MISHPATIM (Exodus, 21:1-24:18) — “Human Rights: Body Piercing And Slavery”

Jews have always been known for their spirit of social consciousness.  We have always been at the forefront in calling out for fairness to all people.  We marched with Martin Luther King in Selma.  We tend to speak out on behalf of the persecuted and the downtrodden.  After all we’ve been through, we know what it’s like to be deprived of civil liberties.  We would never want to see anyone subjugated or oppressed in any way.

This is what makes the law of the Hebrew slave (Exodus 21:2-6) so difficult to understand.  The Torah tells us the law pertaining to a man who is sold as a slave.  He must work for his master for six years before he is released.  It is very hard to comprehend how the Jewish People, who spent 210 years in slavery in Egypt, could tolerate the concept of making anyone, Jewish or otherwise, perform slave labor.  Even more confusing is what happens at the end of the six-year enslavement.  If the slave decides that he would rather remain as a slave, his master stands him in a doorway and rams an awl through his ear, thus identifying him as a permanent slave!

Where is the outrage?!  Where is the J.C.L.U. (Jewish Civil Liberties Union)?  Where is the hue and cry from the AFL/CIO, protesting the cruel and unusual treatment of a worker?  Is this why G-d took us out of Egypt, so we could be subjected to harsh working conditions and forced body piercing?!!

Obviously, there must be more here than meets the eye.  The Talmud explains that this is a case of a person who has been found guilty of stealing.  If he is incapable of paying back what he stole, the Court sells him to a master who will pay his debt for him.

WHAT?!  DEBTORS’ PRISON?!  Is that a compassionate way to deal with someone?

Actually, there is no comparison whatsoever between prison and the case of the Hebrew slave.  Let us analyze for a moment the situation of contemporary society’s judicial system.

A young man is found guilty of minor theft.  He has fallen in with the wrong crowd and has acted in a reckless and irresponsible manner.  So what do we do to help him turn his life around?  We throw him into prison, and surround him with hardened criminals who started out the same way he did!  We enclose him in an enclave of negative role models, insuring that he will emerge as a bigger threat to society than he was when he went in!!

Contrast this with the Hebrew Servant.  (A better translation than “Slave”) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the delinquent is sent to a family of POSITIVE role models.  He must be treated with honor and respect.  He is not expected to perform menial tasks.  The work that he is required to do is limited to that which he has been trained to do.  If his master has an air-conditioned bedroom, he gets an air-conditioned bedroom.  If his master has only one air conditioner, the servant gets it!  When his six-year term of “enslavement” ends, his master “… may not send him empty-handed.  Give him a severance gift from your flocks, from your threshing floor, and from your wine vat so that he will have a share of all the things through which G-d has blessed you.  You will thus remember that you were a slave in Egypt and G-d liberated you.”  (Deuteronomy, 15:12-15)

Look what the Torah is telling us!  As former slaves, we should know better than anyone how to treat a servant.  Give him his dignity, give him his self-respect, help him get back on his feet, and you will turn a potential criminal into a “mentch” who will be a contributing member of society.

But what about the body piercing?  What possible benefit could there be to boring a hole in his ear?

G-d is telling the servant that there is something wrong with his ear: “The ear that heard at Mt. Sinai, ‘Do not steal‘ and yet stole… the ear that heard at Mt. Sinai ‘the Israelites are My servants’ and yet acquired a master for himself, should be pierced.” (Mechilta)

Perhaps the former thief feels very comfortable in his new environment.  His meals are provided.  He lives in the protective custody of a benevolent master.  He is away from “the old neighborhood.”  He is free from the old temptations to steal.  Why not stay with the master?

The Torah is telling him that he’s still not listening.  “You’ve paid your debt to society.  You are a free man and you MUST be a free man.  It is time to re-enter society and become a contributing citizen of the world.  If you persist in hiding behind your master, then you still don’t get it.

Go out into the world and prove that you’ve made it!

Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

“Voting ‘Against’ G-d, or, “Whose Torah IS This Anyway?!” (2010)

… The Talmud records a fascinating dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues…

Rabbi Eliezer presented logical argument after logical argument to support his view, but to no avail. The Rabbis disagreed. Rabbi Eliezer, a holy man, decided to miraculously defy nature in order to bring home his point. … Finally, Rabbi Eliezer pulled his “Heaven Card.” “If I am right, let the Heavens prove it!”

