Parshat Mishpatim: What does the Torah have to say about slavery?

A proper look at laws of slavery in the Torah teaches us that there is a direct connection between the laws of the Torah and the feelings of a person who sees slavery as immoral.

January 31, 2019 11:26
3 minute read.
Parshat Mishpatim: What does the Torah have to say about slavery?

LEGENDARY SPARTAN lawgiver Lycurgus is immortalized in a statue at the Palace of Justice in Brussels. In Sparta, each free person had 70 slaves.. (photo credit: MATT POPOVICH/FLICKR)


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This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, begins with laws of slavery. Seemingly, slavery has vanished from our world, and learning the laws of slavery might infuriate a person nowadays who sees slavery as inherently abominable. But a proper look at laws of slavery in the Torah teaches us that there is a direct connection between the laws of the Torah and the feelings of a person who sees slavery as immoral. You could even say that this feeling is exactly what the Torah wants to achieve by these laws: the restriction of slavery, which ultimately leads to its abolishment.

This orientation is expressed by the parallels between the laws of slavery and the Ten Commandments we read in the previous portion. There is a prevalent assumption among Torah commentators that the Ten Commandments are reflected in the collection of commandments in Mishpatim. Each of these commentators tries to find hints of the Ten Commandments in this week’s portion, and to connect each halacha (Jewish law) in Mishpatim to one of the Ten Commandments.
One of the important commentators of the 15th century was Don Isaac Abarbanel, a learned and accomplished man who besides being wise in Torah, also served as a finance minister in three countries. Abarbanel, too, looked for parallels between Mishpatim and the Ten Commandments. He wrote that the laws of slavery correspond with the commandment “Thou shall not kill”: “When he buys him for slavery by enslaving him all his life... this is killing in life, for just as Scripture describes charity as ‘life’... so enslavement which is the opposite of charity is compared to killing.”

The Torah indeed sees slavery as a problematic phenomenon. The Torah declares about the Jewish slave: “For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as a slave is sold” (Leviticus 25:42). Even the slavery the Torah allows is not standard slavery. A Jewish slave is only a long-term hired worker, not the property of the master, since he is the slave of God. And the enslavement of a Jew does not leave him devoid of human rights.

Actually, if we look at the laws of slavery in Mishpatim, we find that they try to make the conditions and status of the slave better. A Jewish slave is automatically freed after six years of slavery; even if he chooses of his own volition to remain in his master’s house, he is freed during the 50th year of jubilee. A Jewish maidservant must be freed by the master when she reaches adolescence, unless he or his son marries her and gives her all the rights of a legal wife. A master who hits a non-Jewish slave gets the death penalty. If a master causes his slave to lose a tooth or hurts his eye, the slave is freed, which stands in contrast to what was customary in the ancient world.

In other portions in the Torah, we learn additional halachot (Jewish laws) whose purpose is to improve the conditions and status of the slave. We must understand that in the ancient world, slavery was prevalent. In Rome, slaves were 30% of the total population. In Sparta, each free person had 70 slaves! Clearly, when there were so many slaves, the life of a slave was not valued. Slaves became objects that were easily exchanged. The laws of slavery in the Torah do not allow for this. Since every person was created “in the image of God,” a person can never become an object. The inherent holiness of a person is preserved even when he is a slave, and this holiness also led all of humanity to adopt the Torah’s attitude and abolish slavery.

However, we must not forget that in quite a few places around the world, slavery still exists. Based on estimates, approximately 21 million people are still living in a status of forced, or coerced, labor. This is the modern version of slavery, and we, who are guided by the light of Torah, must make sure not to offer any direct or indirect support of this immorality.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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