Contemplations of the Life of a Slave

If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he is married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. (Sefer Shemot 21:2-4)

  1. The basic laws of a Jewish servant

Parshat Mishpatim opens by outlining the laws governing the treatment of Jewish servants. There are two ways in which a Jewish person can enter into servitude. First, a person who steals and is unable to make restitution may be sold by the court. Second, a person may sell himself into servitude. This is permitted only if the person is completely destitute and has no other alternative. In either instance, the person must enter into the service of a fellow Jew and not a non-Jew.

Three basic laws are derived from the above passages. First, whether the person is sold by the court or sells himself, the period of service is for no longer than six years. With the onset of the seventh year, the servant is liberated.[1]

Second, the master of the servant may assign to him a non-Jewish servant with whom to procreate. The offspring of this union will be regarded as the children of their mother and share her status as non-Jewish servants.[2] There is an important qualification to this law. The servant may be given a servant- mate only if he enters into servitude with a wife and child. However, if he is unattached when he enters servitude, the master may not assign a servant-mate to the servant.[3]

Third, at the end of his period of servitude, the servant leaves behind his servant-mate and any biological children that were produced by their union.

The Torah’s legitimization of the institution of servitude presents many questions. Perhaps, the most troubling aspect of the institution is the union between the servant and a non-Jewish woman servant. The Torah requires that we marry within our nation and not take a spouse from without. It is remarkable that in this instance, the master may ignore this restriction and that the Jewish servant is required to obey his master’s directive. Furthermore, it is strange that this law applies only to the man entering servitude with a wife and child. Why is having an existing family a prerequisite for being assigned a non-Jewish servant-mate? Moreover, as will be shown, the Torah’s attitude to this strange union is ambiguous and confusing.

But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free; then his master shall bring him unto the judges, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever. (Sefer Shemot 21:5-6)

  1. The servant who wishes to extend his period of servitude

The above passages explain that the period of servitude can be extended beyond six years. A servant who wishes to extend his servitude beyond six years is taken to court. There, his ear is pierced. With the taking of this measure, his servitude is extended to the Jubilee year – the Yovel. With the arrival of the Yovel, the servant’s freedom is restored whether or not he wishes so.

Why would a person wish to extend his servitude beyond the required period? The passages address this issue. As explained above, when one leaves servitude, he is required to abandon his servant-mate and the children of that union. This may be a heart-rending expectation that the servant is unwilling to accept upon himself. Second, he may have developed a very close relationship with his master and not wish to be separated from him. The Torah is very solicitous of the rights of the servant. A considerable set of laws regulate the master’s treatment of his servant. These laws are designed to assure that the master cares for his servant’s welfare. Also, he is forbidden to oppress the servant or to subject him to unreasonable labors. This combination of care and reasonable labor may be an improvement over the servant’s previous condition. He may not be eager to return to the challenges that previously overwhelmed him.

The passages do not provide much insight into the significance of piercing the servant’s ear. However, Rashi explains that the pierced ear is intended to be a sign of disgrace.[4] In other words, although the servant is permitted to extend his period of servitude, he is discouraged from doing so.

The Torah’s negative attitude toward servitude becomes even more pronounced with the arrival of the Yovel. As explained, at the arrival of the Yovel, the servant must leave his master. His freedom is restored whether or not he seeks it. The Talmud explains that the master is even permitted to use force in ejecting his former servant from his home. If in the course of using necessary force the servant is harmed, the master is not held responsible. The Talmud explains that the reason the master is permitted to resort to force is that the servant is now forbidden to continue his relationship with his servant-mate. The master is acting properly using force to separate these parties.[5] It is amazing that the strange relationship between the servant and the non-Jewish mate was initially permitted and with the arrival of the Yovel is regarded with such extreme disfavor that the master may use force to terminate it!

For unto Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am Hashem your G-d. (Sefer VaYikra 25:55)

  1. The problem with servitude

Let us put aside our questions regarding the Torah’s strange attitude toward the servant’s union with a non-Jewish mate, and more carefully consider its attitude toward the basic institution of servitude. It is clear from the above discussion that the Torah’s attitude is measured and nuanced. Servitude is permitted and even utilized by the courts. However, its nature and duration are carefully restricted. The welfare of the servant is protected by a body of regulations. The duration is restricted to six years. It may be extended at the insistence of the servant, but he is discouraged with the threat of stigmatization. In no event, may he enter into a permanent state of servitude. With the Yovel, he is liberated – even against his will.

