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Oh, Freedom!

Why did the Torah allow the impoverished to be sold into slavery, instead of forcing the rich to support them? And how can we learn to deal with thieves from the Torah?


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

In honor of the past Shabbat's Torah portion Mishpatim, I will examine a commandment that is a bit difficult to understand in modern times.

The Commandment of Jubilee and the Law of a Hebrew Slave

When Yoval (the Jubilee year, which is the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita [Sabbatical years]) was observed, a Jew was allowed to sell himself into slavery at any time before that year, and Beit Din (a religious court) was permitted to sell a person caught stealing who had no money to pay it back.

However, when the Yovel is not observed, a Jew is not permitted to sell himself into slavery, because only when the foundation of freedom is established by means of the commandment of Yovel which frees all slaves, can the institution of slavery be used to solve such problems (Talmud Archin 29a).

First I will explain the biblical commandments, and then examine what will occur when all of Israel returns to reside in their land and the commandment of Yovel is observed.

When was a Jew Sold into Slavery?

According to the Torah, there were only two ways a Jew could be sold as a slave:

1) If he was so sorely impoverished that he had no food to eat, the Torah gave him permission to sell himself as a slave.

2) A thief who was caught and could not pay back what he stole, Beit Din would sell him as a slave (Rambam (Maimonides), Laws of Slaves 1:1).

A person sold into slavery by Beit Din was sold for six years at the most, and if the Jubilee year arrived before the end of six years, he was set free in the Jubilee year.

If he worked for six years and wished to continue working as a slave, his ear is pierced with an awl before the Beit Din, and he continues working for his master until the Jubilee year, or until his master dies.

All this concerns a thief sold by Beit Din, but a person who sells himself due to poverty may sell himself for more than six years. When the Yovel arrives, he is set free (Rambam ibid, 2:2, 4; 3:6-11), as it is written: "You shall sanctify the fiftieth year, declaring emancipation [of slaves] all over the world. This is your Jubilee year, when each man shall return to his hereditary property and to his family"(Leviticus 25:10).

Why does the Torah Agree to Slavery?

Freedom is a central foundation in the Torah, and therefore one could properly ask: How could the Torah agree with slavery? However, we must realize that the Torah does not force a person to go against nature, because nature, with all its faults, is a Divine creation that provides a person a platform on which he can correct and complete himself.

The Torah does not intervene in economic market forces but allows them to flow independently, while setting moral boundaries and ethical direction indicating the path for improvement and spiritual elevation.

In times of severe shortage, without the framework of slavery, those same people who were unable to support themselves because either they were unproductive, inefficient, or because their land had been usurped, would starve to death. Slavery enabled them to survive and have children, who today are free people. Occasionally, slaves actually managed to survive better than the poor people who were free.

Therefore, the Torah did not prohibit slavery, but set moral boundaries for it, as the Torah says: "If your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you, do not work him like a slave. He shall be with you just like an employee or a resident hand. He shall serve you only until the Jubilee year, and then he and his children shall be free to leave you and to return to their family. He shall thus return to the hereditary land of his ancestors. This is because I brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and they are My slaves. They shall not be sold [in the market place] as slaves. Do not dominate [such a slave] to break his spirit, since you must fear your God"(Leviticus 25:39-43).

Left-wing Social Purists

At this point, one would expect the left-wing purists to reprove the holy Torah, arguing: "The rich should have to support the poor, rather than agreeing to slavery!" In response, we must say that although the mitzvah of charity is indeed very important, nevertheless, if the rich were obligated to support the poor, the economy would be severely damaged (as in Communist countries), to the point where people would starve.

Left-wing purists would not budge from their position, saying:"Better they should die, but not accept discrimination and slavery". But since our Torah is the Book of Life, and does not gamble on the lives of human beings and society like left-wing purists’ have done in our times, the Torah guides the real lives of people on the path leading to redemption.

Laws of a Masters Behavior towards his Slave

The Torah, therefore, does not interfere with economic market forces, rather sets moral boundaries and ethical direction for advancement. I will mention the main laws relating to the relationship between a master and his servant:

It is forbidden to make any Hebrew servant perform excruciating labor. What is excruciating labor? Labor that has no limit, or labor that is unnecessary and is asked of the servant with the intent to give him work so that he will not remain idle. Based on the above, our Sages said that a master should not tell a Hebrew servant: "Hoe under the vines until I come," for he has not placed a limit on the work asked of him. Instead, he should tell him: "Hoe until this and this time," or "until you reach this and this place."

It is also forbidden to make him perform debasing tasks. Although it is permitted to hire a free person to perform such tasks, the servant, whose self-image is depressed because of his being sold, is more sensitive, and therefore it is forbidden to humiliate with such tasks (Rambam, 1:7, 8).

