi cites from the Mekhilta and Masekhet Kiddushin) understood to mean until the yovel (jubilee year). A servant from outside the nation (“eved kena’ani”) is not released after six years, but must be immediately released if at any point his master mistreats him, causing him to lose an eye or a tooth (21:26-27). The Gemara (Kiddushin 24-25), as Rashi references, clarifies that although the Torah mentions only the loss of an eye or a tooth, a gentile servant is set free if his master causes him to lose other body parts, as well.
Keli Yakar (21:7) – whose writings frequently address the dangers of excessive preoccupation with the pursuit of wealth – sees in these laws an allusion to the “servitude” to materialism. All people are, to one extent or another, “subservient” to money. After all, in order to satisfy our physical needs and enjoy comfort, safety and security, we need to obtain adequate financial resources. And so we willfully “subjugate” ourselves to the pursuit of wealth, each person in his or her own way. The institutions of “eved ivri” and “eved kena’ani,” Keli Yakar suggests, present us with two drastically different models of release from this ubiquitous form of servitude. The “eved kena’ani” represents those who are freed from this stifling subjugation only when they lose their “tooth” and their “eye” – their ability to enjoy physical indulgence (symbolized by the tooth, which is used for eating), and their ability to enjoy aesthetics (symbolized by the eye). Such a person is enslaved to the relentless pursuit of wealth until he reaches a condition of frailty which does not allow him to enjoy the pleasures of wealth. The “eved ivri,” by contrast, who goes free after six years of service, represents the privilege we have to be freed from our subservience to our material pursuits every week, after six days of work. By strictly forbidding work on Shabbat, the Torah in effect relieves us of our work obligations for one day each week. And thus even if during the six days we find ourselves, by necessity, “subservient” to the pursuit of wealth, on Shabbat we are freed from this form of “bondage” and are able to enjoy true freedom.
Keli Yakar adds that the “eved ivri” is released either after six years of service, or on the yovel – the jubilee, which represents the Torah given to us fifty days after the Exodus. Our “freedom” on Shabbat is experienced by way of the opportunity it affords us to devote time to Torah learning, to withdraw from our mundane pursuits and engage in the sacred pursuit of study. Shabbat gives us freedom from material “subservience” so that we can find meaning and experience the joy and exhilaration of spiritual devotion, spending our time engrossed in Torah learning.