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   by Jacob Solomon

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These are the judgments you shall put before them. If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for you for six years. And in the seventh, he will go free (21:1-2).

It is in this Parasha that details of G-d's civil laws to the Israelites were clearly set forth by Moses, as Rashi puts it 'a ready laid table with food ready to eat'.

Many commentators ask why the Torah has to open civil law with the unpalatable notion of slavery. The Ohr HaChayim places it in the context of helping a fellow-Israelite. Slavery was a means that the totally destitute might be given a livelihood. By the Torah's opening this section with a Hebrew slave, it is implying that he should be bought in preference to a gentile, in the spirit of 'charity begins at home'.

It may be suggested, in addition, that the Israelites themselves had been slaves until very recently. And with this comes the slave-focused mentality, which takes two forms.

The first form is the desire for security. Slavery means that the master is entirely responsible for all aspects of the slave's life. The enslaved does not have to make any decisions. He is not burdened by the need to make choices and bear responsibility for his decisions. In short, a very passive member of society - just acts a machine might today. That was not to be the ideal Israelite destiny.

The second form is the desire for dominance. An ex-slave having obtained his freedom wishes to be the slave-master he always yearned to be in his servitude. Acquiring slaves was also not to be the ideal Israelite destiny.

Thus the Torah opens the civil law by addressing the Israelite reality at the time - newly freed from bondage. It recognizes that slavery cannot be abolished overnight in a society so conditioned to it, but it hedged it with so many conditions that there would be no opportunity for a slave-master to grossly exploit, nor for a slave to be held as a piece of machinery for the rest of his life. In limiting it to six years, it was to be a preparation for freedom, and burden of taking responsibility for one's own life.

And an extension of this principle may explain why it was permitted to take a gentile slave in perpetuity (Lev. 25:46). It is again a case of the fine balance the Torah makes between the Israelite reality and its ideal. As it was practice for gentile owners to take slaves in perpetuity, it would have been fully in place for Israelites to have done the same thing with them. However, such is the character-training with the restraint shown by the Israelite to the Hebrew slave, that this benevolent attitude would characterize his dealings with other people, including his gentile slave…

For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at and on the material on the Haftara at .

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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