For the week ending 10 February 2024 / 1 Adar Alef 5784

Taamei Hamitzvos - The Jewish Slave

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Reasons Behind the Mitzvos: The Jewish Slave

By Rabbi Shmuel Kraines

“Study improves the quality of the act and completes it, and a mitzvah is more beautiful when it emerges from someone who understands its significance.” (Meiri, Bava Kama 17a)

(Mitzvah #42, #345, #346, and #482 in Sefer HaChinuch}

“If you acquire a Jewish slave, he shall work for six years, and on the seventh, he shall go free…If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall remain with the master, and [the slave] shall go free alone. And if the slave says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I shall not go free!’ Then his master shall bring him to the judges. They shall bring him to the door or the lintel, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever (Shemos 21:2-6).If your brother shall become impoverished and is sold to you as a slave, you shall not work him as a slave. He should be with you like an employee and work by you until the Yovel year…For they are My slaves, whom I took out of Egypt, and they shall not be sold in the manner of slaves. Do not work him harshly, and fear Hashem (Vayikra 25:39-43). When you set him free, do not send him away empty-handed. You shall surely grant him from your flocks and with the produce of your fields and vineyards, and you shall give to him from that which Hashem your L-rd blessed you…It should not seem difficult for you to set him free, for he has worked twice as much as a hired laborer, for six years, and Hashem your L-rd has blessed you in all that you have done.” (Devarim 15:13-18)


If a Jewish man steals and is unable to repay, Beis Din sells him as a slave to another Jew so that he can repay. It is also possible for someone to sell himself into bondage. The Torah prohibits a master from working the Jewish slave harshly and degradingly as one would treat a regular slave, and it limits his service to a period of six years. During this time, the master may have him marry a maidservant to bear slaves for the master, but when he goes free, he leaves her and her children behind. If he wishes to remain in slavery after the term of six years, the master pierces his ear by the door with an awl, in the presence of Beis Din. All Jewish bondsmen go free when the Yovel year arrives.


The Torah begins the monetary laws set forth in our Parashah with this mitzvah because it relates to the first of the Ten Commandments, in which Hashem proclaimed that He is our G-d Who took us out of Egypt. At that time, He freed us from being slaves to man and made us His slaves, and He does not want us to become slaves of others, but rather only employees. The Jewish slave goes out at the onset of the seventh year, or at the onset of Yovel — the completion of the seven seven-year Shemitah cycles — in commemoration of how Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Ramban). The fact that He created us is a second reason why it is His right to be our sole master. As to why the Torah does not command freedom in the Shemitah year instead of after six years of servitude, it would seem that this was not a fitting standard, for then those who are sold in the sixth year would serve for very little; moreover, thefts would abound every seventh year with the approach of Shemitah… Alternatively, we may explain the six-year limit as follows: It the olden times, it was customary for hired worker to sign a contract for three years (Bechor Shor). Thus, in order to distinguish a Jewish slave from a regular gentile slave, the Torah limits his work term to double the standard length of paid servitude. This double measure of punishment is especially fitting for a thief, whom the Torah obligated to return double the amount he stole.


A destitute thief who is punished with slavery feels very lowly even when he goes free, so Hashem commanded us to send him away in visible honor to remind him and others of his Jewish nobility. The verse reminds us how Hashem similarly made the Egyptians give us many valuables when setting us free. Another reason for this mitzvah is that it is virtuous to be compassionate to those who work for us, and to give them more than their wages (Sefer HaChinuch). Moreover, the blessing of the household may have increased because of the hard work and merit of the Jewish slave, so it is only fair that he receives a share in it when he leaves (Rav Menachem HaBavli).


The ear-piercing ceremony is only performed upon someone who is sold into slavery on account of theft. Since he broke through doors and stole, he is pierced by the door (Hadar Zekeinim). Ear-piercing serves to mark a person as a thief and to discourage others from stealing (Chizkuni). In the olden times, some governments would cut off the ear of a thief, and a repeat offender would be subjected to capital punishment (Abarbanel). It was clearly understood that theft destroys the very fabric of society and needs drastic deterrents. We find similarly that Hashem destroyed His world with a Mabul primarily because of theft. As to why this deterrent is only applied with regard to a thief who wishes to remain in slavery after the six years, we may suggest that the six-year term of compelled service is itself a deterrent. However, once he willingly accepts slavery upon himself and it is no longer a punishment, it becomes necessary to deter others from following his example by piercing his ear and disgracing him. On a deeper level of understanding, Rashi cites a Midrash: Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai said: [This man’s] ear that heard at Mount Sinai, “Do not steal!” and he went and stole, shall be pierced! As to why this punishment is administered only for the mitzvah, “Do not steal” and not for other mitzvahs, Chizkuni explains that Hashem was especially stringent with thieves, who act stealthily to conceal their sin from the eyes and ears of people while disregarding the eyes and ears of Hashem Who watches everything.

Another reason for the ear-piercing is that once the Jewish slave stays longer than six years, people may think that he is a gentile slave, and the Torah therefore commands us to distinguish him by piercing his ear (Chizkuni). Hashem wishes to make it clear that He has acquired every single Jew as His own, and no Jew may ever again belong to another man.


The hole in the Jewish slave’s ear, as well as the hole in the doorway at precisely the height of his ear, both attest to his master’s ownership over him (Chizkuni). The ear is pierced by a door as a symbol of the slave’s role to watch over the house of his master, in the same way a guard stands by a doorway (Baal HaTurim).

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: Why did the Torah select the door and the lintel out of all parts of the house for this mitzvah? This is because Hashem said, “The door and lintel witnessed My passing over the doors and lintels of the Jewish people in Egypt when I declared that the Jewish people are My slaves and not the slaves of slaves, yet this person went and acquired a master for himself! Therefore, let his ear be pierced before them. This opinion maintains that the ear-piercing ceremony is performed even upon someone who sold himself as a slave and wishes to remain after six years (see Kiddushin 14b). Hashem did not command this ceremony earlier, at the time that he sold himself as a slave, because he may have done so out of financial desperation, which is excusable. However, after the six-year term, during which time his master has to feed the slave’s family, and he certainly has managed to save some money on the side, and he also receives gifts from his master upon going free, he is expected to accept his freedom and trust that Hashem will support him. When he chooses to remain in slavery nonetheless, he deserves to be punished for having acquired another master for himself, and for not trusting in Hashem, Who sustains all of His creatures (Rosh). Rabbeinu Bachaye cites from a Midrash another reason why the ceremony is performed by a door: Hashem said, “I opened for him the doors of the house [of his master] so that he can go free, yet he chooses to close those doors. Let him be punished by the doorway!”


The ear is pierced with a martzei’a (awl), a word that has a numerical value of 400, symbolizing the 400 years of slavery that were decreed upon the Jewish People in Egypt, which Hashem shortened to 210 years. The usage of this instrument is a silent rebuke to him for having chosen the very status of slavery that Hashem withheld from the Jewish People (Chizkuni).

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