19.2. Laws Concerning Slavery (21:1-11)
(1) These are the rules that you shall set before them:
(2) When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.
(3) If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him.
(4) 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.
(5) But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,”
(6) 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 then remain his slave for life.
(7) When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are.
(8) If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her.
(9) And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens.
(10) If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights.
(11) If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.
(1) These are the rules: Detailing the laws goes in descending order of the overall seriousness of the situation. First, laws governing slavery, then murder (vv. 21:12-14), then causing physical harm to another person (21:25-36), and then damage to property (21:37-22:14). Thus, Torah considers that the worst thing that can ever happen to a person is to become a slave. To die is less frightening, followed by physical harm, robbery, and other forms of thievery.
That you shall set before them: The practical implementation of the laws of the Torah is largely the prerogative of the people, albeit with the Torah sages acting on their behalf. Therefore, after the Jews have received the general principles “in their final form from heaven” in the Yitro portion, the details of those laws are “set before them” here in the Mishpatim portion.
(2) When you acquire a Hebrew slave: The Torah’s coverage of those details begins at the very bottom of the social ladder. A human being is being sold as a slave in order to pay for a theft he has committed, or because poverty forces a father to sell his minor daughter as a maidservant, in order that he might save her, at least, from the ravages of poverty. In both cases, the intent of the Torah’s laws is not to upend the entire situation itself, but to set acceptable boundaries, so that the basic rights of the slave or maidservant are protected.
The Torah seeks to correct reality not by imposing edicts that attempt to radically alter human behavior immediately, but, instead, through practical steps for improving life under prevailing conditions, until the natural historical process leads to more ideal human relationships. Once humanity has surmounted these obstacles (slavery, in this case), the original laws of the Torah concerning them no longer apply in any literal sense. However, they nonetheless remain important for our understanding of how the Torah views the general framework of life.
He shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment: The discussion of the laws of slavery does not begin with the rules for acquiring a slave, as we would reasonably expect from a legal code, but with limits on the duration of slavery, and the right of the slave to go free when it finally ends. Ultimately, the objective of the Torah is not to create a legal code for its own sake, but to establish the moral foundations of everyday life.
It is useful to note that the Ten Commandments, in the previous portion, Yitro, began with God as the supreme architect of personal freedom: “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (20:2), while the concrete laws of this Mishpatim portion begin with the topic of slavery – the very antithesis of personal freedom.
This is the difference between an approach based on ideals (Moses) and an approach based on reality (Aaron). At the time of the giving of the Torah, slavery was a fact of human existence and the actual makeup of the world. It would only have been counterproductive to try to pretend that the problem did not exist, or to attempt to abolish slavery before humanity had advanced on its own to the point of being ready for that. The Torah can condemn and limit slavery, but it is up to humans to overcome and abolish it through their own efforts.
By Torah law, a Jew can be sold into slavery only for stealing (selling a Jew into slavery simply in order to pay off his ordinary debts is forbidden by the Torah). Thus, buying a Jewish slave means buying a convicted criminal – a situation that obviously comes with its own set of problems. Many people today will expressly avoid hiring an employee or a day-laborer with a criminal history, even if he has already repented and completely redeemed himself. But the man who purchases a slave purchases a “thief for correction.” He brings him into his home, and on top if it all also assumes responsibility for his care.
However, the Torah entrusts society with the re-education of such a thief. Rather than sitting in prison, he will now remain among normal people. He will live with a family who will teach him to become a responsible and respectable member of society.
The purchaser of this thief-slave has paid a handsome price for him (which has gone to compensate the victim of the crime), in exchange for which he has now gotten himself an employee. Only a strong and wealthy man could afford such a purchase – a man standing firmly on his feet, burdened with the demands of a sizeable and demanding homestead, and badly in need of working hands. Thus, an unprincipled Jew has fallen into the right place – an environment where a strong personality dominates.
(3) If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him: One who acquires a Jewish slave must also assume the responsibility of caring for his wife and children for the duration of the indenture. But when the slave goes free, his wife leaves with him, thus relieving the owner of that obligation.
(4) 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: The owner could marry the Jewish slave even to a non-Jewish slave girl (notwithstanding that such a marriage is forbidden to a Jewish freeman or freedman). But in this case, upon the slave’s release there is no change in the status of his wife and children so far as the master is concerned.
(5) But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children”: Note the order here – it is very significant. First and foremost, the slave loves his master and living with his master; his love of his wife and children are only secondary. This is because his wife and children came to him not by his own choice, but by his master’s decision. Thus, the slave views his wife and children as mere extensions of his slave existence.