These various aspects of the institution suggest that the Torah viewed servitude as an innately destructive state – dangerous for both the master and servant. Yet, in some instances the state is justified or even required. Servitude is treated like a form of chemotherapy. It is terribly toxic. But it may save the life of a cancer patient.

Rashi identifies the reason for the Torah’s cautious attitude toward servitude. Every person should respond to a single master – Hashem. A servant has a second master.[6] Both from a practical and from the psychological perspective, his devotion to Hashem as his sole master are compromised. Psychologically, his master assumes the role of a powerful authority in his life. Practically, he cannot devote himself to the development of his relationship with Hashem. He has given up control over his own life and placed in the hands of another.[7]

Why did the Torah allow servitude? Apparently, it is only permitted as a rehabilitative measure. Because it is intended as a rehabilitative measure, it must be temporary. Its goal is to address the behaviors and attitudes, the personal chaos, and desperation that led to either abject poverty or crime. The goal is to return the servant to the normative state – personal freedom. When the servant seeks to extend his servitude, he is defeating its very purpose.

In short, a healthy person devotes oneself to a personal mission and journey of ongoing spiritual development – a journey to come closer to G-d. Freedom provides the opportunity to pursue this mission and travel on this journey. Servitude diverts a person from this mission and journey.

… that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be sacred unto your G-d.

I am Hashem your G-d, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, to be your G-d: I am Hashem your G-d. (Sefer BeMidbar 15:40-41)

  1. The servant’s relationship with his servant-mate is biological

Understanding the phenomenon of the servant’s non-Jewish mate requires that we refocus on two essential details. First, this relationship is only permitted when the servant enters servitude with a family to whom he is attached and bound. He will remain the father and husband in that family during his period of servitude and beyond. Second, the servant who is assigned a non-Jewish servant-mate will procreate with that partner but he will never succeed in creating a family. He cannot marry this non-Jewish partner. The children will be his biological offspring but halachah will not recognize a familial relationship between them. They will be servants, like their mother. They will not be his true children or he their father.

What is the nature of the relationship between the servant and this servant-mate? What is its tenor and meaning? It is not a family. It is more a biological relationship than a spiritual union. It is pitted against the family life that the servant enjoys with his true wife and family. It is a comparison that is intended to demonstrate its shallowness when compared to his life in his real family. The intent is to frame the relationship with the servant-mate as reflecting a loss of dignity and a commentary on the servant’s humanity.

This relationship communicates a very powerful message. The servant is a diminished individual. He cannot devote himself to the mission and journey that is the foundation of our humanity. His sacredness as a member of the nation of Israel is compromised by his servitude. Because of the compromise of his sanctity, this relationship with the servant-mate becomes permitted. This biological relationship is permitted and appropriate because the loss of personal freedom must be understood and recognized as a terrible defect in one’s humanity. On the continuum of lifestyles between human and beast this person has moved closer toward the lifestyle of the beast.

  1. Choosing freedom in our own lives

We are not servants. However, we do make decisions that impact our personal freedom. The lesson of this Torah section is that we must set priorities. We need to ask ourselves difficult questions and answer them honestly. What are our lives about? What do we expect to accomplish? Do we have the freedom to achieve our goals or have we accepted upon ourselves masters who divert us from our missions and journeys? Do we have the courage to reject those masters?


[1] Rashi, Shemot 21:2 explains that the above passages are dealing with the laws governing a person sold into servitude by the court. However, he maintains that the six-year limit on the period of servitude applies also to a person who sells himself into servitude. The Sages actually dispute this issue. Maimonides adopts the position that a person who sells himself into servitude may bind himself to his master for a longer period (Hilchot Avadim 2:3).

[2] This law applies to a person sold into servitude by the court. Some Sages extend it to a person who sold himself. Maimonides rules that a non-Jewish servant is forbidden to a person who sells himself into servitude (Hilchot Avadim 3:3).

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avadim 3:4. Rashi, Shemot 21:3 notes that the servant must enter servitude with a wife but does not mention that he must also have children.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 21:6.

[5] Mesechet Baba Kamma 28a.

[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 21:6.

[7] For more thorough discussion of this issue see Rav Reuven Mann, Eved Ivri , TTL C-056.