Joel Cohen’s Question:
Yes, gentlemen, I know the party line: Even though the institution of the eved ivri (a Hebrew slave) would not be tolerable in today’s society, “it really wasn’t so bad” in Biblical times. After all, Hebrew slaves were neither beaten nor mistreated and, in fact, they were free – even required – to leave that status after six years. Some actually didn’t want to leave—it was “so good” for them. (Remember, though, some Negro slaves during American slavery didn’t want to leave their masters either). And, I know that we often label the eved as a “bondman” in polite conversation, lest the concept of master/servant be “misinterpreted.”
Even, though – if accurate – the eved occupied that status because (1) he volunteered himself into it because of his financial situation, or (2) he was ordered into it by a court to pay off his debt for having stolen (presumably from the “master”), why does G d’s Law tolerate – even direct – such a status? If, as the Torah say, the eved “must” be released after six years because we, too, were slaves in Egypt, why should any Hebrew occupy the status of anything remotely slave-like for any period of time?
If someone needs to repair his financial condition, employ him! If someone needs to make restitution to his victim, order him to do intense work to regain the money needed to make full repayment (when, if imposed, his term of incarceration is completed).
Why does G d want to take us back to Egypt?
Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:
Joel, you depict the eved as one sold as punishment for stealing; humiliated by the prospect of facing the one he stole from for the next six years. But let’s truthfully analyze the facts before discrediting the “bondsman” translation, which I, too, humbly feel doesn’t do justice to the concept. The eved is not sold as a punishment for stealing. If he has the money to make restitution, he is more than welcome to pay back the victim of his crime, and walk away scot-free! (Incidentally, in certain circumstances, the Torah – which does not condone incarceration as a punitive measure – levies upon a thief a fine, requiring that he pay back double the amount of his theft. Nevertheless, the thief can only be forced to become an eved if he is incapable of paying back the principle. He can not be sold for failure to pay the fine.)
If the thief has no cash, in a society where one can’t just declare bankruptcy and walk away from his responsibilities, he is in effect compelled to hire himself on a long term contract, to provide him with a lump sum of money to pay back his creditor. He is hired out to anyone who would like his services, with no connection to the person from whom he stole. He is then treated like any other hired worker, and is provided room and board. Jewish law is very clear about the fact that he is not considered the property of his “master.” (This idea has many, many halachic implications, chiefly among them his total right to personal property.) At any point during his contract, he, or his family or friends, can pay off the rest of the contract, and he can walk away from the deal, with no penalties incurred. It’s actually a pretty good deal.
The same is true regarding the person who of his own volition decides to become an eved.
Now, the term slave conjures horrible images of unfairness and maltreatment, and rightfully so. In light of the above, therefore, to translate eved as a slave would totally misconstrue the reality. Bondsman (translated by dictionary.com as “1. a person who serves in bondage; slave. 2. a person bound to service without wages.”) doesn’t really do it for me either. I believe that “indentured laborer” is the most accurate description of the eved. And nevertheless the Torah tells us: “For the Children of Israel are My servants; they are My servants, who I have taken out of the land of Egypt: they cannot be sold…” And the Torah looks askance at the eved arrangement—as the Sages derive from this verse: “They are My servants, and should not be servants of [My] servants.” Because only one who can not be instructed by another in any matter of his life can be free to serve G d in the truest sense.
Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:
Joel, in this case, I believe that the Torah forces us to imagine ourselves in the place of these Jews as they stood on the edge of the Land of Israel. They were, by then, a generation that had not experienced the slavery in Egypt directly but had only heard about it from their parents. How was Moses to instruct this generation as they prepared to enter the land without him as their leader?
As in many other instances in Deuteronomy, Moses recognizes the weaknesses of the people and speaks to those weaknesses. The fact that Moses connects the role of the eved ivri with the slavery of the Jews in Egypt identifies a major concern that Moses expresses—will the Jews, as rulers in their own land, turn into the Egyptians oppressing and mistreating those who are less fortunate? As strange as it might sound, the psychology of slaves is to take out their feelings of insecurity by oppressing other people.
Now, Moses, or G d earlier in the Torah, could have forbade slavery and that would have been the end of the story. But instead Moses tells the people that they can have slaves but the very existence of slaves should remind them of their slavery in Egypt. This reminder which plays a role in Shabbat, Passover and so many other places in the Torah guarantees that the Jews will never exhibit the ingratitude of their parents. Ironically, having slaves and treating them fairly makes this point more clearly than not having slaves at all. As always, it is fascinating to learn Deuteronomy and to appreciate the complicated relationship between Moses and the Jewish people on these last few days of his life.
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