The abolition of slavery is one of the benchmarks of mankind’s progression towards enlightenment and humanity. So to look at the Torah, which not only allows for slavery but instructs you how to do it, it must be a clear indication that Torah is an archaic document. Then on top of that the fact that its people, the Jews, who endured the horrors of slavery first hand, are allowed to carryout that injustice themselves, it would seem down right hypocritical. How could the Torah, the source of eternal wisdom and justice, be so outdated?
Slave Owners Manual
It’s important to understand that the slavery in the Torah is vastly different than the slavery of America’s past. Where the horrors in such movies as Twelve Years a Slave, Roots, and Django Unchained depicted savage punishments and subhuman work conditions, the Torah outlines strict guidelines for humane treatment. If the master were to strike and blind their slave, the slave is granted instant freedom**. And if the master were to kill their slave, the master would be liable for the death penalty.
But the Torah doesn’t stop prohibiting bad treatment, it insists on preferable treatment! The master has to share his food with his slave (not just give him some food laying around but share the same quality of food). In fact the slave gets priority if the master only has one portion of the comfort, meaning if the master only has one cup of wine or one pillow for the night, the slave gets it. And if the slave is married with kids, the master has to support and do the same for them! Then to top it all off, the slave goes free after 6 years. So clearly the slavery of the Torah is of a whole different league.
Alternative To Incarceration
The other important thing to understand about when the Torah talks about slavery is that the system outlined in parsha Mishpatim is talking about an eved Ivri, or a Jew who has sold themselves into slavery because they have committed theft and are unable to repay the penalty. It’s like the plot of the Seinfeld pilot Jerry was going to pitch (see clip below).
If you think about it, what’s better? Throwing a poor and desperate person into an overcrowded prison with dangerous criminals that will probably teach them how to be a better thief? Or make them serve the person they wronged for 6 years and learn how to get their life back on track with people who know how to be good and successful? Sure, there’s something to throwing a person into a scary prison so they’ll never want to steal again, but that really doesn’t get to the root of the problem. It doesn’t teach them how to get their life back on track.
But what about the other side? Who in their right mind would want a criminal in their home, around their family, their valuables, or themselves as they sleep? What you have to realize is that taking in the thief as a slave is a tremendous chessed (kindness). By no means does anyone have to take in the offender as their servant, they can certainly send them off to rot in jail. But the Torah provides an opportunity for redemption and mercy. And just so we’re clear, these laws outlined in the Torah are for a person who is trying to do right. A scoundrel probably isn’t spending their days reading the weekly parsha. So it’s for the person that is trying to do right, but is a victim of poverty and circumstance that this applies to.
Slave to Change
The quote that begins this mitzvah about slavery reads;
כִּ֤י תִקְנֶה֙ עֶ֣בֶד עִבְרִ֔י
If you buy a Hebrew slave… (Shemos 21:2)
The first word, כי means if or should. כי is also used with other mitzvahs such as divorce …כִּֽי־יִקַּ֥ח אִ֛ישׁ אִשָּׁ֖ה (Devarim 24-1) and polygamy …כִּי־תִֽהְיֶ֨יןָ לְאִ֜ישׁ שְׁתֵּ֣י נָשִׁ֗ים (Devarim 20:15). Rabbi Benjamin Blech teaches on this matter in his book, Understanding Judaism: The Basics of Deed and Creed.
God made clear His divine displeasure. A desire to live in terms of a higher ideal would obviously not be sinful rather it would represent a step forward in society’s march to compliance with the will of the Almighty. Some laws, therefore, when prefaced with the Hebrew word כי, allows for emendation.
What Rabbi Bleck is getting at is that even though the Torah allows for some acts that are not ideal, there is an aim that one day humanity will evolve to a place where it can abolish them outright. Such is the case of slavery. But given that at the time the Torah was put into the world, slavery was a fact of life, at least there is a guide that prescribes how to carry it in a humane and kosher way. Lastly, it is important to remember that the greatest measurement of a society is how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. So even though we’re not in a place to exercise such mitzvahs (thank God!) we still learn about them because we still see those who are destitute, downtrodden, and living in their own sort of slavery. It is incumbent on us to engage with them with dignity, sensitivity, and humanity.
**Authors Note: There is a distinction between a Jewish slave (eved ivri) and a non-Jewish slave (eved k’na’ani) that I didn’t originally make when I first wrote this piece. Only the eved ivri gets to go free after six years. However, if the eved k’na’ani is struck by his master, he would get his freedom, while the eved ivri would only be compensated.