Parshat Mishpatim: The inalienable right to be free

“And Moses took the blood and sprinkled [it] on the people, and he said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has formed with you concerning these words’” (Exodus 24:8).

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
‘And there are the laws that you shall set before them: when you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; in the seventh year, he shall go out free, without payment…’ (Exodus 21:1:2)
This week’s portion of Mishpatim, “Laws,” is the continuation of the Divine Revelation at Sinai.
However, this raises a most profound question. The very first of the Ten Words or Divine Utterances (the Ten Commandments), the definitive “calling card” of the God of Israel, is: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the House of bondage” (Exodus 20:2); in effect I am the God who insists that every human being be free! How can the legal code emanating from this Revelation begin with the laws of slavery? Maimonides, at the conclusion of his Laws of Slaves (Chapter 9, Law 8) provides a startling addendum to this entire area of Jewish law. He begins by defining the Hebrew slave either as one whose working capacity is sold by the religious court because he must make restitution for an incurred theft or act of damage which he does not have the wherewithal to pay – and so his “slavery” within the rubric of a wealthy Jewish family is in actuality a means of providing him with rehabilitation and financial employment within a positive environment or an individual who himself sells his working capacity in order to gain employment food and board which he is unable to provide for himself. His work obligations must be clearly defined within proper time limits and cannot be of a demeaning or menial nature, and he must be given good quality food and the comforts of bed and bed-coverings, as enjoyed by his employers. Indeed, the Sages of the Talmud who have explicated these laws cry out, “Anyone who acquires a slave in actuality acquires a master unto himself.” And when the Hebrew servant would leave his place of employment, he was given a tidy sum of severance pay for a new start in life.
And then Maimonides concludes: “It is permissible [within talmudic law] to work one’s gentile slave with vigor, and although this may be legally valid [within the Talmud], it is a trait of piety and a way of wisdom that an individual be compassionate and pursue righteousness; he dare not place too heavy a burden upon his ‘slave’ or cause him discomfiture. He must provide him with food and drink equal to the food and drink he provides for himself…. he dare not shame him, neither with his hand [by striking him] nor with his mouth [by speaking disrespectfully to him]. He must speak to him pleasantly and listen patiently and positively to all of his complaints….”
Maimonides goes on to quote some amazing verses from the Book of Job (31:13-15): “If I [the Hebrew master] spurned justice due to my [gentile] manservant or maidservant in their contentions against me, then what could I do when God would rise up against me? When God would confront me, how would I be able to respond? Did not the belly which made me [the Hebrew master] also make him [the gentile slave], and were we both not formed in the womb of the One [God]?” Maimonides ends his Laws of Slaves with a ringing declaration: “The seed of Abraham our father, Israel, must be influenced by the goodness of the Torah which commands righteous statutes and laws which must be compassionate to all. And so are the traits of the Holy One, Blessed by He, which we are commanded to emulate, as it is written ‘He has compassion for all of His works’ (Psalms 145:9)…” Now let us again look at our initial question. Clearly the servitude of our Bible as it is explained by the talmudic Sages was light years away from the slavery experienced by the Hebrews in Egypt or by the serfs in Rome or by the Blacks in the Southern states of the US. Even the simple language of the Bible – insisting that the servitude be only for six years and that on the seventh year he must be completely freed – emphasizes the profound difference. He, the “slave” was never owned by the master; only the produce of his work, and even that in only a limited way.
Apparently slavery was so vital a part of the social and economic aspects of the ancient world that the Bible could not totally abolish the concept, the terms of reference; but it was the genius of the Bible to utilize the word “eved” (slave) but at the same time to completely divest it of its primitive meaning and completely transform it from within so that it took on a very different identity.
And then Maimonides goes one step further. He goes on to transform the gentile slave of the Bible and Talmud into the Hebrew servant of the Talmud, mandating that, in practice, the Roman-type slavery known to the Greco-Roman period and continuing into our own society even in contemporary times (South Africa before Mandela’s liberation) had been truly abolished in Israel for the past 1,000 years at least. He makes the point that our talmudic laws might not be seen as a “ceiling” but rather as a “floor”; Jewish law and the nation of Israel must progress (Halacha) and develop in accordance with the Divine attributes of compassion and love, in consonance with the meta-halachic principles of “every human being created in God’s image” and every human’s inalienable right to be free!
Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat.
His acclaimed series of parsha commentary, Torah Lights, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.