Mishpatim: The Willing Slave

The indentured servant can choose to remain a slave, but not forever.

Table for Five: Mishpatim

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life. Ex. 21:5-6


Rabbi Peretz Rodman, Head of Israel’s Masorti/Conservative Bet Din

An indentured Israelite (here, eved means “servant,” not “slave”) offered freedom might face a horrible prospect: if his master had given him a wife, she and any offspring would remain the master’s. From an economic perspective, not so unfair.

For the servant, though, this law is draconian: take your pick—lifelong servitude, or fidelity to your family. Unless you resented the forced marriage, your dilemma is cruel. Remain and forfeit your independence and freedom forever (unlike the six-year term of indenture). Or leave and sever ties with your wife. How would she be treated? Children you’d fathered would answer to another man lacking the same paternal connection. What would their lives be like?

One possible solution: accept freedom, work to amass capital, and buy your wife’s and children’s freedom. That would take time. That might never happen; after all, you had been forced into indenture because of poverty, so something about your land or assets or abilities might well be deficient.

The later reworking of this law in Deuteronomy addresses these concerns. It requires a manumission gift, stated in language critical of the earlier practice: “When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed” (Deut. 15:3). He is given assets of unspecified value—which could be applied to the purchase and freeing of his family.

We are heirs to a tradition of amending harsh law for the benefit of those most disadvantaged, and that tradition begins already within our Torah, whose essence is ḥesed—kindness.


Dini Coopersmith, Educational Director, Women’s Reconnection Trips, reconnectiontrips.com

When I initially saw this verse, I groaned inwardly. What could I possibly write about a Jewish slave that would be relevant? And then I learned this message of the Nesivos Shalom: Sometimes, he says, we get so entrenched in the material world, that we lose our identity as a Jew, an Israelite and go back to being a “Hebrew” – a slave to our physical desires.

This Hebrew has the opportunity to re-capture his essence on Shabbat, a spiritual day of meditation and holiness. “And on the seventh (Shabbat) he can leave and be free”. But if even after seven years of Sabbaths, he still has not been inspired by a life of meaning, and instead says, “I love my master, my wife and children” – I like being a slave to my physical urges and have no wish to redeem myself, at that point, his ear is pierced, an indication that he has abdicated his right to return to his lofty status as a Jew.

But even so, his situation is not hopeless. That “he will remain a slave for life,” say the commentaries, does not mean forever. It is 50 years – the Jubilee year. Shabbat remains a day of inspiration for us all, even after many years of disaffiliation, disenchantment and materialism. God never gives up on us. Perhaps, after many more cycles of Sabbaths (7×7), this Hebrew will wake up one day, finally experience the power of meaningful connection with the Almighty, and re-establish himself as a Jew!


Rabbi Jason Rosner, Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park

Maimonides, writing in the 12th century CE, attempts to place the Torah in historical context. These verses discuss an adult male Hebrew debt slave. His master assigns him a wife and they have children. Upon his manumission, his family would remain property and he would be separated from them, but his feelings are taken into account.

Maimonides argues that the Israelite version of slavery in the Torah is a leap forward from the slavery practiced in the second millennium BCE (which would have forced the family to separate). He states that the Torah was designed to gradually curb some of the more brutal aspects of the Near Eastern society of the period (Guide for the Perplexed 3:32). God’s goal is to move humankind away from slavery and sacrifice, towards prayer and contemplation.

The Torah suggests intermediate steps such as considering the feelings and emotional attachments of slaves and replacing child-sacrifice with animal-sacrifice. Maimonides expands the ethical minimum for slaves: they should be well fed and not given useless or endless work in the manner the Egyptians used to oppress the Israelites (Mishneh Torah – Slaves 9:8).

Modern society no longer condones slavery (or animal sacrifice) and these verses could be read as an embarrassing liability rather than progress. Seen through our eyes, this attempt to improve the legal condition of slaves remains an endorsement of the institution of slavery. And just as we look back at previous societies, future generations will look back at us. How will we be viewed?


Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Rav Beit Sefer of Pressman Academy, Director of STARS Addiction Recovery

From the literal text, it might make perfect sense that the slave wants to stay with his master. He has a wife, children, a place to stay, and according to our tradition, he is treated fairly well. The understanding of his pierced ear is due to the fact that he is enslaved because he stole, one of the holy Ten Commandments received at Mt. Sinai. Since the ear heard “Thou shall not steal” and committed this transgression, the ear is pierced.

There is a deeper issue here that we can all relate to. We are each enslaved to something that we don’t want to walk away from. It is easier to remain status quo as opposed to making the change.

Making a change in our lives is a difficult but rewarding proposition. Working with recovering addicts, this is a constant theme. I have a job, a partner, a place to live and at the moment things don’t seem bad. Why rock the boat? Why not stay in my position as opposed to wandering out of my own path and going into the unknown, i.e. sobriety?

The verse teaches us that just because something is comfortable or what we are used to doesn’t mean it is what is best for us. On the contrary, we are here to grow, improve and push ourselves. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “The day you were born is the day G-d decided the world could not exist without you.” Such a world needs more than a slave to the status quo.


Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon, Spiritual leader, Congregation Ner Tamid, San Francisco

The door to freedom is open. The Jewish bondman stands on the precipice, his destiny again in his hands. But he does not move. His heart is torn in two, as he declares: “I love my wife and children; I do not wish to go free.” This family – imposed by the master and bred in captivity – is more precious than his liberty.

We cringe at the ritual of the pierced ear and bemoan the perpetuity of the enslavement, but at the heart of this verse lies undeniable, astonishing pathos, sacrifice, and devotion. A slave I might still be, says the “eved ivri,” but I am a willing slave to love.

Countless families in the antebellum South faced the same unbearable choice when one of their number was offered “freedom.” Some, like our ancient ancestor, chose to remain yoked to the plantations for love of their spouses and children. But the physical and psychological scars lasted generations, maybe even “l’olam,” forever.

From the slave markets to the Trail of Tears, from Japanese internment camps to the separation of migrant families at the border in our own historical moment, the cry of those in servitude pierces the soul. Let there be a reckoning of the soul. May compassion reign and mercy flow like water, for no one should ever have to choose between freedom or family. A life of forced servitude is a life without dignity, and a life torn from loved ones is not a free life at all.

With thanks to Rabbi Peretz Rodman, Dini Coopersmith, Rabbi Jason Rosner, Rabbi Chaim Tureff. and Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon.

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