This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, can be translated as “the Parashah of Laws”. Until this point, the Torah had yet to extensively delineate its laws. Sefer BeReishit is largely narrative, and while it as well as Sefer Shemot does contain several Mitzvot, the presentation of the bulk of the 613 Mitzvot begins with the Aseret HaDibrot, which we read last week in Parashat Yitro. Chazal viewed these Ten Commandments as broad categories which somehow encompass many other more specific and detailed Mitzvot. Now our Parashah begins the recording of these hundreds of laws, containing 53 Mitzvot. These include many examples of civil law as well as rules relating to Kashrut and various holidays, prohibitions against idolatry, and general moral principles. I would like to focus on the very first of these Mitzvot, which deal with the institution of Eved Ivri, laws regarding a Jewish servant.
The basis for these laws is the principle that if a man steals and has no way to pay when he is caught, he can be sold into servitude to another Jewish person for a maximum of six years, with the sum paid for his work going to repay his debt. At first glance, this seems to be simply a practical way for the thief to pay for his crime. But, if this is just about repaying the victim of a theft, why are the laws regarding an Eved Ivri separated from all the other laws regarding stolen objects, which are enumerated 25 Pesukim later? Furthermore, why does the Torah begin the recording of the bulk of its hundreds of Mitzvot with this particular set of laws? Why not begin with some more general principle, such as the notion of equal justice for all or the Mitzvah of lending money to the poor, both of which are included in Parashat Mishpatim? Interestingly, the the Sefer HaChinuch, which tries to explain the fundamental ideas in each Mitzvah, does not even include the victim’s compensation as one of the root ideas in the institution of Eved Ivri. What, then, is its primary purpose?
A careful reading of the laws of an Eved Ivri shows that there is a great deal of emphasis placed on insuring that he be treated well. For example, if the servant has a family, the owner must provide accommodations and support for the servant’s family as well. We are also taught that the servant cannot be asked to do humiliating work. Ideally, he should be employed to do work for which he was trained, and which he did previous to becoming a slave. The Rambam (Hilchot Avadim 1:7) points out that, although one can ask an ordinary worker to do all sorts of work, the Torah was especially concerned about the self-image of the Eved Ivri, because he is already humbled by his current situation as a servant. The need to ensure that he is not treated as a second-class citizen goes so far that the Gemara (Kiddushin 20a) suggests if there are not enough pillows in the household for the master and the Eved, the available ones should go first to the servant and his family. Summing up all the various obligations of the master to the servant, the Gemara there concludes: “One who acquires a servant has, in effect, acquired a master”. Finally, when the six years of work are concluded, the master is commanded: Do not send him out penniless; rather, send him out with a grant of items like livestock and grain that will sustain him in the future.”
It seems fairly obvious that the institution of Eved Ivri was intended not only to repay a debt but, perhaps even more importantly, to rehabilitate a person who had sunk to a very low level and to make him independent once again. In fact, the Ramban (on Shemot 21:2) explains that Parashat Mishpatim begins with the laws of an Eved Ivri because the servant’s emergence into freedom after the sixth year is reminiscent of the Jewish people’s Exodus from Egypt, and also reminiscent of the six days of creation which were followed by the Shabbat. Consequently, one could say that the institution of Eved Ivri, like the original days of creation, is intended to end with the creation of a new person with a true sense of freedom.
If after the six years are over, the Eved prefers to remain a servant in his master’s home, he may remain an Eved, but first, he is brought to court, and at the doorpost of the court his ear is pierced. According to the Gemara, this symbolizes Hashem’s disappointment with the servant’s unwillingness to seize his opportunity to be free. As the Gemara puts it (Kiddushin 22b), “The ear of this person, who heard my voice at Mt. Sinai when I said, in reference to the Jubilee year, ‘for the people of Israel are servants to Me, they are my servants’ (VaYikra 25:55), not servants to others, and then went and acquired a master for himself, this ear should be pierced.”
Thus the laws of Eved Ivri not only teach us the importance of freedom, but that the Torah view of freedom involves being a servant of Hashem. This is expressed most clearly by a Midrash regarding the Ten Commandments which were engraved (Charut in Hebrew) on the stone tablets. Noting that the word Charut (for engraved) comprises the same letters – Chet, Reish, Taf – as Cheirut, the Hebrew word for freedom, the Midrash teaches: “Do not call the commandments ‘Charut’, but rather call the commandments ‘Cheirut’, because no one is as free as one who follows the Torah.”