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  • Rav Alex Israel







by Rav Alex Israel



            This week, we descend from the formidable heights of Mount Sinai to the nitty gritty of human living.  Rather than talking of revelation and Godly encounter, we read about slaves, homicide, lost property, negligent watchmen, accidental damage, wild oxen, compensation for bodily harm.  There could not be a greater contrast between the epic images of last week's parasha and the mundane legalistic detail of our parasha this week.


            This contrast is encapsulated in a discussion about a single letter.  It is the letter "vav" which opens our parasha "VE-eileh ha-mishpatim" - "AND these are the laws."  Rashi comments (21:1):


"This word 'VE-eileh' indicates a direct connection with the preceding narrative.  Just like the earlier laws are from Sinai, so are these from Sinai."


            Rashi has a question.  Our parasha begins with an opening title.  It is a new heading informing the reader that we are about to discuss "mishpatim," societal laws, civil law.  Is this the opening of a new chapter independent and unrelated to earlier events or is the word "AND," which opens our parasha, a link to what came before?  Rashi answers that there is indeed a connection.  The change in mood and subject matter does not signify a change in status.  This is not a move from core theological issues to the peripheral world of legal intricacy.  The opening "vav" links the "mishpatim" (social laws) to the earlier revelation.  There is no contradiction between the lofty heights of Mount Sinai and the laws which govern a street brawl, an irresponsible watchman, a dangerous pet.  This is one story, a single homogeneous text.




            Rashi proclaims the text as a single body but he does not explain the sudden move from the grandiose to the detailed?  How exactly are these two very different texts connected?  Nachmanides's opening comment to our parasha draws a connection between the detail of our parasha and the Ten Commandments.  He says:


"The midrash (Shemot Rabba 30:15) writes that the entire Torah rests on Justice (mishpat) and it is for this reason that the "mishpatim" - laws of social justice - are juxtaposed to the Ten Commandments.  This parasha simply elaborates on the laws that have already been listed in the Ten Commandments: idolatry, respect and care for parents, murder and adultery."


            According to Nachmanides, the Ten Commandments are the headlines, and the "mishpatim" are the small print.  The Ten Commandments reveal only broad group headings for certain general areas of law.  God reveals principles: the belief in God and the negation of idolatry, homicide, property damage etc.[1]  Our parasha comes in order to specify.  It comes to bring the general commands of the revelation "do not kill ... do not steal" down to earth and to apply them in their real-life applications.  Thus we read of disputes over property (22:9), domestic and street violence (21:15,18,22-25), human negligence and carelessness (21:32;22:4-13) and many other very human situations.  We DO have a drastic change of style.  We are descending from heaven to earth, from the guidelines of revelation, to their practical application.[2]  The Shadal, R. Shmuel Luzatto (19th cent. Italy) summarizes in the following way:


"THESE ARE THE JUDGMENTS: "mishpat" comes from the verb "to judge" and its meaning is the verdict that a judge would give in a courtroom.  The commands "Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal" are not 'judgments.'  Rather, they are principles, and primary tools which the public do not need to hear by pronouncement of a judge, because they are part of the moral consensus.  But the laws in this parasha are cases, branches of those principles, where there is likely to be public disagreement between people, hence the need for a judge to pronounce the law.  That is why these laws are described as 'judgments.'"


            Our parasha is thus the parasha of revelation - not the experience of revelation, but its content.  This is the parasha of God's law.  We read how to conduct a just and fair society according to the guidelines set down by God.  Indeed, it is typical of the Jewish legal system - Halakha - to open with the intricate human situations which we find ourselves in from time to time.  Halakha shies away from no problem.  The Torah is a living Torah in that it provides guidance in every area of life.




            If this is so, let us begin to examine the first law of our parasha.  It relates to the Jewish slave.  We will begin by examining the passage as it appears in the Torah:


"When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, for nothing.  If he came in single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him.  If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone.  But if the slave declares, 'I love my master, and my wife and my children: I do not wish to go free,' his master shall take him before God.  He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall remain his slave for life" (21:2-6).


