INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
This week, we descend from the formidable heights of Mount Sinai to the
nitty gritty of human living. Rather
than talking of revelation and Godly encounter, we read about slaves, homicide,
lost property, negligent watchmen, accidental damage, wild oxen, compensation
for bodily harm. There could not be
a greater contrast between the epic images of last week's parasha and the
mundane legalistic detail of our parasha this week.
This contrast is encapsulated in a discussion about a single letter. It is the letter "vav" which opens
our parasha "VE-eileh ha-mishpatim" - "AND these are the laws." Rashi comments (21:1):
"This word 'VE-eileh' indicates a direct connection with the preceding
narrative. Just like the earlier
laws are from Sinai, so are these from Sinai."
Rashi has a question. Our
parasha begins with an opening title.
It is a new heading informing the reader that we are about to discuss
"mishpatim," societal laws, civil law.
Is this the opening of a new chapter independent and unrelated to earlier
events or is the word "AND," which opens our parasha, a link to what came
before? Rashi answers that there is
indeed a connection. The change in
mood and subject matter does not signify a change in status. This is not a move from core
theological issues to the peripheral world of legal intricacy. The opening "vav" links the
"mishpatim" (social laws) to the earlier revelation. There is no contradiction between the
lofty heights of Mount Sinai and the laws which govern a street brawl, an
irresponsible watchman, a dangerous pet.
This is one story, a single homogeneous text.
HEADLINES AND THE SMALL PRINT
Rashi proclaims the text as a single body but he does not explain the
sudden move from the grandiose to the detailed?
How exactly are these two very different texts connected? Nachmanides's opening comment to our
parasha draws a connection between the detail of our parasha and the Ten
Commandments. He says:
"The midrash (Shemot Rabba 30:15) writes that the entire Torah rests on Justice
(mishpat) and it is for this reason that the "mishpatim" - laws of social
justice - are juxtaposed to the Ten Commandments.
This parasha simply elaborates on the laws that have already been listed
in the Ten Commandments: idolatry, respect and care for parents, murder and
According to Nachmanides, the Ten Commandments are the headlines, and the
"mishpatim" are the small print. The
Ten Commandments reveal only broad group headings for certain general areas of
law. God reveals principles: the
belief in God and the negation of idolatry, homicide, property damage etc. Our parasha comes in order to
specify. It comes to bring the
general commands of the revelation "do not kill ... do not steal" down to earth
and to apply them in their real-life applications. Thus we read of disputes over
property (22:9), domestic and street violence (21:15,18,22-25), human negligence
and carelessness (21:32;22:4-13) and many other very human situations. We DO have a drastic change of style. We are descending from heaven to
earth, from the guidelines of revelation, to their practical application. The Shadal, R. Shmuel Luzatto (19th
cent. Italy) summarizes in the following way:
"THESE ARE THE JUDGMENTS: "mishpat" comes from the verb "to judge" and its
meaning is the verdict that a judge would give in a courtroom. The commands "Do not murder, do not
commit adultery, do not steal" are not 'judgments.' Rather, they are principles, and
primary tools which the public do not need to hear by pronouncement of a judge,
because they are part of the moral consensus.
But the laws in this parasha are cases, branches of those principles,
where there is likely to be public disagreement between people, hence the need
for a judge to pronounce the law.
That is why these laws are described as 'judgments.'"
Our parasha is thus the parasha of revelation - not the experience of
revelation, but its content. This is
the parasha of God's law. We read
how to conduct a just and fair society according to the guidelines set down by
God. Indeed, it is typical of the
Jewish legal system - Halakha - to open with the intricate human situations
which we find ourselves in from time to time.
Halakha shies away from no problem.
The Torah is a living Torah in that it provides guidance in every area of
If this is so, let us begin to examine the first law of our parasha. It relates to the Jewish slave. We will begin by examining the
passage as it appears in the Torah:
"When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year
he shall go free, for nothing. If he
came in single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave
with him. If his master gave him a
wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to
the master, and he shall leave alone.
But if the slave declares, 'I love my master, and my wife and my
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
remain his slave for life" (21:2-6).
Many have raised their moral eyebrows at this opening to the great Torah
code of civil law. Slavery is
something that we would expect the Torah - with its deliberate sensitivity to
human suffering - to outlaw. Does
Torah really approve of slavery?
We can go further. Are the
Israelites not a slave-nation themselves?
They have just freed themselves of the shackles of slavery. Are they already contemplating having
slaves of their own? Moreover, it
would seem that this opening law flies in the face of the very first
commandment. Were we not told
"I am the Lord ... who took you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of slavery."
Slavery would seem to be the antithesis of our acceptance of God!
RAISING THE STATUS OF THE
"The Torah, whose "ways are pleasant" and merciful, opened its 'judgments' with
the law of a man-slave and maidservant who in ancient times were thought of and
treated as animals. No judge would
hear their case in court or take up their grievance against their master."
These are the opening lines of Luzzato's commentary to this section. His voice joins an entire school of
philosophers and commentators who all perceive the Jewish institution of slavery
and its laws as aiming to raise the living conditions, and humanize the status
of the slave. We do not need to be
told of the sub-human conditions and legal status to which slaves were subjected
in the ancient world. The Torah in
its laws of the slave come to soften, and if at all possible, eradicate, the
institution of slavery. We will give
a few examples.
As recorded clearly in our parasha, the slave is to be sold for a limited
period only. A Jewish slave cannot be sold
for a period exceeding a six-year stretch.
