THIS SITE IS NO LONGER SUPPORTED            בית מדרש הוירטואלי עבר דירה
PLEASE FIND US AT OUR NEW TORAT HAR ETZION WEBSITE                                  
     English shiurim @          לשיעורים בעברית @

Slavery: The Haftara of Mishpatim

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
Translated by David Strauss
This haftara series is dedicated in memory of our beloved Chaya Leah bat Efrayim Yitzchak
(Mrs. Claire Reinitz), zichronah livracha, by her family.

            The issue of slavery, featured at the start of Parashat Mishpatim, is also the theme of its haftara (Yirmiyahu 34:8-22), which deals with the release and subsequent re-subjugation of slaves in the period directly preceding the destruction of the first Temple. The fact that Yirmiyahu not only accuses Israel of serious ethical failings, but also sets those sins at the focus of the ensuing calamity is neither surprising nor puzzling in the context of writings of the Later Prophets.


We often encounter prophecies that level an accusatory finger at the people of Israel concerning the exploitation of the poor by the rich, the trampling of the disadvantaged by the elites, and the disregard of the obligation to help others. Law turns into oppression, justice vacates itself for injustice, and force becomes the critical factor determining relations within society. These are such well-known and familiar charges that there is almost no need to spell them out in detail. Anyone who has gone through the books of Yeshayahu, Amos, Mikha or Nachum is well acquainted with these prophecies that are an inalienable part of our heritage.


Though we are familiar with prophecies of this type, their appearance in the book of Yirmiyahu is surprising. Up to this point in the book (chapter 34), we have not encountered any social reproach whatsoever, but only uncompromising war with idolatry on the one hand and false prophets on the other. Throughout the book, chapter after chapter, Yirmiyahu struggles with the phenomenon of turning to idolatry as the religious response of a society in distress. He rebukes Israel for their unwillingness to assume responsibility for their actions towards God and he sounds the alarm about their denial of the cycle of sin and punishment that will befall them as a result of their abandonment of God. But Yirmiyahu almost never refers to oppression and injustice in the social sphere. The book of Yeshayahu, in contrast, is full of prophecies that describe the perversion of justice, the hedonistic and unrestrained atmosphere among the stronger strata of society and the exploitation of the weak by the powerful.


The difference between the prophets can be illustrated in many ways, but we shall suffice with a single point drawn from the prophecies that serve as haftarot on adjacent Shabbatot. Both Yeshayahu (chapter 1 – the haftara for Shabbat Chazon) and Yirmiyahu (chapter 2 – the haftara for Parashat Mas'ei) use the metaphor of harlotry to describe the behavior of the people of Israel. But what a great difference in the phenomena they cite as expressions of Israel's unfaithful behavior! Yeshayahu laments: “How is the faithful city become a harlot; it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers” (Yeshayahu 1:21), characteristically hanging the blame on the perversion of law and justice. In contrast, Yirmiyahu asserts that “upon every high hill and under every green tree you did sprawl, playing the harlot” (Yirmiyahu 2:20), focusing on idolatry and Israel's leaving God (“Saying to a stock of wood, ‘You are my father,’ and to a stone, ‘You have brought me forth’; for they have turned their back to Me, and not their face”; 2:27).


It is very likely that the differences in approach reflect changes that occurred in society. The world of hedonism, debauchery and levity that underlies the social reality described by Yeshayahu and Amos lost its charm and gave way to a world of anxiety and religious tension that accompanied the worsening political situation and increasingly difficult security problems in the days of Yirmiyahu. In any event, whether this accounts for the gap between the two prophets, or that there are other reasons and factors, it is absolutely clear that the religious world of the book of Yirmiyahu addresses the crisis between man and God and not the commandments between man and his fellow.