            Many have raised their moral eyebrows at this opening to the great Torah code of civil law.  Slavery is something that we would expect the Torah - with its deliberate sensitivity to human suffering - to outlaw.  Does Torah really approve of slavery?


            We can go further.  Are the Israelites not a slave-nation themselves?  They have just freed themselves of the shackles of slavery.  Are they already contemplating having slaves of their own?  Moreover, it would seem that this opening law flies in the face of the very first commandment.  Were we not told (20:2):


"I am the Lord ... who took you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of slavery."


            Slavery would seem to be the antithesis of our acceptance of God!




"The Torah, whose "ways are pleasant" and merciful, opened its 'judgments' with the law of a man-slave and maidservant who in ancient times were thought of and treated as animals.  No judge would hear their case in court or take up their grievance against their master."


            These are the opening lines of Luzzato's commentary to this section.  His voice joins an entire school of philosophers and commentators who all perceive the Jewish institution of slavery and its laws as aiming to raise the living conditions, and humanize the status of the slave.  We do not need to be told of the sub-human conditions and legal status to which slaves were subjected in the ancient world.  The Torah in its laws of the slave come to soften, and if at all possible, eradicate, the institution of slavery.  We will give a few examples.


            As recorded clearly in our parasha, the slave is to be sold for a limited period only.  A Jewish slave[3] cannot be sold for a period exceeding a six-year stretch.  It is in the seventh year (the Sabbatical year) that he automatically gains his freedom.  The Torah explicitly instructs us to ensure that when the slave completes his slavery, he leaves his master's home with the means of supporting himself:


"When you send him away from you, you may not send him empty-handed ... And remember that you were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed you, which is why I am commanding you in this matter" (Deut. 15:13-14).


            Other laws are relevant here which certainly show a great deal of sensitivity to the slave.  The slave rests together with the entire household on the Sabbath (Ex 20:10).  If a master hits his slave and knocks out his tooth or eye, the slave gains automatic freedom (21:26-27).  If a master kills his slave, the master is put to death (21:20 and Rashi).  If a slave escapes from his master we are instructed to shelter him rather than informing his master (Deut 23:16-17).


            Look at the parallels in other cultures of the time.  In the ancient code of the Hammurabi, the runaway slave is put to death; there are no restrictions placed on the extent to which a master may beat his slave for a slave is his property.  The slave is a chattel, a piece of moveable property.[4]




            Who is the Hebrew slave that we are talking about?  Why would one Jew buy another Jew?  Why would a Jew sell himself into slavery?  Rashi (v. 2) explains that this is a person who has fallen on hard times and cannot meet his debts (See Lev. 25:39).  Alternatively, we are talking of a situation where the courts have sold a person who has stolen and did not have the financial means to repay his debt (based on 22:2).  In both cases, this is a tremendous opportunity for the slave.  Rather than being left to fend for themselves, getting deeper and deeper into debt, they are offered a place in a home which has to have a high regard for their dignity and humanity.  The likelihood of achieving such conditions in any other way was almost impossible.


"This is the one and only case in which the Torah orders deprivation of freedom as a punishment; and how does it order it?  It orders the criminal to be brought into the life of a family as we might expect a refractory child to be brought under the  influence of Jewish family life ... How careful is it that the self-confidence of the criminal should not be broken ... it insists that he may not be separated from his wife and family ... In depriving him of his liberty, and thereby the means to provide for his dependents, the Torah puts the responsibility of caring for them, on those who ... have the benefit of his labors" (Hirsch 21:6).


