By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
If the slave will say, “I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go free.”
In ancient times, there were slaves. There were even Jewish slaves. But why does Parashas Mishpatim have to begin with the laws pertaining to Jewish slaves? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to start out with the seemingly more fundamental rules of bein adam lechaveiro such as lo sirtzach and lo signov? Perhaps the Torah could have begun this discussion by explaining more universal issues, such as the laws of damages or dinei shomrim. Why did the Torah begin with a topic of such limited application?
If the Jewish slave wants to stay with his master after the initial six-year period, he declares that he loves his master, he loves the non-Jewish handmaiden he was given as a “wife,” and he loves the non-Jewish children he fathered from her. Then his ear is bored. While we may find it understandable that some sign needs to be made that he is staying on as a slave after the requisite six years, what is the significance of putting a hole in his ear?
The Gemara (Kiddushin 22b) tells us: Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai would interpret this verse like a string of jewels [preciously]: What is special about the ear, among all the limbs and organs of the body? HaKadosh Baruch Hu said, “The ear heard My voice on Har Sinai when I said (Vayikra ch. 25), ‘The Israelites are slaves to Me,’ and they are not slaves to slaves. Yet, he went and acquired a master for himself. Thus, it shall be bored.”
Rashi on our verse also quotes an explanation from Gemara Kiddushin about why the ear is special. Our verse is speaking of a Jew who stole and got caught, but did not have the wherewithal to make restitution. The beis din sold him in order to pay off the debt. This Jew’s ear heard HaKadosh Baruch Hu say at Har Sinai: “You shall not steal.” But he went and stole, and that is why his ear is bored.
From all of the above, we can see why the ear was chosen to bear the sign of slavery. But what remains to be answered is why it must be a permanent physical marker, imprinted, so to speak, in his body. One might note that the ear also plays a role for the metzora. A Jew who is afflicted by tzara’as and recovers from it must go through a purification process, part of which involves his ear. This is also a symbolic lesson, similar to that of the eved ivri, yet in that case the requirement is merely to have olive oil applied to the ear. Here, why does the Torah require the sign to be by boring?
It was standard practice, in ancient times, for a slave to wear a sign or insignia around his neck or on his clothing. This way, he could be identified as belonging to someone; it would be known that he was a slave to a master. Jewish men also bear a sign reminding us to Whom we belong, the b’ris milah. This sign represents that we subjugate all our physical desires and drives to the will of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. We are totally in His service.
This basic level applies to all Jews, while those individuals who attain a higher level become Hashem’s special servants, so to speak. They earn the title of “Hashem’s servant,” as we find Moshe Rabbeinu was called (Yehoshua 1:1). David HaMelech was also called “My servant” (Shmuel II 7:5) and Eliyahu HaNavi was similarly called “His servant” (Melachim II 9:36). Being called Hashem’s servant is something we all should aspire to. It is the goal of every Jew.
Let’s get back to someone who is a Jewish slave. By having a human master, his ability to serve Hashem is diminished. There is now someone else he has to serve. His innate kedushah as a Jew has also decreased: he is now permitted to take a non-Jewish handmaiden as a “wife.” This is forbidden to all other Jews. The slave might argue that all this is not really his fault. True, it was wrong to steal, but he never intended to be sold into slavery by beis din! His present status was forced on him, he claims.
There is some truth to this. But once he decides to stay on as a slave after his requisite six years are up, he shows a clear lack of aspiration to become a true servant of Hashem. He is missing the desire to belong exclusively to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. That is why the sign of b’ris milah, which represents how a Jew makes his whole being subservient to Hashem, is no longer sufficient for this person. He is not subjugating all the limbs and organs of his body to Hashem as he should be; his ear is not doing its job. It heard Hashem say that a Jew should belong only to Hashem, but he is ignoring the message! Thus, he needs an additional physical sign etched into his body in addition to his b’ris milah: he needs the bored ear of a slave.
This sign of slavery is not for the convenience of the master. The Torah doesn’t need to tell a slave owner what type of sign to use for his slaves; he can choose one on his own. Short of an act incorporating any sort of physical pain, he can act as he pleases to mark his slave. If he had a non-Jewish slave, he probably would be prohibited from using a bored ear as a sign. The bored ear is for the sake of the Jewish slave himself. It is a mark of what he lacks. The real purpose is to wake him up to who he really is: a Jew who should be aspiring to be a servant of Hashem.
Thus, the message behind “eved ivri” is that Jews belong to Hashem and should strive for ever-higher levels of serving Him. This, then, is a truly fitting beginning to the mishpatim.
In truth, the term that the Torah chose for a Jewish slave is a bit problematic. Why is it called “eved ivri”? This peculiar term gives rise to no small amount of ambiguity, yet it is the phrase that the Torah prefers. Perhaps it alludes to something else? Chazal often make an interpretation based on switching the letters alef and ayin (see Berachos 32a), both of which are guttural letters. Accordingly, I would suggest that the term hints to “eved ivri” spelled with an aleph in ivri. In other words, a Jewish slave is so called because it hints to a different kind of slave: someone who is an eved to his eivarim, who is enslaved to his limbs and organs. This type of person is also not free.
“‘And the writing was the writing of G‑d, engraved on the tablets.’—Do not read it as charus (engraved), rather as cheirus (freedom). There is no freeman other than he who is involved with Torah learning” (Avos 6:2).
The true freeman is the one who completely subjugates himself to Hashem and His Torah.
Based on the above, we could say that a Jewish slave came to be this way because he had already become a slave to his physical being, to the desires of his limbs and organs. Our parashah begins with the laws of “eved ivri” because it is an appropriate introduction to the Divine mishpatim that were revealed at Har Sinai. These mishpatim constitute an essential aspect of subjugating our entire being to Hashem. And before a person can begin to comprehend the mishpatim, which purify and refine him, making him into a true servant of Hashem, he has to free himself from subjugation to his physical nature. Having grasped the message of “eved ivri,” a Jew is now equipped to approach the mishpetei haTorah. v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. At local stores: Machat shel Yad Beraishis, Sh’mos, and Vayikra.