Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)
Rabbi David Stav
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
The Torah chooses to begin this list of laws with the laws of slavery, as applied to both men and women. Indeed – to our surprise, and perhaps, our dismay – the Torah sanctions legal slavery, which is systematized by Torah law. The second verse of the parshah reads:
“When you will buy a Hebrew servant, he shall work for six years, and in the seventh, he shall go into freedom, without charge.” (Shemot / Exodus 21:2)
If, when those six years are up, and the servant expresses a desire to keep working for his master, he may do so – only after his ear is punctured with an awl.
When encountering these verses for the first time, contemporary readers shift uneasily in their seats. Just two months after departing Egypt, where we were living as slaves, and only two weeks after hearing the lofty proclamation of “Send out My people, so that they may serve me…” (Shemot / Exodus 7:16), which forbids anyone from ruling over another, obligating everyone to allow their fellow men to worship their God, we would have expected the Torah to issue an unequivocal statement condemning slavery. We would have expected a proclamation no less dramatic than the one Abraham Lincoln made to the American people, which outlawed slavery and ensured the right of every human being to freedom.
Our Sages expressed their discomfort with the idea of slavery. One of the explanations they provide concerns the puncturing of a slave’s ear:
One who had heard My voice on Mount Sinai when I said that “the Children of Israel are My servants”, and not the servants of servants, and had then sold himself to a master, shall be pierced.” (Tractate Kiddushin, 22b)
This, however, doesn’t placate us. If we have such a hard time with slavery, why do we allow it occur?
Our Sages set limits on the possibilities of being sold into slavery, defining two cases. The first is that of a thief whom the court sells into slavery in order to compensate his victims. The second concerns those suffering from financial difficulties, who would be left without a shirt on their backs unless they were sold into slavery. By defining these two cases, the Sages wanted to chart a path that would make it impossible for anyone to be sold into slavery against their will – a common practice in the ancient world.
Rambam (Maimonides) adds that we are forbidden from selling ourselves into slavery to buy tools or goods, effectively ruling out the possibility of human trafficking.
It turns out that if you are unable to uproot a particular practice because it is so deeply entrenched in society, you can moderate it until it becomes something else. The Torah understood that not everyone would be capable of being completely independent, and that most would need to work in the service of others. This is why it created the concept of an “eved ivri”, a Hebrew slave, which is, quite simply, the equivalent to a type of modern employee. Many of today’s employees might desire the conditions the eved ivri had enjoyed under Torah law.
What would work relationships be like? Could an employer mistreat a worker? Would an employer be exempt from providing basic work conditions? Halacha states that a master may not tell his employee to work a field until he returns, or to dig at a particular spot, if this work isn’t needed (Mishna Torah, Laws of Slaves, 1:6), because these types of tasks would be limitless, and would debase and dehumanize the worker.
In fact, the Sages stated that it is forbidden for an employer to order his employee to perform debased tasks, such as carrying his personal effects to the bathhouse, or taking off his shoes. They go as far as saying that those who buy servants are, in essence, buying themselves a master. In other words, employing a servant is quite a headache, after all.
It is impossible, and wrong, to prevent people from employing others. Nonetheless, it would be cruel and unjust to have employees without affording them the basic rights that would guarantee fair wages, and no less importantly, dignified and humane treatment.
In light of this approach, it behooves us to place back on the public agenda the issue of contracted workers who do not enjoy the basic rights of employees in civilized society. The right to proper treatment and protection isn’t reserved for the weakest elements of our society. We need to devote our attention to the rest of the employees in our society, both native and foreign, contracted workers and permanent employees.
Are we treating these people with the proper measure of respect? Respect begins with educating ourselves to say “please” and “thank you”, and ends when we pay fair wages and provide suitable work conditions. The Torah (Devarim / Deuteronomy 15:16) says that an employee is treated properly when “it is good for him [to be] with you”. Is this how employees feel today?