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Posts Tagged ‘servant’

Marry that Maid

Posted by rabbiart on June 3, 2008

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

Here is a mitzvah that we cannot observe in our time. It applies only when the jubilee year is in effect, but more importantly, we no longer have servitude as described in the Torah and interpreted in the Talmud.  Since we no longer sell ourselves – or others – into servitude to pay off debts, it seems that we can neither keep nor violate this particular mitzvah.

The Mitzvah is based on Shemot 21:8-11, which describe the treatment of maidservants, including minors. In general, they are either married to the “purchaser” or his son, or else they go free by redemption of the original debt. They are also freed if the husband fails to meet the obligations described in verse eleven.  Sefer HaHinuch, writing in a time when these laws could not be observed, gives a wonderful drosh on the meaning of this mitzvah.  Commenting on verse eleven which refers to the three marital obligations, he says the obligations must be met out of the husband’s free will; he is not to be coerced. “Nevertheless, if he did so, he has fulfilled a mitzvah and acted worthily; blessing shall come upon him; and good and worthy sons are due to issue from their marriage.”

What are we to do with this mitzvah?

Since we cannot act on the pshat meaning of this mitzvah, is there some new interpretation we could make that would bring it to life?

What underlies  this mitzvah is debt and the inability to pay it off.  So the girl’s father sells her into servitude to fulfill his debt.  The Talmudic interprets the purchase to indicate marital intent as well.  Surprisingly, marital intent creates obligations for the master! If there is any mis- or mal- treatment, the maidservant goes free.  This may, depending on circumstances, cancel a significant portion of the debt, leaving the master with neither full repayment nor maidservant. (The servant earned a wage sufficient to save toward paying off the debt.)

Could the design of this mitzvah be applied to debt payment in our time? Suppose issuing a mortgage created obligations for the lender similar to the master’s obligations toward the maidservant.  And that mis- behavior by the lender could result in the loan being cancelled, with the home owner “going free”, i.e. keeping the house.

That would certainly be a different kind of world.

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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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