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Servitude Not Slavery

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, opens with a challenging section. The topic is commonly known as slavery. However, as with every subject matter of the Torah, to properly understand the matter we must look at it more closely.

A fundamental principle of Torah analysis is that the Torah, the written 5 Books of Moses, is not and never was the whole story. As mentioned in previous articles, the Written Torah, תורה שבכתב, the Five Books of Moses, cannot be properly understood without the Oral Torah, תורה שבעל פה. A modern scion of Torah, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, used the analogy of notes to a full lecture in portraying the relationship of the Written Torah to the Oral Torah. To someone who heard the full lecture, the notes are sufficient to capture and retain the proper understanding of what was said. To someone who was not present at the lecture, reading the notes alone may be deficient and/or even misleading in trying to comprehend the points made during the lecture.

 A corollary to this principle is the fact that the Oral Law was given before the notes were written down. This fact comes straight from this week’s Torah reading. “Moshe came and spoke all the laws (here the reference is to the civil laws) ….and Moshe wrote all the words of Hashem.” (Shemot 24:3-4) Contrary to the popular understanding, the rabbis did not come along later and make up what the Written Torah means. If God expected the Jews to adhere to the Torah and to be rewarded or punished for not obeying or disobeying God would have had to first communicate His rules fully to the people.

The term עבד in our Torah portion does not mean “slave” as we commonly think. This fact is true whether referring to a Jewish or non-Jewish slave.  A better translation of the term refers more correctly to the notion of service. Such a person is to “serve” the one who acquired the right to his service. The only significant difference between a Jewish and non-Jewish server is that the Jewish server still retains independent rights of possession and ownership.

The Jewish server is still obligated to keep all 613 mitzvot of the Torah just as he or she was the moment before he or she became an עבד עברי, a Hebrew server. Interestingly too if the fact that the non-Jewish server, once acquired, becomes obligated in all mitzvot, except those few positive commands regulated by time. He or she is, then, not required to live in a Sukkah during Sukkot or to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. In short, the non-Jewish server is equal to Jewish women in their obligation to keep mitzvot. Neither server, Jew or non-Jew, for example, is permitted to work on Shabbat or to eat non-kosher food.

One thing becomes very clear from these facts. In his or her state, the Jewish server is not reduced in any way by the legal system of Torah and the non-Jewish server is elevated and initiated into the system of Judaism. For the non-Jewish server, the process of עבדות, service, becomes part of his or her eventual conversion to Judaism.

At the very end of the Laws of Servitude, the Rambam describes how a person should treat the non-Jewish server. While he made be made to do heavy labor, “The attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and pursue justice and not make his servers carry a heavy burden or cause them distress. He should allow the server to partake of all the food and drink he serves. The Sages would give their servers from every dish of which they themselves would partake and they would provide food for their animals and servers before partaking in their own meals.”

The Rambam concludes these laws with two quotes, one from the Book of Job the other from the Torah. Job 31:15 says, “Did not he who made me in the womb make him? Was He not the One who prepared us both in the womb?” The Torah states that whoever shows mercy to others will have mercy shown to him, “He will show you mercy and be merciful to you and multiply you.” Deuteronomy 13:18. Thus Judaism’s attitude and treatment toward servers is not comparable in any way to the cruel spectacle of slavery throughout history or as implemented here in the United States.

Why then does Judaism decry the institution of servitude? After all, the server’s opportunities for keeping the mitzvot are preserved. Nevertheless, the Torah views the institution of servitude as a secondary or fallback position. The reason, I think, is because God created the world in a way that every person can function independently. That doesn’t mean every person is capable of all tasks. We do rely on the unique skills and abilities of others but each person should find his or her security in the ability to function independently in the world as God created it.

Relying on the situation of servitude demonstrates the failure to develop fully as a human being. God in His mercy presents a legal system whereby such a person is not abandoned. The Torah provides a mechanism in which the person can survive and still maintain his or her relationship to God, albeit in a less than optimal way. True, such a person will lack the ultimate perfection which comes by living in the world as God intended but the essential goal of life, to have a relationship with the Creator, is preserved.