            We must add something of the Jewish legal restrictions of a master vis-a-vis his slave.  In our parasha, the slave is pictured as saying "I love my master" and desiring to stay for a further period of slavery.  This shows that slavery, in the mind of the Torah, could be a situation that a slave would wish to continue of his own volition.  Why?  R. Samson Raphael Hirsch once again relates to the way in which the Torah


"demands complete equality of the slave with his master and the rest of the household, in food, clothing and bedding, so much so that it became a popular saying "Who buys a Jewish slave for himself has acquired for himself a master."  The moral responsibility is great on both sides, 'The master must treat the slave as a brother and the slave must treat himself and behave as a slave'(Kiddushin 22a)" (Hirsch 21:5).




            The slave who wishes to remain with his master has his ear pierced.  He is taken to the doorpost and his ear punctured.  Why?  According to tradition, this ritual reminds us of earlier events.  The blood of the ear against the doorpost reminds us of the blood which was daubed on the doorposts of Jews on the night of our freedom from Egyptian slavery.  The Torah wishes the freedom of Everyman.  The slave who prefers the security and comfort of the artificial environment of slavery - the world where he is taken care of and his worries are dealt with by others - and is willing to trade his freedom and liberty for that comfort, is scorned by the Torah.  The Talmud asks:


"Why the doorpost of all the parts of the house?  God said, 'This is the very doorway that were my witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintels and doorposts of the houses of Israel.  It was then that I said 'The children of Israel will be slaves to me' and not slaves to My slaves, the people who I took from slavery to freedom.  Now this person has deliberately acted to acquire a (human) master for himself - let his ear be pierced before that doorpost'" (Kiddushin 22b).


The Talmud continues:


"Why was the ear singled out from all other limbs of the body?  God said, 'The ear which heard my voice at Mt. Sinai saying 'The Children of Israel are My slaves and not slaves to others slaves' and went and acquired a master for himself, let his ear be pierced through.'"


            Both of these texts stress a fundamental principle of our faith.  It is the same principle which establishes the mention of freedom at the head of the decalogue.  The principle states that God freed us from servitude in Egypt in order to serve Him.  This may be stated in one of two ways.  First, the prerequisite for service of God is the free, unpressured choice of that service.  Second, the service of God is the meaning and goal of our free lives.  When God freed us from Egypt, we were freed to serve another master.  Our new master was not human, He was of a divine nature.


"I am the Lord your God who brought you out ... of the house of slavery" (20:2).

"It is to me that the Israelites are servants, they are my servants who I freed from the Land of Egypt" (Lev 25:55).


            The man who desires human slavery is limiting his freedom.  He is returning to the conditions of Egypt.  He desires a human master and is unable to have a direct encounter with the Master of the Universe.  He does not have the freedom to make his own decisions, to fulfill his spiritual potential to the full.  This is because he is answerable to another human being and not solely to God.


            It is for this reason that slaves are freed in the Sabbatical year, a year when the entire nation focus their attention on God.  It is for this reason that the slave may not work on Shabbat.  It is for this reason that the slave has to brand his body if he chooses to ignore the spiritual call of the Sabbatical year and continue to serve a human lord.




            We have spoken of the moral and religious significance of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved and from the vantage point of the master.  The master must protect the rights of the slave whereas the slave is to try and become a God-fearing free citizen.



[1] See Rashi 24:12 for a stronger expression of this view.

[2] See Rashi's opinion 24:1 that this entire parasha is sandwiched between two separate texts of the revelation.  His view simply enhances our point.  If Rashi is correct, then the Torah is trying to emphasize that even the attention to minute detail in the life of a human being is of concern to God.  That is also part of the revelation.

[3] ] In this article I have allowed myself a certain leeway in switching from the laws of the Jewish slave to the laws of the gentile slave.  I am aiming at showing the humanizing tendencies in the Torah legislation.  These are present in the laws of both types of slave.  In fact, unlike the Hammurabi code which divides society into separate classes out of which one cannot escape, even the gentile slave has the possibility of becoming a fully fledged Jew.  See Ex 12:44 and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary there.

[4] See Nachum M. Sarna.  Exploring Exodus pg.180-182.