The Slave’s Standard of Living is Equal to that of his Master

A master is obligated to treat any Hebrew servant or maid servant as his equal with regard to food, drink, clothing and living quarters, as it is written: "For it is good for him with you" (Deuteronomy 15:16). The master should not eat bread made from fine flour while the servant eats bread from coarse flour. The master should not drink aged wine while the servant drinks fresh wine. The master should not sleep on cushions while the servant sleeps on straw. On this basis, our Sages said: "Whoever purchases a Hebrew servant purchases a master for himself" (Talmud Kiddushin 21a; Rambam ibid 1:9).

A master who purchases a married servant is obligated to provide for the sustenance of his wife and children equally, even though his wife and children are not obligated to work. This applies to a wife or children the servant had at the time he was sold, or a wife and children that he acquired after the sale, provided he married with the consent of his master (Rambam ibid 3:1-2). If, however, the servant married without the consent of his master, the master is not obligated to provide for her sustenance.

Being Sold to a Gentile

A Hebrew servant who is sold by the court is sold only to a native-born Israelite or to a convert to Judaism. Similarly, a person who sells himself as a servant due to poverty is not permitted to sell himself to a gentile, but if he transgresses and sells himself to a gentile, even if the gentile is an idol worshipper, the sale is binding (Rambam ibid 1:3).

And although he has transgressed, it is a mitzvah for his relatives to redeem him, so that he will not become assimilated among the gentiles. If his relatives do not redeem him, and he does not attain the funds to redeem himself, it is a mitzvah for every Jew to redeem him, and they pay the master according to the number of years remaining till the Jubilee (Rambam ibid, 2:7-8). If he is not redeemed he is not released except in the Jubilee.

A Convert Is Not Sold into Slavery

A convert may not sell himself as a servant. This is derived from the verse: "And he shall return to his family" (Leviticus 25:41) – i.e., it is speaking about someone who has a family within the Jewish faith who he can return to when released in the Jubilee, and thus, even in his years of slavery, he would not lose the thread of hope of freedom, and then be able to rehabilitate. But the convert who has no family from his parents’ side to return to it, is not sold.

Perhaps this is why there is a double command in the Torah to love the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:19), that since he has no land inheritance and possibility of being a slave, a greater effort must be made to support him through charity. Furthermore, this does not violate the economic balance, in as much as they are a small minority of exceptions.

When the Jubilee Returns

Apparently, even when the Jubilee returns a person will not be permitted to sell himself into slavery, for we have already learned that only when a person has nothing to eat, is he permitted to sell himself into slavery. And today, as a result of the development of agriculture and the rise in living standards, society is able to ensure that a person will not go hungry.

Nonetheless, in principle, thieves who cannot pay back what they have stolen, could be sold as slaves. But as a result of the rise of the values of freedom and liberty, it is unlikely a slave would obey his master loyally, and as a result no one will want to buy slaves.

The Solution for Thieves

Perhaps there is room to offer a solution of partial imprisonment for thieves, combined with useful work. This will enable us to fulfill the Torah’s instruction regarding the sale of a thief into slavery, whereby the thief tries his best to return what he has stolen, and in the process rehabilitates himself by acquiring valuable work habits, while taking an example from hard-working, decent people.

Seemingly, to facilitate this there is no need to wait until the Jubilee returns, rather, such solutions of rehabilitating thieves should be implemented today – each inmate according to the field in which he can excel the most – whether it be manual work or high tech.

This proposal is preferable to today’s prison sentences, in which the prisoner gets used to a life of idleness and does not return even the slightest amount of his debts, on the contrary – he even learns from his fellow inmates how to be a more professional and sophisticated criminal. The mixing of thieves with rapists and murderers does not contribute to their rehabilitation, but rather the opposite. The guards themselves are also not selected for their lofty attributes, because their job is to impose order and not to be an employer who educates and motivates the thief to be diligent and efficient in his work, and in order to do so, must sometimes use punitive measures.

Current Improvements

It should be noted that today there are already various programs to rehabilitate prison inmates, which most probably have been influenced by the spirit of the Torah, directly or indirectly.

For example, religious study halls were established in prisons, which although do not educate towards work from which the prisoner can make a living afterwards, but nevertheless, the prisoners are taught Torah there, and their subsequent rehabilitation is more successful.

Likewise, I must also mention with merit the option of inmates working within the prisons.

Nevertheless, this is still far from the point of view we have learned in the Torah, according to which the person being rehabilitated lives in a normative society, and part of his sentence is intense and difficult work, whose wages are directed to repaying his debts.

Preparation for a Life of Freedom

In summary: Quite unlike the conventional perception of slavery, the type of slavery the Torah speaks about is designed to educate the slave and form his personality into being a free man.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ Hebrew weekly newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.
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