God’s world is designed for every human being, Jew and non-Jew alike, to attain perfection.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, opens with a challenging section. The topic is commonly known as slavery. However, as with every subject matter of the Torah, to properly understand the matter we must look at it more closely.

A fundamental principle of Torah analysis is that the Torah, the written 5 Books of Moses, is not and never was the whole story. As mentioned in previous articles, the Written Torah, תורה שבכתב, the Five Books of Moses, cannot be properly understood without the Oral Torah, תורה שבעל פה. A modern scion of Torah, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, used the analogy of notes to a full lecture in portraying the relationship of the Written Torah to the Oral Torah. To someone who heard the full lecture, the notes are sufficient to capture and retain the proper understanding of what was said. To someone who was not present at the lecture, reading the notes alone may be deficient and/or even misleading in trying to comprehend the points made during the lecture.

 A corollary to this principle is the fact that the Oral Law was given before the notes were written down. This fact comes straight from this week’s Torah reading. “Moshe came and spoke all the laws (here the reference is to the civil laws) ….and Moshe wrote all the words of Hashem.” (Shemot 24:3-4) Contrary to the popular understanding, the rabbis did not come along later and make up what the Written Torah means. If God expected the Jews to adhere to the Torah and to be rewarded or punished for not obeying or disobeying God would have had to first communicate His rules fully to the people.

The term עבד in our Torah portion does not mean “slave” as we commonly think. This fact is true whether referring to a Jewish or non-Jewish slave.  A better translation of the term refers more correctly to the notion of service. Such a person is to “serve” the one who acquired the right to his service. The only significant difference between a Jewish and non-Jewish server is that the Jewish server still retains independent rights of possession and ownership.

The Jewish server is still obligated to keep all 613 mitzvot of the Torah just as he or she was the moment before he or she became an עבד עברי, a Hebrew server. Interestingly too if the fact that the non-Jewish server, once acquired, becomes obligated in all mitzvot, except those few positive commands regulated by time. He or she is, then, not required to live in a Sukkah during Sukkot or to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. In short, the non-Jewish server is equal to Jewish women in their obligation to keep mitzvot. Neither server, Jew or non-Jew, for example, is permitted to work on Shabbat or to eat non-kosher food.

One thing becomes very clear from these facts. In his or her state, the Jewish server is not reduced in any way by the legal system of Torah and the non-Jewish server is elevated and initiated into the system of Judaism. For the non-Jewish server, the process of עבדות, service, becomes part of his or her eventual conversion to Judaism.

At the very end of the Laws of Servitude, the Rambam describes how a person should treat the non-Jewish server. While he made be made to do heavy labor, “The attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and pursue justice and not make his servers carry a heavy burden or cause them distress. He should allow the server to partake of all the food and drink he serves. The Sages would give their servers from every dish of which they themselves would partake and they would provide food for their animals and servers before partaking in their own meals.”

The Rambam concludes these laws with two quotes, one from the Book of Job the other from the Torah. Job 31:15 says, “Did not he who made me in the womb make him? Was He not the One who prepared us both in the womb?” The Torah states that whoever shows mercy to others will have mercy shown to him, “He will show you mercy and be merciful to you and multiply you.” Deuteronomy 13:18. Thus Judaism’s attitude and treatment toward servers is not comparable in any way to the cruel spectacle of slavery throughout history or as implemented here in the United States.

Why then does Judaism decry the institution of servitude? After all, the server’s opportunities for keeping the mitzvot are preserved. Nevertheless, the Torah views the institution of servitude as a secondary or fallback position. The reason, I think, is because God created the world in a way that every person can function independently. That doesn’t mean every person is capable of all tasks. We do rely on the unique skills and abilities of others but each person should find his or her security in the ability to function independently in the world as God created it.

Relying on the situation of servitude demonstrates the failure to develop fully as a human being. God in His mercy presents a legal system whereby such a person is not abandoned. The Torah provides a mechanism in which the person can survive and still maintain his or her relationship to God, albeit in a less than optimal way. True, such a person will lack the ultimate perfection which comes by living in the world as God intended but the essential goal of life, to have a relationship with the Creator, is preserved.

God’s world is designed for every human being, Jew and non-Jew alike, to attain perfection.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

Join Our Mailing List!