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   by Jacob Solomon

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These are the ordinances you shall put before them (21:1) are the words with which the bulk of the details of the 613 Mitzvot open. But of all the possible Mitzvot, it selects slavery as an opening:

When you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall work for you for six years, and he shall go free in the seventh… (21:2).

The Ramban comments that the freedom of Hebrew servants after six years is a reminder of Israel's own freedom from Egyptian slavery. Furthermore, the slave's going free after six years is a reminder of the seventh day of Creation, recalling G-d creating the universe in six days, and His resting on the seventh.

The two reasons for a Hebrew becoming a slave are cited elsewhere: because of economic poverty (Lev. 25:39), and because he was a convicted thief and had no other means of paying for what he stole (22:2). That is despite the Torah's frowning on slavery: as the Rabbis derive from 'For (the Israelites) are My servants' (Lev. 25:42) - G-d's servants only, not the 'servants of servants'.

According to the Or Hachayim, it is an act of kindness to buy a Hebrew slave in preference to a gentile. If a fellow Jew is in such distress that he must sell his services in that manner, his people are morally obligated to help him by acceding to his wishes.

More simply, it may be suggested that the Torah opens this section with slavery because that is what the Israelites were familiar with at the time. However unpleasant it might have been, it supplied a security of sorts, and also freedom from personal responsibility and decision making. It was a continuation of the immediate past. It reflects the human tendency to hold onto the familiar when confronted with the novel and the unfamiliar.

However, though there are times when one should hold onto the past, thereare other times when it is best (if not easy) to look forward.

The Torah in this week's Parasha tells us when to look at the past. 'Do not taunt or oppress a stranger' is immediately followed with 'For you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.' (22:20). Put yourself in a stranger's mind and remember how you felt when you were in a similar situation.

But there are other situations when looking at the past is less desirable. That is exemplified in this Parasha, by living out in the present what should have been in the past. This is examined by analogy below:

Elsewhere, the Torah's rules: 'When you go to war against your enemy… and you see a beautiful woman taken captive, and you desire her... you may take her for a wife' (Deut. 21:10-11). This understood as the Torah's accommodating the limits of what the human frame can normally stand. A soldier's recent experience and mental frame is such that if he is not allowed to sleep with her, he will do so anyway - permitted or not. However, it put so many qualifications - 'she shall shave her head… sit in your house, and weep for her father and mother for a month' and only afterwards 'she shall be to you as a wife' (Deut. 21:12-13), that it strongly hints that such an arrangement can never be a good thing. Indeed, the Torah (following Rashi's rendering of ibid. 14) declares that by then the soldier 'will not want her - he must set her free'.

Thus the Torah balances its ideals and human limitations. It does the same thing here for slavery. One hand, it frowns on it: as the Psalmist puts it 'He has made us and we are His' (Psalms 100:2). His people are directly responsible to G-d - they are not the property of human beings. On the other hand, the Torah comes to terms with mentality and also the economic necessities of the time - as people settled in the Promised Land, some would be more successful than others, and also slaves supplied a demand for labor at a time when society was labor intensive.

However, it hedges it with so many qualifications that it is in fact strongly hinting that slavery, like sleeping with a captive wife, can never be a good thing. First it is temporary - only a six year term. Secondly, he has responsibilities for the slave's welfare - it must be 'good' with him (Deut. 15:16). As the Talmud derives - if there is only one carriage, he gets the ride and the master has to walk. A Hebrew servant must be given the same standard of living as his master - 'he that acquires a servant acquires a master' - based on 'for it is good for him to be with you' (Deut. 15:16, as expounded by Kiddushin 22a). Thirdly, he pays him a huge grant on the finish of his term (Deut. 15:14) - all wrapped around a salutary reminder that 'you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt'.

So the Torah gives us two lessons in opening the Mitzvot with the laws of the Hebrew slave. It recognizes our nature at looking at the past when confronted with new situations, but it sets the goal of not allowing the past be our master. And it also accepts the frailties of human nature in letting him hold onto the past when he feels he has no choice, but at the same time creating conditions when he himself will want to let it go…

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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