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.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


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 reprehensible?

Indeed, the gemara in Tractate Kiddushin 15a says:

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 follows:

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 master.

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 abroad.

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?