It is in the seventh year (the Sabbatical year) that he automatically
gains his freedom. The Torah
explicitly instructs us to ensure that when the slave completes his slavery, he
leaves his master's home with the means of supporting himself:
"When you send him away from you, you may not send him empty-handed ... And
remember that you were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed you, which is why I am
commanding you in this matter" (Deut. 15:13-14).
Other laws are relevant here which certainly show a great deal of
sensitivity to the slave. The slave
rests together with the entire household on the Sabbath (Ex 20:10). If a master hits his slave and knocks
out his tooth or eye, the slave gains automatic freedom (21:26-27). If a master kills his slave, the
master is put to death (21:20 and Rashi).
If a slave escapes from his master we are instructed to shelter him
rather than informing his master (Deut 23:16-17).
Look at the parallels in other cultures of the time. In the ancient code of the Hammurabi,
the runaway slave is put to death; there are no restrictions placed on the
extent to which a master may beat his slave for a slave is his property. The slave is a chattel, a piece of
Who is the Hebrew slave that we are talking about? Why would one Jew buy another Jew? Why would a Jew sell himself into
slavery? Rashi (v. 2) explains that
this is a person who has fallen on hard times and cannot meet his debts (See
Lev. 25:39). Alternatively, we are
talking of a situation where the courts have sold a person who has stolen and
did not have the financial means to repay his debt (based on 22:2). In both cases, this is a tremendous
opportunity for the slave. Rather
than being left to fend for themselves, getting deeper and deeper into debt,
they are offered a place in a home which has to have a high regard for their
dignity and humanity. The likelihood
of achieving such conditions in any other way was almost impossible.
"This is the one and only case in which the Torah orders deprivation of freedom
as a punishment; and how does it order it?
It orders the criminal to be brought into the life of a family as we
might expect a refractory child to be brought under the influence of Jewish family life ...
How careful is it that the self-confidence of the criminal should not be broken
... it insists that he may not be separated from his wife and family ... In
depriving him of his liberty, and thereby the means to provide for his
dependents, the Torah puts the responsibility of caring for them, on those who
... have the benefit of his labors" (Hirsch 21:6).
We must add something of the Jewish legal restrictions of a master
vis-a-vis his slave. In our parasha,
the slave is pictured as saying "I love my master" and desiring to stay for a
further period of slavery. This
shows that slavery, in the mind of the Torah, could be a situation that a slave
would wish to continue of his own volition.
Why? R. Samson Raphael Hirsch
once again relates to the way in which the Torah
"demands complete equality of the slave with his master and the rest of the
household, in food, clothing and bedding, so much so that it became a popular
saying "Who buys a Jewish slave for himself has acquired for himself a master." The moral responsibility is great on
both sides, 'The master must treat the slave as a brother and the slave must
treat himself and behave as a slave'(Kiddushin 22a)" (Hirsch 21:5).
HUMAN MASTERS AND GOD
The slave who wishes to remain with his master has his ear pierced. He is taken to the doorpost and his
ear punctured. Why? According to tradition, this ritual
reminds us of earlier events. The
blood of the ear against the doorpost reminds us of the blood which was daubed
on the doorposts of Jews on the night of our freedom from Egyptian slavery. The Torah wishes the freedom of
Everyman. The slave who prefers the
security and comfort of the artificial environment of slavery - the world where
he is taken care of and his worries are dealt with by others - and is willing to
trade his freedom and liberty for that comfort, is scorned by the Torah. The Talmud asks:
"Why the doorpost of all the parts of the house?
God said, 'This is the very doorway that were my witnesses in Egypt when
I passed over the lintels and doorposts of the houses of Israel. It was then that I said 'The children
of Israel will be slaves to me' and not slaves to My slaves, the people who I
took from slavery to freedom. Now
this person has deliberately acted to acquire a (human) master for himself - let
his ear be pierced before that doorpost'" (Kiddushin 22b).
The Talmud continues:
"Why was the ear singled out from all other limbs of the body? God said, 'The ear which heard my
voice at Mt. Sinai saying 'The Children of Israel are My slaves and not slaves
to others slaves' and went and acquired a master for himself, let his ear be
Both of these texts stress a fundamental principle of our faith. It is the same principle which
establishes the mention of freedom at the head of the decalogue. The principle states that God freed
us from servitude in Egypt in order to serve Him.
This may be stated in one of two ways.
First, the prerequisite for service of God is the free, unpressured
choice of that service. Second, the
service of God is the meaning and goal of our free lives. When God freed us from Egypt, we were
freed to serve another master. Our
new master was not human, He was of a divine nature.
"I am the Lord your God who brought you out ... of the house of slavery" (20:2).
"It is to me that the Israelites are servants, they are my servants who I freed
from the Land of Egypt" (Lev 25:55).
The man who desires human slavery is limiting his freedom. He is returning to the conditions of
Egypt. He desires a human master and
is unable to have a direct encounter with the Master of the Universe. He does not have the freedom to make
his own decisions, to fulfill his spiritual potential to the full. This is because he is answerable to
another human being and not solely to God.
It is for this reason that slaves are freed in the Sabbatical year, a
year when the entire nation focus their attention on God. It is for this reason that the slave
may not work on Shabbat. It is for
this reason that the slave has to brand his body if he chooses to ignore the
spiritual call of the Sabbatical year and continue to serve a human lord.
We have spoken of the moral and religious significance of slavery from
the perspective of the enslaved and from the vantage point of the master. The master must protect the rights of
the slave whereas the slave is to try and become a God-fearing free citizen.
24:12 for a stronger expression of this view.