Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Mishpatim 5762/ February 9, 2002
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies,
Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center,
and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet
under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's
International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Mishpatim 5762/ February 9, 2002
Slavery and the Torah in the Third Millenium
Prof. Dov Landau
The Joseph and Norman Berman Department
of Literature of the Jewish People
We must preface this article with two observations:
1) According to a German folk-saying, Der Mensch ist ein
Gewohnheitstier, or "Man is a creature of habit." Most of a person's
activities are done according to previously acquired habits, and therefore
changing an adult person's habits clearly is extremely difficult. Even if it
turns out that a person is in the habit of doing something wrong, the rule
applies: "A mistake once made is repeated" (Pesahim 112a).
2) The Torah, according to the Passover Haggadah, speaks of
four sons; close examination shows that the opposite of the "wise" son is not
the "simple" son, but actually the "one who does not know to ask." The "simple"
son--tam in Hebrew, from tamim, innocent or pure--is the opposite
of the wicked son. It follows from his opposite number that a wise person is
not necessarily someone who knows the answer, but primarily someone "who knows
how to ask" the right question.
Who would not like to be thought wise? There are many kinds
of questions, but the most stimulating, fascinating and impressive ones are
those that we generally call creative questions. A creative question invites
a change in former perceptions, suggests a radical departure in way of thinking,
and leads to new circumstances previously unfamiliar. If I were to ask,
"How do we know that a Hebrew maidservant is released after six years?" I would
not be particularly creative, because my question toes the line, tacitly
accepting slavery as part of the reality of life; we therefore ask only about
the details of the laws on slavery. It is as if regarding the fact of slavery
itself we are not entitled, or supposed to ask questions.
It is interesting that early Jewish commentators did not dwell
on the question of slavery in principle. Proof of this lays in the fact that
Nehama Leibowitz's weekly Torah study sheets (1955-1992), as well as her book
Studies in Shemot: the Book of Exodus, contain no discussion of the
subject of a "Hebrew slave." Thus most of classical Jewish exegesis toes the
line, no one asking about slavery itself. Therefore, in order to change
direction one must ask a creative and more searching question, such as: How
can it be that the Torah, the Lord's perfect book of Law, did not take
into account that in our day slavery would be considered morally
Indeed, the gemara in Tractate Kiddushin 15a
A hired laborer only works during the day; a Hebrew bondsman
works day or night. [On this the gemara asks:] But is it conceivable
that a Hebrew bondsman should work day or night? After all, it is said (Deut.
15:16): "he...is happy with you" - eating with you, drinking with you, and
enjoying shelter with you.
For the next four pages the gemara sets forth all the
protections due to a Hebrew bondsman, such as: he should not be made to work as
a slave; his master must provide sustenance for his wife and children; the
bondsman is released after the sixth year and in the jubilee year with a grant
from his master; he may even redeem himself, etc., so that in the end he
essentially is removed from the class of a slave and is no less than a resident
hired worker. Moreover, a Hebrew slave is like a master, for the gemara
(Kiddushin 20a) interprets the verse, "he... is happy with you" as
Eating with you and drinking with you, for you are not to eat
fresh bread while he eats stale moldy bread, you drink aged wine while he drinks
young wine, you bed down on feathers while he on hay. Hence it is said that
whoever buys himself a Hebrew bondsman (i.e. slave) is as if he bought himself a
Tosafot ask, What is meant by buying oneself a master? Does
it not suffice for a bondsman to be like a master? In what way is he more
master than the master himself? Tosafot explain that in certain situations the
bondsman is indeed to be given more consideration: "As presented in the
Jerusalem Talmud: sometimes a person only has one pillow and if he lies down on
it, he has not fulfilled the commandment that the bondsman 'be happy with you,'
but if he neither lies down on it nor gives it to his bondsman, he acts as the
wicked people of Sodom. Thus, he must give it to his bondsman, and so he [the
bondsman] is as master to his owner."
So much for a Hebrew slave. Even a "Canaanite slave", the
gentile slave of a Jew, enjoyed better conditions than other slaves throughout
the world. On the Sabbath he did no work, he had to be released if he were
bodily injured by his master, he could be released if someone paid his worth,
his owner was not entitled to sell him to a gentile (lest he become an
idolater), and he could not be turned in even if he were fleeing from Israel
Notwithstanding all these restrictions, our society today
views slavery in the most negative light. The claim that the laws of the Torah
essentially remove a Hebrew bondsman from the class of a slave, and that a
Hebrew maidservant was not intended for bondage at all but for a marital
relationship, does not lessen this negative outlook. Nor are any of the other
stipulations defining and limiting the work of a maidservant of avail, for
example: a maidservant girl goes free not only after the sixth year and in the
jubilee year, but also if she "shows signs" of coming of age. The Biblical text
itself reads, "If he designated her for himself (to marry), he must let her be
redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke
faith with her. And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as
is the practice with free maidens" (Ex. 21:9). But what if he does not do this?
