Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

My Photo
Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Parshat Mishpatim

Slavery and the Law

In last week's parsha God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. This week's parsha then lists a more detailed description of God's law. It begins with:

"If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge " (Shemot 21:2).

This is incredible. The very first law is about slavery. However, if we look carefully, it's not about actually the laws of slavery, but about freeing slaves. In fact, ver little is stated about the actual treatment and buying and selling of slaves. The very first law is about freeing slaves. It then goes on: "But if the slave says, "I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go free" (ibid 5) – the slave does not want to go free!!

The next law is about the female slave: "If a man sells his daughter as a maidservant, she shall not go free as the slaves go free" (ibid 7). The female slave does not go free. Why? The master or his son must marry her and provide her with "sustenance, her clothing, and her marital relations" (ibid 10). If he refuses to provide her this, then: she shall go free" (ibid 11).

The next law then talks about murder.

So as we can see, the Torah is not really talking to us about the laws of slavery. In fact, it is not really talking to us about laws at all. It is talking to us about a principle. People should not be enslaved, they should be free. The natural state of a person is to be free and not beholden to others.

Interestingly, this exactly how the Ten Commandments begin: "I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (ibid 20:2). God's first act for Israel was to free them from slavery. Their first act, therefore, should be to free slaves.

The Torah, therefore, while permitting slavery, clearly wants it abolished, for the sanctity of humanity is primary to all laws, as is implied by the fact that the serious punishment for murder and manslaughter immediately follow.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Mishptim, entitled: "The Kid and the Mother's Milk" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Mishptim, entitled: "The New Covenant" appears at

A further Sedra Short on Parshat Mishpatim, entitled: "The Law" appears at

Labels: , , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Parshas Mishpatim explicitly starts with the dinim of releasing an eved ivri and then an ama ivriah. With regard to an eved k'naani the Torah forbids releasing them, yet you claim the Torah "clearly wants (slavery) abolished." The Torah encourages slavery as a method of supporting a poor Jewish girl who otherwise may not have that support and may not succeed in getting married. The Torah encourages slavery as a method of teaching a Jew gone astray into theivery how to behave properly. As for owning non-Jewish slaves, we have no indication of the Torah's desire to abolish slavery and only the mitzvas asei to keep a slave a slave.
I hope that you either have some heavy-weight sources that you didn't cite to prove me wrong or that you have the strength and honesty to issue at least an equally public retraction of this utter nonsense.

2:50 AM  
Blogger Moshe Abelesz said...

You raise a good question, though I fail to understand why you did so anonymously and with such aggression.

There are numerous examples of mitzvot that are bediavad, i.e. a mitzva that would be best if we never have to observe, but were we in that situation, we should do. The mitzva of giving one's wife a get, is one such example. According to Moreh Nevuchim, korbanot is another example. The way to distinguish between such mitzvot and mitzvot that are lekatchila, is when the Torah allows you to do it, but adds many restrictions. The Rambam cites the korbanot as an example, permitted, but only when done by a kohen, only in one specific place, only certain types of animals.
Slavery, even for an eved knani, fits into this category too.

Now, you are correct that the Talmud cites that it is forbidden to free an eved knenani. Nevertheless, it goes on to explain exactly how to free them. It even brings a case of a tanna freeing his slave.

But anyway, to jump from that issur to prove that the Torah wants slavery as a lekatchila, is frankly, a bit of a leap.

10:19 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home