Avdut Mitzrayim and Eved Ivri by Yehuda Koslowe


In a sudden change of fortunes in the beginning of Sefer Shemot, Bnei Yisrael are demoted from their position of power in Mitzrayim, and they become Pharoh’s victims. At the end of Sefer BeReishit, Bnei Yisrael are represented by Yosef, the second-in-command, and they live comfortably in Goshen. Suddenly, about only ten Pesukim into Sefer Shemot, the new Phar’oh conspires against Bnei Yisrael and subjugates them to difficult work described as “Parech” (Shemot 1:13). This unfortunate series of events – enacted against the Jews as a result of Phar’oh’s concerns lest Bnei Yisrael become too numerous and conspire with an Egyptian ally to wage a war against Egypt (1:10) – is the beginning of Bnei Yisrael’s 210 years of Egyptian slavery.

In what might be perceived as an ironic series of events, after Bnei Yisrael’s exodus from Egypt and revelation at Har Sinai, the first laws enumerated are those concerning the Eved Ivri, a Jewish slave who is owned by a fellow Jew. At first glance, it is surprising that the laws explicated first, and thereby emphasized most, to the Jews at Har Sinai were those of Eved Ivri. Would it not have been proper to leave behind the legacy of slavery and move on to a brighter future?

Among the many Rishonim who answer this question is Ramban, who explains (Shemot 21:2 s.v. Ki Tikneh Eved Ivri) that Hashem purposely chose to set forth a set of laws concerning the Eved Ivri after Har Sinai because, among other things, the sending away of an Eved Ivri at the end of seven years serves as a remembrance to Yetziat Mitzrayim. Ramban points specifically to the law of Ha’anakah, essentially a slave’s severance pay, as proof that the constructs of the Eved Ivri parallel Bnei Yisrael’s slavery and exodus from Egypt. Indeed, immediately following the command to release an Eved Ivri with severance, the Torah relates, “VeZacharta Ki Eved Hayita BeEretz Mitzrayim…,” “And you will remember that you were slaves in Egypt” (Devarim 15:14-15). While a simple reading of these two Pesukim suggests that the commandment to release a slave after a relatively short seven year period is a response to our 210 year enslavement, it is also important to realize that the specific law of Ha’anakah after enslavement parallels Hashem’s having mercy on Bnei Yisrael upon their exodus and His ensuring the Bnei Yisrael leave Egypt “BiRechush Gadol,” “with tremendous wealth” (BeReishit 15:14). Just as Hashem provided Bnei Yisrael with material sustenance upon their exodus to ensure that they would not slip back into their slave mentality, each and every Jewish slave owner is commanded to act in a similar manner and provide Ha’anakah upon his slave’s release.

And just as Bnei Yisrael are commanded to release their slaves in a compassionate manner similar to the way in which Hashem mercifully took them out of slavery, Bnei Yisrael are commanded to not treat their slaves as they were mercilessly treated by Phar’oh. In the second set of Pesukim addressing the laws of an Eved Ivri, the Torah relates that a Jewish slave owner must not force his slaves to work “BeFarech” (VaYikra 25:43,46,53). This uncommon and unclear word is used only one other time in the Torah, and that is in describing the kind of work which Bnei Yisrael were forced to do as slaves in Egypt. In essence, Hashem is commanding us to distance ourselves from the cruel slavery of Egypt and instead mimic Hashem’s merciful actions in taking us out of that wretched slavery.

In response to our 210 year slavery in Egypt, the Torah does not wholly ban or ignore the institution of slavery; instead, it addresses the issues directly and prominently, presenting it first among all other laws after Ma’amad Har Sinai. The Torah does not ignore our painful past but rather bears it in mind in setting the course for our existence post-slavery. To ensure that Bnei Yisrael, the abused in Egypt, never become abusers themselves, the Torah presents the laws of an Eved Ivri to serve in contrast to Avdut Mitzrayim and to demonstrate the proper way to treat slaves.

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