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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Amy Eilberg

A New Look at Slavery in the Torah

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I think a lot about slavery these days. I read and write and teach about the history of slavery in

America, and I travel to places where I can gain a deeper understanding of how slavery has impacted the state of racism in America today.

Until now, I had never read the Torah’s laws of slavery through the lens of what we as Americans know of slavery.

I was both fascinated and pained this week to notice that the very first law in Parashat Mishpatim, which is a wide-ranging compendium of Biblical law, is the law of the “Hebrew slave.”

“When you acquire a Hebrew slave, that person shall serve six years — and shall go free in the seventh year, without payment. If [a male slave] came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she bore him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone.” (Exodus 21:2-4)

The Torah speaks of a Hebrew (Israelite) slave who was sold into slavery because of their poverty (e.g. for failure to pay debts or to pay restitution for theft). Such a person automatically went free in the seventh year.

First, let me say the obvious. It is deeply distressing to see that the Torah permitted slavery.

Continuing to explore the text, it becomes clear that in the logic of Torah, the seventh day (Shabbat) and the seventh year (the shmita, or sabbatical year) were times for rest, release and renewal. And so a Hebrew could only be enslaved for six years; in the seventh year they went free. By contrast, a non-Hebrew slave could be kept indefinitely.

The system described in the Torah was not chattel slavery of the kind that was practiced in America from 1619 to 1865 (and beyond). This person was viewed as a human being, not as “chattel” or property, perhaps more akin to an indentured servant. Slave owners were prohibited from treating slaves harshly (e.g., Leviticus 25:43). They were members of the owner’s household and were freed from work obligations on Shabbat and holidays, and expected to rest just like other members of the household (e.g., Exodus 20:10).

If a male slave had been married when he entered slavery, he and his wife would both go free in the seventh year. (But shockingly, if the slave owner had provided a wife, the wife and the resultant children remained enslaved — the property of the “master” — after the Israelite slave went free.)

From our contemporary vantage point, it is horrifying and incomprehensible that the Torah, which authored the most lofty concepts of human dignity, could justify slavery in any form. But historical consciousness helps.

We are reading a piece of law governing our people fully 3,000 years ago. In the ancient world, this kind of slavery presumably existed in all communities. Later, in Rabbinic times, slavery was gradually abolished, with the explanation that God says, “The Children of Israel are slaves/servants to me, not slaves to other slaves.” (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 22b)

What fascinates me is how the commentaries discuss the law of the Hebrew slave, here at the very beginning of Parashat Mishpatim. The question arises: Why is the law of the Israelite slave the first one addressed in this collection of laws?

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (the Kli Yakar, 1550-1619) and others believe that the law of the Hebrew slave is highlighted here because the Ten Commandments (just one chapter earlier in the Book of Exodus) began with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt from the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2) Since we have just been reminded that God freed us from slavery in Egypt, so too must Israelite slaveholders in Biblical times be ready to free their own slaves in the seventh year.

Megaleh Tsefunot (R. Eliyahu Hakohen of Casablanca, 17th century)adds that the reason the law of the Hebrew slave is given pride of place in this passage is that holding a slave, in the Biblical view, requires compassion, “loving the slave as oneself.” Rabbi Eliyahu continued by citing multiple laws that apply to owning slaves: e.g., the owner must provide for the slave the exact same food eaten by the owner’s family.

Extending the logic further still, Rabbi Eliyahu said that the essence of the law of the Hebrew slave is to teach compassion. Then, he asserted, once one has trained in compassion, one will surely be faithful to a host of other commandments. One who has trained in compassion will surely not strike or kidnap another, and will not initiate conflict with another. They will surely not kill or steal or commit adultery, will not lie or covet that which belongs to another, for this will do harm to another. One who stumbles and acts unkindly toward another will surely apologize for their sin. (Cited in “Otzar Peninei Hahasidut”)

Compassion, he wrote, is the keystone for all mitzvot. Once this trait is deeply rooted in a person’s soul, a host of other behaviors will follow.

And so the law of the Israelite slave is essentially a law commanding kindness and compassion, even toward those that one might be tempted to see as one’s inferior in social standing.

From our perspective, knowing the horrors and brutality of slavery in America, it is counterintuitive to think of “owning” other human beings as related to compassion in any way. In fact, there has been altogether too much whitewashing of the brutality of slavery. But I appreciate the fact that the commentators could imagine relating to slaves with exquisite compassion, respect and humility.

This column first appeared in the JWeekly, February 17, 2023,

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