This week, our Parshat HaShevua, Parshat Mishpatim is being sponsored by Baruch and Yaffa Swinkin and family of Ramat Beit Shemesh dedicated lilui nishmas for Baruch’s grandfather Micha’el ben Yaakov. To the Swinkin family, many thanks for your sponsorship and for your continued kindnesses.
You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.
Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.
Our Parshat Mishpatim opens with laws regarding an eved Ivri:
“And these are the judgements that you shall place before them: When you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall work for six years; and in the seventh he shall go to freedom, without charge.” (Sefer Shemos, Perek 21, posukim 1- 2 as rendered to English in “The Sapirstein Edition, The Torah with Rashi Commentary”)
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text” (pages 167-168), poses questions as to the concept of the Jew having slaves:
How can the Torah condone slavery of any kind? Doesn’t Hashem fundamentally desire freedom for all mankind?
Were the B’nei Yisrael redeemed from Egyptian slavery only to become masters of slaves of their own? Over and over again, the Torah emphasizes that the slavery/Yetziyot Mitzrayim experience is meant to create a nation sensitive to the vulnerability and pain of others. How can the Jew, then possibly become an enslaver?
…Why does the Torah open Parshat Mishpatim specifically with discussion of the laws of sevitude? The significance of this textual juncture cannot be overstated. As Mishpatim begins, the Torah abruptly transitions from the powerful drama of Revelation to the concrete substance of Halacha…. Given the broad range of available possibilities, why does Hashem showcase the issue of slavery at this critical moment?
Today’s politically correct liberals (if you know who this author means), even and particularly those who are identified as Jews, would consider the term “slaves” to be right out of the fascist playbook. But Rabbi Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text” (pages 168-169) notes that the “Hebrew servant” [eved Ivri] does not fit the term or criteria of “slave” as we understood, i.e. the slaves of America’s Civil War of the 1860s:
An eved Ivri is not a slave, at least not in the classical sense of the word. His position is much to that of an indentured servant, an individual whose services are sold to someone else for a period of time. Following are some of the key laws which govern the status of an eved Ivri [as cited by Rav Goldin from Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avadim 1-4; Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Deah 267: 136-137):
1/ An individual becomes an eved Ivri in euther of two ways. Either he becomes so destitute that he can no longer support himself or his family, or he is found guilty of… crime or theft and is unable to pay his obligations.
…The individual sells himself in avdut (servitude) in order to accrue the provisions necessary for survival. In the latter instance, the court sells the thief into servitude. The funds accumulated through this sale are applied towards the payment of his debt.
2/ An eved Ivri is not “owed” by his master. He has simply sold the rights to his labor for the tenure of avdut.
3/ An eved Ivri who is sold into servitude by the court may only be sold for a six-year tenure. After that time he is to be set
free. An individual who sells himself into servitude, according to most authorities, may determine the length of his period of avdut.
4/ If the Yovel (Jubilee) year falls at any point during an eved Ivri’s period of servitude, the servant is immediately freed.
5/ If an eved Ivri who has been sold by the court desires to remain in servitude after his six-year tenure, he must undergo a ritual in which his ear is pierced at the doorpost of his master’s home. He then remains in his master’s service until the advent of the Jubilee year.
6/ Strict regulations circumscribe the treatment of an eved Ivri at the hands of his master. The eved Ivri cannot be assigned
“backbreaking work,” he may not be physically disciplined, he and his family must receive sustenance and care to such an extent that the Rabbis proclaim in the Talmud, “Anyone who purchases [the services of] an eved Ivri, it is as if he has purchased a master.” (citing Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 20a)
7/ If an eved Ivri acquires the funds necessary to pay off the balance of his tenure he may do so and thus attain immediate freedom.
Rabbi Goldin provides additional discussion regarding laws concerning the underage female who was sold into servitude due to her impoverished father who was unable to provide for her. However, this vort deals with the general discussion of Avadim. The topic of the underage female sold into servitude would be food for a subsequent vort on Parshat Mishpatim.
