This week’s Torah portion opens with halachot, Jewish laws, regarding “eved Ivri” (a Jewish slave).
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Who is this slave the Torah is discussing? Our sages explain that he is a thief who was caught and has no ability to pay back what he stole. In such a case, the Torah instructs that the thief should be sold as a slave with the payment going to the person he stole from.
The term “eved” is foreign to us. In the Western world, the concept of slavery has disappeared, and good that it has.
But it seems that we still have something to learn from these halachot.
First of all, we want to ask: Isn’t this punishment too severe? Couldn’t the Torah have punished the thief with incarceration, as is acceptable today in most countries in the world? When we examine the halachot regarding this thief, we find that it is not at all certain that the slavery he was sold into acts as a punishment for him. First, we must realize that the slavery is limited to only six years, and the master has no right to enslave him for even one additional day. Second, during those six years, the master cannot make him do demeaning work, or even unnecessary work. Third, during these six years, the master is obligated to sustain the slave’s family. Fourth, the living conditions to which the slave is entitled must be of the same level as the master, so much so that if the master has one pillow, he must bequeath it to the slave and sleep without one, since if the master sleeps with a pillow and the slave does not, the slave’s conditions are harmed.
And if we think that these benefits are exaggerated, the final halacha will surely surprise us: At the end of the six years, the master is obligated to give that same slave – if after all the above conditions we can still call him a “slave” – a respectable sum of money so that he has the ability to start a business, learn a profession, etc.
So now we ask again: Is this punishment too severe? And the answer now is that the punishment appears too lenient. So the question we are left with is: Why did the Torah choose this unique punishment? The answer to this lies in the very conditions and benefits to which the thief is entitled during his six years of slavery.
For six years, this man will live under very generous conditions, knowing full well that he does not deserve to. He is, after all, a simple thief. But the master supports him, makes sure he doesn’t work too hard, and provides him with good living conditions. All this comes to teach us that this is basically an educational workshop, or maybe a rehabilitation workshop.
Experience has shown that punishments of incarceration, though often there is no choice but to use them, are the worst choice for a person who slipped and committed a crime. In prison he is exposed to worse crimes, he loses his social connections and develops relationships with negative influences, sometimes losing his livelihood so that when he is released from prison, he feels he has to break the law again. This description is familiar to anyone who deals with rehabilitating criminals.
The punishment given the thief in the Torah is indeed unpleasant. His freedom is taken from him and he has to work for his master. But, at the same time, the punishment teaches him about humane and generous behavior. He learns about correct social relationships. He sees how one should act with another who is weak and miserable.
He learns all this during these six years so that he is not only punished, but also rehabilitated, turning into a normative and even contributing member of society.
When the six years are over, the master gives him a respectable sum of money so that he will not be dragged back into the world of crime, but will be able to rebuild his life in legitimate ways.
Thus, the punishment becomes a step that advances the man and society as a whole.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.