After all the exciting moments we’ve read since the beginning of Sefer Shemos, Parshas Mishpatim brings us back to the more nitty-gritty discussions of Torah Law and everyday life. The majority of the parsha deals with cases of contractual obligations, liability, and property law, and begins with the case of a Jewish man who is sold as a slave.
The pasuk reads as follows, “כִּ֤י תִקְנֶה֙ עֶ֣בֶד עִבְרִ֔י שֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים יַֽעֲבֹ֑ד וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י חִנָּֽם” “When you purchase a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years. And in the seventh year, he shall go to freedom for free.” (Shemos 21:2). Nowadays, slavery is illegal in most countries, and the countries that still have it are frowned upon. However, in Judaism, slavery was not the same as in other cultures. First, a Jew could choose to sell himself in order to provide for his family or pay back a loan; under no circumstances could a Jew kidnap someone to sell them into slavery. Furthermore, a Jewish slave had to be treated with the utmost respect, to the degree that the buyer had to provide the slave with equal if not better accommodations than what he himself was used to! (Kind of makes you wonder who owned who!) Additionally, the term of his slavery could only be up to six years long.
Why does Hashem choose to begin the discussion of Jewish Law with the laws of a slave? What is the significance of this situation? The Kli Yakar explains that just like the first of the Aseres Hadibros is that Hashem took us out of slavery, the first item discussed following the giving of the Torah is how you should send your own slaves free. Hashem is telling us that just like He let us out of slavery, so too should we be careful to free our slaves at the proper time.
The Kli Yakar also explains several other ideas having to do with Jewish slaves. He asks, how come the pasuk refers to this man as a “Ivri” instead of as a brother or as part of Bnei Yisrael? He answer that the term Ivri was applied to Avraham’s family when they crossed the river away from everyone else, since Ivri comes from the Hebrew root “עבר”, meaning to pass over. However, Avraham’s family was not good people, sticking to lives of sin while ignoring Avraham’s lessons about Hashem. One reason why a person sells himself as a slave is when he steals and can’t pay it back. This person has therefore attached himself to the evil ways of Avraham’s ancestors, and therefore, he is called by their title.
Finally, he explains why the term of service for a slave is six years. In Jewish Law, when a person steals, he must pay back double the amount he stole. Based on different pesukim, there is an opinion that in the times of TaNach, the standard time of service was three years. Therefore, a slave would be sold for six years, double the normal amount.
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