Accordingly, we must inquire into the inclusion of chapter 34 (our haftara), which deals with the release of slaves, in the book of Yirmiyahu as a whole. It could, of course, be argued that even Yirmeya felt and experienced the social distress of his generation, and therefore saw fit to dedicate a place in his book to it, minor as that place may be. Needless to say, Yirmiyahu was undoubtedly endowed with social sensitivity, so we should not be surprised to find that he included a chapter dealing with issues of social justice in his book. However, if we examine our haftara carefully, it will become clear that our chapter does not stand apart from the other chapters in Yirmiyahu, but rather it accords well with the general direction of the book, and is an integral part of Yirmiyahu's prophecies as a whole.


To clarify, we must first examine the Torah's attitude toward the Hebrew slave. The Torah sets forth the laws governing a Hebrew slave in three places – in Parashat Mishpatim, in Parashat Behar and in Parashat Re'eh. By teaching these laws in different contexts, the Torah sheds light on three different conceptual aspects of slavery. The inclusion of the laws of slavery in the framework of Parashat Mishpatim puts it into the legal context of civil law and the world of torts. A person is sold into slavery in order to make amends for committing theft, but the period of his slavery is limited in time, so that the master should not cause him excessive harm. The denial of freedom beyond a fixed term is excessively hard and unjustified, so the Torah curtails the length of his enslavement. The Torah addresses the matter from the perspective of the values of law and justice that come to balance the needs of the victims against those of the offenders – those of the masters against those of the slaves.


However, in the other passages dealing with slavery, the Torah turns away from the legal side of slavery and focuses on its existential dimension. We are encouraged to recognize the grim socioeconomic condition of the person sold into slavery, so that we may acquire a greater appreciation for the Torah’s injunction to perform acts of kindness toward him, both during the period of his slavery and when he is released. This point is especially highlighted in Parashat Re'eh, where the laws governing a slave are integrated into the framework of the laws concerning charity and mutual aid. No distinction is made there between one who sells himself into slavery and one who was sold into slavery by the court, because with respect to the kindness that must be shown the slave, it makes no difference whether it was criminal liability that brought the individual to slavery or economic distress. The prime expression of this approach in the passage is the severance gift that is awarded the slave upon his release in order to help him support himself after he leaves the economic security of his master's house and enters the free market.


Another perspective, one that is more important for our purposes, does not focus on the condition of the slave, but examines slavery with respect to its religious significance as one aspect of the relationship between man and God. One of the foundations of our faith is that man was created to serve the Master of all things and that he is subjugated to his Creator as is a slave to his master. The classic expression in the Torah of the idea of slavery to God is found at the end of Parashat Behar, where it is presented in the context of the issue of slavery and in relation to it: “For to Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 25:55). This idea is also found in many places in the books of the Prophets and it is especially emphasized by Yeshayahu in his early chapters of consolation (40-44), where he points to the obligation that stems from man's very creation by God. Many verses, some of which are found in various haftarot read over the year, express this principle. It is especially fitting to note and quote the verse that explicitly expresses the idea of man's slavery to God in connection to his creation: “Remember these, O Ya'akov and Israel; you are My servant: I have formed you; you are My own servant: O Israel, you shall not be forgotten by Me” (Yeshayahu 44:21).


The problem of slavery from a religious perspective is twofold. First, the slave is subject to his master, which detracts from his subjugation to God, both in the practical sense, since he is subject to his master's commands,[1] and existentially, because of his status as one who is controlled by another person. Moreover, God's rule over his servants is lessened, as it were, by the fact that they are slaves to others: “For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondsmen” (Vayikra 25:42). The sale of slaves would diminish God's rule and control over His people, and therefore it is forbidden to sell slaves. The people of Israel belong to God, and not to the seller. Just as the prohibition of me'ila forbids a person to transfer consecrated property from its intended use to his own personal purposes, so too with regard to a Jew, who is also consecrated to Heaven. Chazal expressed this notion in Bava Metzia (10a): “‘For the children of Israel are slaves to Me’ – they are slaves to Me, and not slaves to slaves.” Slavery harms the slave and, as it were, also God, and therefore a person who is subjugated to his fellow should be seen as an employee, and not as a slave. It is not by chance that the Torah emphasizes that he is a hired worker and not a slave, noting the ramifications that follow: “It shall not seem hard to you, when you send him away from you; for he has been worth double a hired servant to you, in serving you six years” (Devarim 15:18).