Then "she shall go free, without payment" (Ibid., 11). It should be
clearly understood that the question of a Hebrew slave arises in the
gemara not in the context of the laws of ownership, nor the laws of
negotiation, but precisely in the context of the laws of marriage.
Again we must ask a creative question: has our progressive
and enlightened modern society succeeded in wiping out slavery and in its place
created more decent and humane conditions? Indeed, there is no slavery per se
in modern society, but no one is capable of being creative enough to ask the
creative question: Are certain ancient methods perhaps superior to the modern
ones? Incarcerating thieves in prison does not generally lead to their
rehabilitation; rather, it gives them "advanced professional training" in this
occupation. When a person comes on hard times today he surely does not sell
himself into slavery. But instead he sells himself to a manpower company.
There he works as hard as a slave, for wages that are negligible, under
substandard working conditions, without rights, and with no hope for the present
or future. Thus, it appears that modern society ushered slavery out the front
door with great pomp and circumstance, but brought it back, creeping quietly
through the rear door, in a form seven times worse.
Abarbanel looked for the lesson to be learned from the
juxtaposition between the Ten Commandments at the end of Parashat Yitro and the
passage on Hebrew slaves at the beginning of this week's reading. He further
developed the Sages' interpretation that the conjunction "And" appearing in the
Hebrew as the first letter in Mishpatim, appended to the words, "These are the
rules," means that the text which follows should be seen as adding to what
preceded (i.e., to the first commandment, which says "who brought you out of the
land of Egypt, the house of bondage," Ex. 20:2). Abarbanel felt that the
juxtaposition taught that by taking the Israelites out of bondage G-d acquired
them as His very own, as indicated by the Midrash on the words, "The children of
Israel are My servants," (Lev. 25:58) "and not servants of servants". This idea
was further developed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on this
text. He adds that a Hebrew slave was not something encountered every day.
Jewish courts did not sell a person, and a person would not sell himself except
in the most dire circumstances. Accordingly, even the situation of a "slave who
is not a slave" came about only in the most rare of circumstances. Even in the
extreme case of a thief sold for his theft it is said: "He shall remain with
you as a hired or bound laborer" (Lev. 25:40), and we are taught that "you may
not change his trade," that is, he must continue doing the skills he learned and
may not be forced to do menial tasks.
Rabbi Pinehas Wolf, in his commentary Diyyukim,
added a very creative question to this discussion: If the bias of the Torah is
so humane, why did it allow slavery at all, whether of a Hebrew or of a
Canaanite? Wolf argues, "If slavery had been abolished in the Torah, this act
would not have been felt at all and the Torah would not have achieved its
intention of having an impact on all peoples." Everyone would have said that
this was nothing more than another "crazy idea" of the Jews not to have slaves,
like their crazy idea of taking off one day a week, not working on the Sabbath.
We conclude with a quote from Rabbi Wolf:
Rather, the Torah left slavery in and of itself in
existence, but improved the condition of the slave to the extent that the
land of Israel would in any case become a paradise for slaves. The life and
health of the Canaanite slave are well protected (vv. 20-21, 26-27). A weekly
day of rest is assured him (Deut. 5:14). Slaves from other lands would flee to
the land of Israel, to find refuge and be decently treated there, and in the
fullness of time this situation would force slave owners in other countries to
improve the lot of their slaves, so that in the end it would be recognized that
a human being is not chattel and slavery would end of its own accord.
It must not be forgotten that in these matters the Torah does
not permit any agreements to turn over slaves, for it says: "You shall not turn
over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master" (Deut.
23:16). Even in our time, with the enlightened progress in morality of the
third millennium, we have not yet reached this level. For all our progressive
approaches, we are not capable of changing the mistaken conceptions to which we
have become accustomed. Even the word 'slave' we are not capable of
interpreting in its historic context, but give it anachronistic connotations in
line with our modern-primitive conceptions.
Perhaps we would do better to learn our modern humane ideas
precisely from the words of our ancient Torah?