Skip to content

No More Slaves says the Torah

Parshat Mishpatim

Exodus 21:1 -4:18

This week’s portion Mishpatim according to tradition is the continuation of the commandments God gave to the Children of Israel.  We often think that the conversation at Sinai ended with the Ten Responsibilities between God and the Jewish People and Moses.  But when we read the whole story of which this week is a continuation we realize that in addition to the Ten Responsibilities there were additional laws given to Moses and the Jewish People.


The laws presented in this week’s portion expand our understanding of the Ten Responsibilities.  Ironically, the first ones presented deal with responsibilities of slave owners!  This is said to a bunch of former slaves! Could this group newly minted in freedom, just three months from the harshness of slavery in Egypt even imagine that one day they would be slave owners?  That they would rise above their former station in life?


Our tradition has come to repudiate slavery.  And this week’s torah portion plays a serious role in that repudiation because it tells the rules for owning a Hebrew slave.  Remember this is being shared to a group of Hebrew former slaves.  It says that a slave is not a slave but a servant that goes free after six years of service.  After 400 years of Hebrew slavery in Egypt now these slaves hear that a servant must be released after six years of service.  This radical idea turns the notion of slavery on its head. Unlike what happened to the Hebrew slaves that knew generations of servitude God reveals at Sinai a notion that slavery could not be a permanent condition.  No longer could a slave remain a slave.  Their humanity had to be recognized.  No one could really own them. They could work for six years but in the seventh they go free.  Slavery was made conditional.  Not a state of permanent being that would require a miracle.  That is what it took for the Israelites, a miracle of release and redemption. But with this Torah portion, Mishpatim, no more miracles of redemption for slaves would be necessary only the passage of time.

Further in the Talmud the rabbis make sure that if a Jew “owned” a slave they had to be Jewish.  Men had to be circumcised.  Men and women had to be given Shabbat off. (Of course this is even part of the Ten Responsibilities.). Thus there really wasn’t an economic advantage in slave “ownership”.  In truth you didn’t “own” a slave. Instead these deterrents to slavery remind all of us that human beings are not to be owned like animals but we are according to Jewish tradition created in the Divine image.

And this is precisely the point that tells us this piece of Torah is trying to help us as a people repudiate slavery and make it unappealing as way to achieve economic equity.

During the Civil War of the United States many used the Bible to justify slave ownership.  Just like today people use the Bible to justify their homophobia and ill treatment of gay men and lesbians.  But in truth they don’t do a careful and nuanced reading of the biblical text that is really required. And this example about slavery is an important example that we should use our brains, insight, and common sense when reading the Torah and not check it at the door.