Sign In Forgot Password

Southern Slavery vs. Jewish "Slavery" #664

02/12/2021 05:10:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Mishpatim

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (Exodus 21:24)

Southern Slavery vs. Jewish "Slavery"

A few years ago, while traveling through rural Tennessee, I found myself in an impromptu conversation while waiting to pay for gas at a rest stop.

“Are you a rabbi?” I was asked.

“I am,” I replied, noticing that she and her husband were looking at my kippah.

“Then I have a question I’ve always wanted to ask a rabbi.”

“Go ahead,” I said.

She proceeded. “Was there anything really wrong with slavery in the South, when there is a specific reference to it in the Bible?”

I was taken aback.

On one level, the question was deeply offensive, attempting to religiously rationalize slavery, which occurred during one of the most shameful times in American history.

On the other hand, the question was valid — at least in terms of the Bible’s English translation of the word “slavery.”

But at this point — the two paths diverge.

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Rules”), we are introduced to 53 commandments (mitzvoth), which provide additional instructions regarding the 10 Commandments that were received in last week’s Torah portion.

And, at the top of the list described this week, is the treatment of “slaves.” Yet, as many Jewish scholars have pointed out, the word “slave” is an appalling and misleading translation.

The actual term used in the Torah, is “eved,” which is directly linked to the word “avodah” — meaning work.

Here’s how the ancient concept of the “eved” worked. For whatever reason — failed crops, loss of income, bad investments or other hardship — if you found yourself owing money to a second party, the courts could require you to work off your debt for up to six years.

At the seventh year, all was forgiven.

It was a way to preserve dignity.  While there is mention in the Torah of households taking in “alien slaves,” the vast majority consisted of those working off debts, thieves providing restitution, or in the case of those facing severe poverty, becoming a self-imposed laborer in exchange for food, shelter and security.

This bears no similarity to the brutal American slavery system, or those equally despicable slavery practices that continue today in many parts of the globe.

But let’s take this one step further.

Not long after Jewish laws surrounding these workers are articulated in this week’s parashah, we are introduced to one of the Torah’s most famous and most quoted lines.

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (Exodus 21:24) The statement has been interpreted as entitling someone who has been physically hurt to extract equal pain revenge upon another.

As our great Sage, Maimonides, clarifies: “There never was any Rabbi from the time of Moses…who ruled, based on ‘an eye for an eye’ that he who blinds another should himself be blinded.” Rather it is a guideline to calculate financial compensation.

As the great 20th Century scholar, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, taught, these laws were designed to protect the workers, many of whom found themselves in vulnerable positions under this program of debt repayment.

The Talmud goes further to assure worker dignity and steer employers towards equality.

Indeed, our tradition affirms, “If you have a pillow, then your workers shall have a pillow.” So much so, that — as the Talmud teaches — a person who acquires a slave also “acquires a master.”

Confirming the value of worker safety, the Talmud notes:

“One who injures another is liable to pay compensation for that injury due to five types of indemnity: He must pay for damage, for pain, for medical costs, for loss of livelihood, and for humiliation.”

We do not cut off arms, extract a tooth, or do worse.

And it does not stop there. When you think about it, are all debts physical? Too often, too many hold others in spiritual bondage. Such debts are not always forgiven.

Times when someone rescues or supports a family or friend. A social indiscretion one commits against another, where an apology is demanded, but when received is never sufficient. Those debts are often maintained as emotional collateral.

That is, perhaps, why the Torah devotes so much time this week on human dignity. We are told that after six years, it is time to turn over a new leaf.

By invoking this six-year rule, the Torah inspires us to consider that no matter what kind of debt we owe — or feel someone owes us — no one gets to chain another for life.

For the Torah believes in fresh starts.

It is why the Torah, in its description of the laws of “slavery,” ensures that the working off of debts must be accomplished with respect. And that, even within this inequitable human dynamic, the laws of safety, pain and prevention of humiliation must be maintained.

A far cry from the slavery of the American South.

Friends, we pray for the day where there will be no inequity in the world. We pray for a time when there will be no extreme hunger or homelessness.

Until then — and perhaps beyond — Judaism will follow the path of dignity.

As the Etz Chaim biblical commentary declares, “The decency of a society is measured by how it cares for its least powerful members.” Those who are at the low point of their lives must be protected and elevated. For like the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, we have all been there.

Indeed, is there any debt we are holding that exceeds its expiry date? Doesn’t everyone deserve a fresh start? Don’t we?

The Torah inspires us to consider “slavery” as a frame of mind.

It ultimately begs us to consider if there is anyone, or anything, we need to set free?

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


Please join us on Zoom or Facebook,
Friday - 7:00 pm ET
for candle lighting, followed
by live Kabbalat Shabbat services:
(Please note that the Meeting ID has changed as of Jan. 1)

Click link below to view or download
the abridged Friday Shabbat siddur:



Saturday Shabbat & Musaf Service:
10:00 am ET
(Please note that the Meeting ID has changed as of Jan. 1)

Sim Shalom Shabbat & Musaf Siddur:

You can also dial into these services: 
646-876-9923 (New York)
Meeting ID: 971 8824 3757

Find your local number:

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781