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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

We Had Slaves? Who Knew?

Posted by rabbiart on May 26, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

The biblical story undeniably includes Hebrew servants; their treatment is described right at the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim. “Servant” is a better translation than “slave” because only labor was owed by the servant to the “master”.  The relationship was not like slavery in, for example, the pre-Civil War American South.

This mitzvah is unusual in that it does not mandate or forbid one specific act. Instead it is comprised of provisions in three major areas, as set out in the parshah through verse six.  The length of the servant’s term and family status, provision of wife to the servant, and separation conditions are described.  If the male servant does not want to leave his family (where he came into servitude single), then he must have his ear bored, and commit to a lifetime of service.  This seems cruel to the 21st century sensibility. Yet writing in the 1300s, our author sees the tradition as kind and merciful, just as the tradition sees itself.

How can this be?  The servant had rights! He could pay off his term and exit early, should he acquire the necessary funds.  The master was required to provide food, drink, bedding and shelter, according to the midrash.

This is a law that is in effect only in certain times and places.  According to the Torah and rabbinic interpretation, only a male Israelite can have bondservants, and only in a time when the Jubilee year is in effect. The laws of bondservant treatment require the Jubilee year, because the bondservant goes free when the jubilee year occurs.  The jubilee year is in effect only when the Land of Israel is occupied by Israel.

Sefer HaHinuch gives us a wonderful explication of the reasoning for this mitzvah.  “if someone violated [this law] and did not treat a servant as it is written concerning him, he would thus disobey a positive precept and teach himself to be cruel, and would practically attest about himself that he is not a Jew, for they are the compassionate sons of compassionate fathers.”

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