Second, slavery adversely affects the relationship between man and God with respect to the slave master, since it turns his existential standing from that of slave to that of master. When the master subjugates his slave, his standing as a slave to God is impaired; ownership of and control over slaves turns the master from a creature who is wholly dependent upon God to one who rules over others who are dependent upon him. Therefore, slavery is problematic for the master no less than for the slave. The existential reality that is appropriate for man is not power but rather subjugation, not arrogance but rather self-nullification, not bravery but rather humility, not giving orders but the fulfillment of mitzvot. Though Judaism believes in man's greatness and creative faculties, the archetype that most befits him is that of a slave. Man is endowed with tremendous powers that he is ready to activate on behalf of his Creator, but he was not designed to exert control over others. Man was granted rule over nature and the animal world, but not mastery over his fellow man.


This idea brings us to our haftara. As mentioned, Yirmiyahu does not emphasize the social dimension in his list of offenses for which his generation is liable. Throughout the book, he focuses on the prohibition of idolatry and its ancillary crimes, and he fights the abandonment of God, the spring of life, in favor of the broken wells of idol worship. The theme of his prophecies is not the commandments between man and his fellow, but the commandments between man and his God, and it is about man's connection to God that he prophesies day and night. An examination of our haftara reveals that this is the case even in this prophecy about slavery.


The description of how the people re-enslaved those people that had already been freed is harsh. It is easy to imagine the feelings of such a slave, who acquired his freedom after years of servitude and bondage, only to have that freedom crudely taken away from him a few months later. Is much imagination required to understand the frustration with which that wretched slave must have been overcome? Can we not perceive in the most tangible way the bitter disappointment, the acute stress and the profound depression of a person who sees a dream that had already been realized shatter before his very eyes? Can we not feel the horrible cynicism of the slave masters who released their slaves during the time of the siege when the future seemed hopeless anyway, and then subjugated them once again when the cloud of the siege was slightly lifted?[2] Without a doubt, we are dealing with moral injustice and a most corrupt social reality, reminiscent of the difficult circumstances described by the prophets who came before Yirmiyahu.


            However, Yirmiyahu's principal arguments do not relate to the injury to the weak in itself, but to the breaking of the covenant that follows from it. First, he invokes Mount Sinai, the cornerstone of God's relationship with the people of Israel, and emphasizes that the Sinaitic covenant revolves around the concept of slavery, which is highlighted in the first commandment:


Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, ‘At the end of seven years, shall you release every man his brother being a Hebrew, who has been sold to you; and when he has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you.’ But your fathers hearkened not to Me, neither inclined their ear.” (Yirmiyahu 34:13-14)


The people of Israel were removed from the house of slavery in order to become slaves to God; this is the appropriate order of creation. The only fitting slavery is slavery to the King of kings – lordship does not befit mortals. The juxtaposition of Parashat Mishpatim to the revelation at Mount Sinai, noted by Chazal in the Mekhilta,[3] is reflected almost explicitly in these words of Yirmiyahu, and is connected to the fact that the form of slavery that the Torah condones is limited in time and therefore not true slavery. This notion is stated explicitly in Parashat Behar: It is forbidden to turn the life of your stumbling brother into the life of a slave, because the truth is that he is not a slave, but a worker, “a hired worker and a sojourner,” who lives with you as your equal. This is not because of the duty between man and his fellow, but because of the damage caused by slavery to one's relationship with God:


And if your brother who dwells by you be grown poor, and be sold to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a bondservant, but as a hired servant and as a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the year of Jubilee; and then shall he depart from you, both he and his children with him, and he shall return to his own family, and to the possession of his fathers shall he return. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: They shall not be sold as bondsmen. You shall not rule over him with rigor; but shall fear your God. (Vayikra 25:39-43)


