DOES the Hebrew Bible — the Torah — believe in slavery? The answer seems straightforward. This week’s Torah portion opens (Exodus 21:2-6):
“If you buy a Jewish eved [the Hebrew may be translated slave, servant, or bondsman], he shall work for six years and in the seventh he shall go free, for no charge. If he shall arrive by himself [unmarried], he shall leave by himself; if he is the husband of a woman, his wife shall leave with him. If his master will give him a woman and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out by himself.
“But if the eved shall say, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children — I shall not go free,’ then his master shall bring him to the court and shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore through his ear with the awl, and he shall serve him forever.”
WE may note the Torah’s limitations on involuntary servitude: It is limited to six years; the family that one brings to the servitude is kept intact; permanent servitude is frowned upon; and, as we shall see, there are other limitations.
Limitations on servitude and condemnations of the permanent eved notwithstanding, the Torah certainly seems to believe in slavery. What gives?
WHAT gives is this: In Jewish civil law, of which the passage above constitutes the opening statutes, the person sold into servitude is a convicted thief, too poor to pay restitution to his victims. His involuntary servitude, initiated by the court to find a way to enable him to repay his victims, is actually one of two types of servitude in the Bible. The other type is voluntary servitude. It is dealt with in a separate passage in Leviticus, to which we shall turn below.
With respect to the thief, why not just imprison him, or put him to work and garnish his wages?
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kuk (the first chief rabbi of Palestine, 1865-1935), offered this explanation:
“Instead of putting the offender in prison, where he will be punished but not rehabilitated, he is sent to live with a decent family until he has readjusted. Far from being a primitive command, this path is the precursor to modern rehabilitation methods.
“The thief was thus exposed to a different type of family than he was used to and learned to take his role and responsibility to the rest of society more seriously.
“In order to guard the eved’s rights, guidelines were laid down as to the conduct between master and eved. The master was forbidden to injure the eved. Were he to beat and injure the eved, then the master was forced to free him (Exodus 21:26).
“The desire of the Torah and the Creator was that this unfortunate thief would adjust his ways. He would be positively influenced by the time spent with the family that purchased him. This stage was always intended to be temporary, and the eved was compelled to see it as such [thus, the ear-piercing ceremony] . . .
“The sages even explained the word ‘forever’ (“the eved shall serve his master forever”) as a temporary one, ‘until the jubilee year’. . .
“The Torah recognizes the state of society and that, occasionally, it is necessary to amend certain cases. These are the exceptions to the rule that we are servants of G-d. But extraordinary cases must never become the norm. The hope is also that, in so doing, the Torah will eradicate, as much as possible, such instances of theft.”*
ONE question is answered. The thief whom the court assigns to six years of servitude is in a rehabilitation program. It is not slavery. It is, in contemporary terms, a type of halfway house between prison and parole. Even so, the issue of slavery in the Bible remains unresolved.
It is clear that if the eved is married, his wife and children must be supported by their master, and, when the eved is freed, his family is, too (“his wife shall leave with him”). But what is the basis for the distinction between a thief who comes into servitude married, and between a thief who is married during his servitude? When the latter goes free, his wife and children do not (“he shall go out by himself”). Clearly, they seem to be enslaved.
Now, the wife whom the thief brings with him into servitude is a Hebrew woman, and actually is his wife. The woman referred to as the wife whom he is given during his servitude is not a Hebrew woman and is actually not his wife. She is a mistress of sorts, given so that the eved may bear the master more servants.
We have here a web of seemingly contradictory findings:
On the one hand, the limitations on this woman given to the eved during servitude are clear. She is given to one servant only; she is not to be given over for intimacy to either her master or any other servant. Nor is her condition designed to be permanent. Yet, if the relationship becomes a loving one, they may remain together, supported by their master.
(I should interject at this point that Jewish law definitely frowns upon permanent servitude. A famous commentary states that what is most desirable for the thief is to hear G-d’s voice at Mount Sinai that said: Do not steal, and that also says, after six years, leave your servitude.)
On the other hand, the offspring of this union are eveds, not thieves, for whose servitude there is no justification of rehabilitation. Is there slavery in the Bible? The answer seems to be yes with regard to the mistress and her children, who seem to be in servitude without any justification.
One might observe that servitude in the Bible is immeasurably more enlightened than the way it was in other ancient societies, in which slaves never went free and could be tortured or molested.
Yet, for me the Hebrew Bible is not valid as a relative instrument, whose value is measured in comparison to ancient societies. For me, the Bible is eternally valid. So, Iremain the uncomfortable the conclusion, which I shall call tentative, that, with respect to some people, there does seem to be slavery in the Bible. I call the concluson tentative in the sense of the traditional conclusion to any difficult question in Torah:tzarich iyyun, or, “the matter bears more investigation.”
NOW, the second type of servitude in the Bible stems from poverty (Leviticus 25:25-28): involuntary servitude.
An impoverished person may sell himself to a master in order to be supported, and, again, if a master purchases an eved on this basis, the master must also support the eved’s wife and children. The master is forbidden to abuse them physically or sexually.
The master is also forbidden to demean this impoverished eved by having him carry his clothes or put on his shoes. The master can only employ eved in agricultural work or in some craft.
Here, too, there is a famous commentary, a variation on the one above. If the eved chooses not to go free at the end of six years, his ear is pierced with an awl at a door. This is taken to mean that every person should use his ear to listen to the Torah’s demand that a person become the servant of G-d alone (Leviticus 25:55), not “the servant of a servant” —the permanent servant of another person (another “servant of G-d”).
The door? Jewish slaves in Egypt smeared the blood of the Pascal lamb on their doorposts so that the Angel of Death would pass them over. The doorpost represents the destiny of freedom. By electing to remain in permanent involuntary servitude, the eved in this week’s Torah portion debases the message of the doorpost: freedom!
Does the Bible believe in slavery? If the slavery is voluntary, the answer is yes.
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