A heavenly voice boomed in reprimand of the Sages: “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer, when the Law, in fact, is always in accordance with his opinion?!” …

They wouldn’t budge. Rabbi Joshua stood up and quoted from Deuteronomy (30:12) “It (the Torah) is not in Heaven!”… Pretty gutsy, no? …

Read more.
“We Wish You a Merry Shabbos???” (2009)

… One Shabbos, he walked into shul and found it to be packed. …it was a non-Jewish holiday. Since stores were legally required to be closed, the otherwise-Sabbath violators took advantage of the opportunity to come to shul, along with their children…

“No doubt,” said the rabbi, “your children must have asked you, ‘Why is this Shabbos different from all the other Shabboses of the year?’

“And you must have answered, ‘This Shabbos is greater than every other Sabbath because today is the birthday of the founder of another religion…’”

Read more.
“Let’s Make a Deal” (2007)

Okay, I admit it! I am a criminal. I am a lawbreaker. I have confessed in open court. I have thrown myself on the mercy of the court and pled guilty to violating the law…

I got to watch some criminal proceedings too. The prosecutor, lawyers, and judge all played their parts professionally. As each one recited his scripted line, the others nodded and scribbled little notes on their legal pads in their legal folders. One young man was accused of breaking and entering. The prosecutor offered to reduce the charge to a less severe one. Scribble, scribble. The judge agreed. Scribble, scribble. Then the judge said, “According to the statutes, you have to give a valid reason for this type of reduction.” Scribble, scribble.

The prosecutor’s response?

“In the interest of Justice.” Scribble, scribble.


Read more.
“A Capital Idea” (2005)

Regardless of your position on capital punishment, it seems possible to find support from the Torah.

This week’s Torah Portion is replete with prohibitions for which the death penalty applies …

On the other hand, we find in the Talmud that the Sages went to great pains to avoid carrying out the death penalty … Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of Blessed Memory… wrote in 1982 to “Sar Hamedina” — “The Prince of the State.” (I assume that refers to President Reagan or New York Governor Hugh Carey). Rabbi Feinstein was responding to a question as to the Torah’s view on capital punishment…

Read more.
“Oh Say, Can you Sue?!” (2004)

…Jack and Jill lived up the hill.

Each of these two neighbors owned an ox. Jill’s ox was out in the field one day, calmly grazing on grass. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jack’s ox charged, ramming his horns into his unsuspecting neighbor. To Jill’s utter shock, her ox lay there in the field, and bled to death…

Jill hired Johnnie Cochran, who told the jury how Jill’s life had been shattered by the loss of her livelihood. By the time the trial was over… Jack was ruined, and Jill bought a condo in Boca. 

Now, let’s change the scenario a bit.

Jack and Jill are now Yaakov and Yocheved. Instead of going to court, Yocheved, a religious woman, went to … a rabbinic tribunal for justice… She was dismayed by the response…

Yesterday, Yocheved owned $1000 worth of ox. Today she has $500 cash and $50 worth of dead ox. So much for the condo in Boca. …

Read more.
“Double Trouble” (2003)

What is the best way to discourage theft? … The Torah has a very unique way of punishing someone for stealing. … the Torah makes sure that his efforts will backfire…

 Read more.
“Your Ivory Tower Is Blocking My Driveway!” (2002)

When we overly involve ourselves in the sublime, we run the risk of ignoring the mundane…  How do we explain the occasional unfortunate situation of a religious person who is  dishonest? 

Read more.
“Human Rights: Body Piercing and Slavery” (2001)

Jews have always been known for their spirit of social consciousness. We have always been at the forefront in calling out for fairness to all people. We marched with Martin Luther King in Selma… After all we’ve been through, we know what it’s like to be deprived of civil liberties. We would never want to see anyone subjugated or oppressed in any way.

… Where is the outrage?! Where is the J.C.L.U. (Jewish Civil Liberties Union)? Where is the hue and cry from the AFL/CIO, protesting the cruel and unusual treatment of a worker? Is this why G-d took us out of Egypt, so we could be subjected to harsh working conditions and forced body piercing?!!…

Read more.

 This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2014 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on February 20, 2001 at 8:42 am  Leave a Comment  

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