Rabbi Goldin continues (ibid, page 170-172):
By selling his services as an eved Ivri, the destitute individual receives immediate economic relief and embarks upon a complex path of financial and social correction. As he and his family enter into an extended period of personal security, he begins to relearn the value of his labor. He has once again found a way to provide for those dependent on him.
…The proceeds of the eved’s sale can be set aside for future needs, as he and his family are supported by his master for the duration of his avdut.
Finally, one last piece of the puzzle falls into place when we consider the fate of a convicted thief. Here, as the court forcibly sells the convict into servitude to repay his debt, the concept of eved Ivri acquires additional overlays of significance. The thief’s sentence of servitude is, at once: 1/ Compensatory…. 2/ Punitive…., 3/ Rehabilitative….
How enlightened the Torah’s approach now seems when compared to the penal system of our own day, a system which, more often than not, only turns criminals into bitter, better criminals!
By directly applying the value of the thief’s labor toward the remediation of the effects of his own [the convicted thief] crime, by punishing him with an embarrassing loss of independence coupled with a growing sensitization to the value of his own labor, by placing the thief into a functioning household meant to model successful behavior, the Torah optimizes the chances for the thief’s own rehabilitation…. A real chance for true change has been offered.
Rabbi Goldin (ibid, pages 173-174) now discusses the eved Cana’ani – the Canaanite (Non-Hebrew) Slave:
While the issues surrounding the eved Ivri are complex, they pale in comparison to the difficulties raised by the biblical institution of eved Cana’ani. Torah law apparently accepts the existence of classical Jewish society…. The Torah seems to mandate “slavery with a difference.”
These are some of the key laws that govern the status the eved Cana’ani (as Rabbi Goldin cited from Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avadim 5-9; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 267; Aruch HaShulchan 267:1 – 135):
1/ Unlike and eved Imri, the eved Cana’ani is physically sold to a master and becomes that master’s property.
2/ An eved Cana’ani can be bought and sold from household to household and the eved is bequeathed, upon the master’s death, to the master’s heirs.
3/ An eved Cana’ani may be assigned any type of work and may be physically disciplined. Numerous halachic authorities, however, record ethical obligations to all avadim Cana’anim with kindness and compassion, to provide them with every type of food available to other members of the household, to feed them before other family members and to refrain from embarrassing or insulting them.
4/ Upon acquiring a non-Hebrew slave, a master must present him with the choice of entering the society of Jews l’shem avdut (for the purpose of servitude). If the slave agrees, he or she then undergoes an attenuated [dictionary.com: weakened; diminishing] conversion process consisting of the same ritual steps found in a full conversion to Judaism. This conversion raises the slave to the official status of eved Cana’ani and obligates the slave to all positive non-time-bound commandments and to all negative commandments of Torah law. Only a slave who voluntarily agrees to accept these obligations and undergo the requisite conversion becomes an official eved Cana’ani, enjoying the rights and privileges associated with that status.
If a [non-Hebrew] slave refuses to undergo this conversion, he may remain in the Hebrew household for twelve months in the hope that he will recognize… the benefits of entering into the covenant with Hashem. If, after that period, he still refuses to convert, he is sold back out of the community of B’nei Yisrael.
5/ One is forbidden in the normal course of events, to free his avadim Cana’anim. Exceptions are made, under certain conditions… Upon attaining freedom, an eved Cana’ani, through and additional abridged conversion process, can become a full Jew.
The rights and privileges to which the eved Cana’ani is entitled are also food for a future vort on Parshat Mishpatim.
Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, Page 177):
…The institution of slavery within Am Yisrael remains dependent upon the existence of such slavery outside the nation. In a world where such cruelty is unknown, these laws will have little or no practical application.
With intricate care and concern, the Torah thus mandates a humane approach to an inhumane practice for as long as necessary.
May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the twice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — only upon his return home to Israel, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of four plus years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.