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by Jacob Solomon


When you buy a Hebrew servant he shall work for you for six years, and he shall go free in the seventh… (20:2).

This introduces the laws of servitude of a Hebrew servant. The S’forno comments that the whole area of civil law is an elaboration of the Final Commandment: ‘Do not covet… anything that belongs to anyone else’ (20:14). The Torah defines what degree of ownership and responsibilities people have towards the various categories of G-d’s creations.

A superficial reading of the text would imply that the Torah approves of the concept of servitude. However:

  1. .The Torah did not impose prohibitions that would have been unreasonably forbidding at the time of the Giving of the Torah. It demonstrated its disapproval of certain activities in another way. With the Hebrew slave, the Parasha starts with the words ki tikneh eved ivri – when you buy a Hebrew slave (Deut. 21:10). A similar phrase ki tei-tzei lamilchama – when you go out to war, is used regarding women prisoners of war. In that case Chazal imply that the Almighty only reluctantly permitted a soldier to enter an adulterous relationship, because in those circumstances he would be unable to resist! However there were so many pre-conditions required before he could satisfy his desires that he would almost certainly send her away before matters would get that far (Deut. 21:12-14 – see Rashi ad loc.). The same principle could apply to servitude. The Torah implies that there will always be some people wealthier that others (Deut. 15:11). The wealthy also have their rights. These include being allowed to benefit from servitude (very important for those with lots of property without today’s mod-cons), and having slaves was the norm in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures of the time. However, like in the case of the female prisoner of war, the Torah imposes many duties and restrictions on the servant-owner. The Talmud (Kiddushin 20a, based on Deut. 15:16) exclaims that ‘whoever acquires a Hebrew slave for himself is as thought he acquired a master for himself”. Keeping slaves involved considerable expense to the master – in contrast the existing Egyptian and Mesopotamian practices, he had to ensure that the slave was given the same material standard of living that he himself enjoyed - the same quality food, drink, and bedding. In practice these would strongly discourage owning a Hebrew slave in the first place.
  2. .The Torah protects people from theft. It also insists that the victim must be compensated. This is done by returning the stolen property (Lev. 5:23), paying for it, or (when the thief has no means), selling him into servitude to repay the value of the theft (22:2). It is notable that the Torah only imposes servitude on thieves, not on debtors.
  3. .The Torah gives the Hebrew slave a new start in life. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch makes this point in explaining why a father is allowed to sell his young daughter as a maidservant. He says that this may be an opportunity to provide for her future that may otherwise not be available. This idea could be extended to all categories of servitude, whereby a destitute person could, at best, have the personal security of being part of a well-run, spiritually positive environment.

    The Torah’s attitude to strangers…

    The Parasha gives two separate prohibitions against making the life of the stranger unpleasant:

    1. You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (22:20)
    2. Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (23:9).

      Why is this Mitzva stated twice?

      A suggestion. The words ‘strangers’ could refer to both converts to the Israelite community, in the Halachic sense and also, (in the spirit of the Mitzva) newcomers who are ‘not part of our Chevra (subgroup of the Jewish people, or clique)’. The latter include new immigrants to Israel; and also incorporate people of different outlooks, and countries of origin (Ashkenazi / Sephardi, and their respective subgroups).

      The first prohibition includes the words ‘taunt’ and ‘oppress’. The Hebrew word used for ‘taunt’ is ‘toneh’ – related to the noun ‘ona-a’ meaning extortion. The Talmud brings two Halachic meanings of this word. The first is financial: one may not overcharge a customer at substantially above the going rate (Bava Metzia 49b). The second is personal: it is forbidden to remind a person of his or her different, often more humble background (ibid. 58b) - for example, that he is a baal teshuva (newcomer to Torah observance). ‘Oppress’ is one stage further – subtly bringing him under your control, making his life more unpleasant in the process. This was indeed the first hand experience of the Israelites in Egypt – as the Midrash (Shemot Rabah 1:12) derives from the text, the slavery in Egypt intensified slowly, stage by stage. That is the relevance of you were slaves in the land of Egypt.

      The second prohibition focuses on feelings of the stranger. Many newcomers feel ostracized because their customs and ways of doing things are different from the host society. The Torah therefore tells us to be sensitive and tolerant to the differences in background and culture (within the boundaries of the Halacha) – for example to respect that not all cultures have the social customs, and the same sense of humor. For, as the pasuk continues, you were in the same situation: you were strangers in the land of Egypt: you were also social outsiders…



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