I do not wish to go free: It should be noted that in Jewish society there existed the institution of so-called “patriarchal slavery,” an arrangement by which a slave was considered, as it were, a junior member of the family (in contrast to the “industrial” slavery that was rampant in Egypt, Greece and Rome). The “family slave” performed his duties under entirely reasonable and normal conditions, and was guaranteed food and clothes, and a roof over his head. A person who enjoys that kind of life has no need for freedom, which, in truth, would only get in his way.
Be that as it may, even that type of slave is expected to understand that a desire to live a life of slavery in any form is itself despicable, and nothing to be proud of. For this reason, the Torah prescribes that a slave who declines to go free, even in order to maintain a status quo that quite suits him, must undergo the piercing of his ear.
(6) His master shall take him before God: Hebrew Elohim most often means “God,” as translated here. But it can also simply mean “judges” (which is in fact how the halachah understands this verse).
If we interpret this verse in the first sense (“before God”), the owner of the slave is declaring: “May the Almighty be a witness, that this person, of his own free will, wishes to remain a slave, rather than taking advantage of the gift of freedom that God has bestowed on every human being.”
But in the second sense (“his master shall take him before the judges”), the idea is that this slave, six years earlier, came before the court, who authorized his sale as a common thief. And now, the procedure that allows the slave to refuse his freedom and remain enslaved, must also take place with the Jewish judges presiding.
For the understanding of the term Elohim as variously referring either to the Almighty, or to human judges or other public officials, or to alien deities (celestial angels worshipped by humans), see Bible Dynamics on Genesis, §5.4.
He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost: This is seen as an allusion to the Exodus from Egypt, “the house of bondage” (20:2). At that time, God commanded that the lintel and the two doorposts of every Jewish home be smeared with the blood of the Passover sacrifice (12:22). Remembering that event here serves as a rebuke to the slave who now, of his own volition, is renouncing his freedom.
And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl: This recalls the giving of the Torah. At the Revelation at Sinai, this slave heard with his own ears the first of the Ten Commandments: “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” And yet, he still wants to remain a slave.
Pierce his ear: This means his earlobe.
And he shall then remain his slave for life: The literal translation is “his slave forever.” In practice, however, such extended slavery lasted only until the next occurrence of the Jubilee year in its fifty-year cycle. The Torah prescribes (Lev. 25:8-13) that in each such Jubilee year a “reset” takes place in the Land of Israel: property and persons revert to their original ownership and social status. Patrimonial land that had at some point been sold would automatically return to its original owner, and Jewish “slaves for life” went free even against their will (see our commentary on the given passage in Leviticus for further details).
(7) When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are: When the slave is a woman, the rules for her release from slavery are completely different.
A man could sell his own young daughter as a maidservant, but only in a situation where, due to indigence, he had no hope of ever marrying off his daughter in the normal manner, and he wished to set her up with a more prosperous family in advance.
This was possible only for the father of a young girl, up to age twelve. By Torah law, a girl becomes an adult at age twelve, from which time there is no provision for a father or anyone else to sell any woman into servitude.
(8-9) If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her. And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens: The girl had to serve until she reached adulthood, and the master or his son was then expected to marry her, but they had no right to resell her to a third party. Moreover, the presumption was that entering into the marriage would be to her advantage, and that she herself would therefore opt in favor of it. If, however, the maidservant herself, upon reaching the age of twelve, decided to decline marriage either to the master or to his son, or if the marriage did not happen for any other reason, she was free to leave.
He shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders: The Hebrew for “outsiders” is here le-am nochri; literally, “to a foreign people.” And indeed, since am most typically means “nation,” some translations do render this verse as “he shall not have the right to sell her to a foreign nation.”
But that rendering is indefensible, since it is forbidden to sell a Jewish girl to a “foreign nation” under any circumstances whatsoever, and not only when her master (or his son) will not be marrying her upon her reaching adulthood. Thus, the Torah would have had no reason to forbid it specifically in this case.
Actually, the word am has yet another meaning: “relatives” or “family,” which is the sense in which the word am is used here; that is, the master is prohibited from passing the girl on to anyone in any other family except his own family, i.e., himself or his son (we do not find the Hebrew word am used in this sense anywhere else in Tanakh, although that meaning is in fact preserved in the Arabic language).
(10) If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights: While not encouraging polygamy, the Torah does permit it. But it defends the right of every wife – no matter how many other wives her husband has – to food, clothing, and satisfaction of her sexual needs.
(11) If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment: The “three ways” are not referring to the previous verse (food, clothing, and cohabitation), but to the earlier verses.
That is, if the master who had bought this maidservant as a young girl failed to fulfill any of the three conditions – to marry her himself, to marry her to his son, or to reduce her ransom (according to the number of years she had already lived with him) – then he had to release her free and clear.
 Situations of individuals being sold into slavery for payment of debts are mentioned in Tanakh (e.g., 2 Kings, ch. 4, and elsewhere), but they are presented there expressly as violations of Torah law.