When the people freed their slaves and granted them liberty, they gave expression to the principle that is implicit in the Sinaitic covenant. It seemed for a moment that it might be possible to reestablish the covenant. However, not only did they neglect to use this opportunity to renew the covenant with God, they added insult to injury by re-enslaving the people they had free, subjugating the weak once more. More than anything else, this re-enslavement testifies to the control over others that the stronger and wealthier members of that generation assumed for themselves. Even if, at first, they freed the slaves voluntarily (if six years had not passed since their purchase), once the slaves were emancipated, the legal rights of the masters to their slaves certainly lapsed. The re-enslavement could only be justified on the grounds that the previous emancipation was not valid, and this claim could only follow from the idea that the slaves were slaves in their very essence, not free men who merely happened on hard times. Thus, the re-enslavement was not only an infringement upon the slaves' freedom of employment and an exploitation of their labor, but a transformation of free men who are slaves to God into people who, in their very essence, are slaves to men of flesh and blood.


In addition to this idea that the re-subjugation of the slaves constituted an injury to the Sinaitic covenant, Yirmiyahu notes that the people entered into a specific covenant – in the Temple – regarding the emancipation of slaves:


And you have made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name; nevertheless you relapsed and have profaned My name, and everyone of you has caused his servant and his handmaid (whom he has set at liberty at their pleasure) to return, and has brought them into subjection to be to you for servants and for handmaids. (Yirmiyahu 34:15-16)


The actions taken by the powerful against the weak are not only an injustice committed against their fellow men, and not only an impairment of the covenant to which they had committed themselves at Sinai. Rather, they constitute a gross violation of the special covenant they made concerning slavery, and to which Yirmiyahu sees God as a partner (“the words of the covenant which they made before Me”). Hence, the act of re-enslavement constituted a desecration of God's name and a breach of the covenant with God.


In light of all this, it is easy to understand the harsh punishment of which Yirmiyahu warns:


Therefore, thus says the Lord; since you have not hearkened to Me in proclaiming liberty, everyone to his brother and everyone to his neighbor, behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, says the Lord, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth. And I will give the men that have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two, and passed between its sections, the princes of Yehuda, and the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people in the land, who passed between the sections of the calf; and I will give them into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life; and their dead bodies shall be for food to the birds of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth. (34:17-20)


This is punishment not only for the injury caused to others, but also for the breach of the covenant with God and for the desecration of His name.


            A final question: It is somewhat puzzling that this haftara was chosen for Parashat Mishpatim and not for Parashat Behar, as its content accords much more with the latter than with the former. It seems, however, that it is precisely for this reason that it was selected to be the haftara of Parashat Mishpatim. One who hears Parashat Behar read in the synagogue has already been exposed to the ideas embodied in the haftara. As a result, the role of our haftara, had it been assigned to Parashat Behar, would merely be to reinforce what was stated in the parasha. In contrast, one who hears Parashat Mishpatim read in the synagogue might think that there is no spiritual problem whatsoever with slavery – it is merely a monetary matter. Therefore, his exposure to the haftara is not mere reinforcement, but exposure to a new and important perspective, one that strikes a balance between the economic element and the spiritual idea, a point that does not appear in the Torah portion itself. For this reason, the haftara was assigned to Parashat Mishpatim rather than Parashat Behar.


[1] It is very possible that a slave's exemption from positive time-bound commandments follows from his subjugation to another person, but this is not the forum in which to expand upon the issue.

[2] Verse 21 implies that the re-enslavement took place during the period that the Babylonian siege came to a halt, as is related below, chap. 37. It is not far-fetched to suggest (like the Malbim and the Da'at Mikra) that it was only in the wake of the beginning of the siege that the slaves were emancipated.

[3] “‘Now these are the judgments’ (Shemot 21:1) – Rabbi Yishmael says: ‘These are added to the ones mentioned above’” (Mekhilta, Mishpatim, parasha 1).