In studying my bar mitzvah parshah, I delved into the subject of slavery, comparing the Jewish concept of servitude with slavery as it existed in the pre-Civil War South. To find out more on this subject I studied with Rabbi Shmuel Silber, and we reviewed the relevant sections in Parshat Mishpatim, Sefer Hachinuch, Ramban and Masechet Kiddushin. As I found out, these two forms of slavery were more different then I thought.
In fact, the word for the Jewish “slave” is sometimes translated as a servant. The differences could not be more significant. The main difference between these two is how the master relates to his servant.
In the Jewish system of servitude, if a person was experiencing financial hardship he would be able to “sell” himself into service. The “buyer” would then pay off the debt and in return would get a certain number of years of work. This allowed for someone to free themselves from debt without having to accept charity; he could repay his debt and still feel like a productive member of society. According to some of the commentaries, taking a Jewish servant is a form of chesed, of kindness.
There were many ways for the Jewish servant to get out of his servitude. He could complete the required seven years of service; he could buy himself out of the remaining years of servitude by paying off the “balance” to his master; the occurrence of the Jubilee year in the 50-year agricultural cycle would also render him free.
But if a servant does not wish to go free after seven years, he may get his ear pierced as a symbol of his wish to stay. When a servant leaves his master after the duration of his servitude, the master must provide his servant with ha’anaka, parting gifts of oil, wheat and livestock that provides the former servant some “startup” capital to begin this next chapter of his life. The goal of Jewish servitude is to give a person who is having a difficult time in life a second chance to regroup and live successfully.
All of this is extremely different than the slavery that took place in the South, where people were unwillingly put through hard labor, and the only way to get out was to escape. The way that a Jewish servant was treated was the opposite of how a slave in the South was treated. The Talmud says, “Whoever acquired a Jewish servant has in fact acquired a master for himself.” The Rambam writes that if you had only one pillow available, you would have to give it to the servant.
The Hebrew servant is entitled to eat the same type and quality of food as his master. This is extremely contrary to the treatment of the slaves in the South. They were not even treated as human beings. They were regarded as equivalent to cattle.
I believe the Torah is teaching us a very important lesson. When we have power over another, we must take great care not to misuse or abuse it. The Torah commands us to treat our servants as equals and use what we have to build up and not destroy the other. The Jews were given these commandments when they left Egypt and were being warned against becoming just like Pharoah who oppressed them.
Wealth, power and influence can be great gifts from God, but we must learn to use them wisely and for the benefit of the other.