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Shabbat Parashat Teruma 5783

Parashat Hashavua: The Basic Law of a Persons Dignity and Freedom part II

Harav Yosef Carmel

Last week we demonstrated that the Torah stresses at its presentation at Sinai, that monetary law is a pillar of Torah values. The first two subjects in Parashat Mishpatim and its focus on monetary law deal with the Jewish male and female servants. We will see how these sections teach us about the importance of people’s dignity and freedom.

  Realize that until the industrial revolution, the world was highly dependent on menial labor. This caused great societal pressure to alleviate the need by having slaves. Nevertheless, as a condition for Bnei Yisrael’s extrication from slavery in Egypt, they had to accept to send free their brethren from being their slaves, a concept that was well beyond its times. Even slaves from among non-countrymen had rights that were uncommon at that time, but here we have space just to discuss eved ivri.

There are two ways for a person to become an eved ivri: he sells himself to his master (Shemot 21:2), or he is sold for stealing and not being able to pay for what he stole (Devarim 15:12). Thus, no one is born into such slavery. The situation arises only if he decides it for himself, because he is unable to survive financially, or as a result of a crime. These are both very regrettable situations, which is why the Torah introduces both these sections with the word “ki,” a provisional, not an absolute term.

Chazal teach us an important principle through these Torah laws. We are all servants of Hashem, and this realization ensures our fundamental freedom. Even one who is temporarily a slave, remains a “master,” and enjoys important rights. As Chazal say: “Whoever buys an eved ivri, is like one who bought a master for himself.” Some of the ramifications are that the master must not eat better food than he gives to his servant or sleep in a better bad than he (Kiddushin 20a).

One who acquires an eved ivri is required to support his wife and children even though they are not his slaves and he cannot ask them to toil for him. The eved ivri maintains his ownership over his property and obviously his relationship with his wife, who maintains the rights of any other woman (Rambam, Avadim 5:1-2, 5).

The eved ivri is defined as a hired worker who accepted upon himself extra obligations (Devarim 15:18). The ramifications are that he receives fringe benefits, specifically a pension of sorts when he finishes his stint (ibid. 14). The Torah incentivizes this by saying that giving generously to the departing servant brings on a blessing to the master (ibid. 18). Because even this situation is not generally desired in society, a simple worker may not obligate himself to work for a counterpart for more than three years (half the tenure of an eved ivri).

All of these elements should teach us that we expect a Jewish state to ensure every person’s liberties. Even those who have to compromise their regular rights should do so only temporarily and they must maintain the basics. Workers’ rights should be carefully upheld, which is a topic we will investigate next week.    
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