Mishpatim 5779


What Does the Torah Have to Say about Slavery? Mishpatim

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

This week?s Torah portion, Mishpatim, begins with laws of slavery. Seemingly, slavery has vanished from our world and learning the laws of slavery might infuriate a person nowadays who sees slavery as inherently abominable. But a proper look at laws of slavery in the Torah teaches us that there is a direct connection between the laws of the Torah and the feelings of a person who sees slavery as immoral. You could even say that this feeling is exactly what the Torah wants to achieve by these laws: the restriction of slavery that ultimately leads to its abolishment.

This orientation is expressed by the parallels between the laws of slavery and the ten commandments we read in the previous portion. There is a prevalent assumption among Torah commentators that the ten commandments are reflected in the collection of commandments written in Mishpatim. Each of these commentators tries to find hints of the ten commandments in this week?s portion, and to connect each halacha (Jewish law) in Mishpatim to one of the ten commandments.

Mishpatim 5779

One of the important commentators of the 15th century was Don Isaac Abarbanel, a learned and accomplished man who besides being wise in Torah, also served as a finance minister in three countries. Abarbanel also looked for parallels between Mishpatim and the ten commandments. He wrote that the laws of slavery corresponded with the commandment ?Thou shall not kill?: ?When he buys him for slavery by enslaving him all his life? this is killing in life, since the way the Torah describes charity as ?life??so enslavement which is the opposite of charity is compared to killing.?

The Torah indeed sees slavery as a problematic phenomenon. The Torah declares about the Jewish slave: ?For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt they shall not be sold as a slave is sold? (Leviticus 25, 42). Even the slavery the Torah allows is not standard slavery. A Jewish slave is only a long-term hired worker, not the property of the master, since he is the slave of G-d. And the enslavement of a Jew does not leave him devoid of human rights.

Actually, if we look at the laws of slavery in Mishpatim, we find that they try to make the conditions and status of the slave better: A Jewish slave is automatically freed after six years of slavery; even if he chooses of his own volition to remain in his master?s house, he is freed during the 50th year of ?yovel?. A Jewish maidservant must be freed by the master when she reaches adolescence, unless he or his son marries her and gives her all the rights of a legal wife; a master who hits a non-Jewish slave gets the death penalty; a master who causes his slave to lose a tooth or hurts his eye ? the slave is freed, which stands in contrast to what was customary in the ancient world.

In other portions in the Torah, we learn additional halachot (Jewish laws) whose purpose is to improve the conditions and status of the slave. We must understand that in the ancient world, slavery was prevalent. In Rome, slaves were 30% of the total population. In Sparta, each free person had seventy slaves! Clearly, when there were so many slaves, the life of a slave was not valuable. Slaves became objects that were easily exchanged. The laws of slavery in the Torah do not allow for this. Since every person was created ?in the image of G-d?, a person can never become an object. The inherent holiness of a person is preserved even when he is a slave, and this holiness also led all of humanity to adopt the Torah?s attitude and abolish slavery.

However, we must not forget that in quite a few places around the world, slavery still exists. Based on estimates, approximately 21 million people are still living in a status of forced, or coerced, labor. This is the modern version of slavery, and we, who are guided by the light of Torah, must make sure not to offer any direct or indirect support of this immorality.

Today June 14, 2021

End of prayer time:
Mid day:
הכותל המערבי

We invite you to be a true partner and assist in the ongoing maintenance of the Western Wall


Send a Note

Interesting Facts

The Western Wall Plaza hosts approximately 60,000 people. It symbolizes the Jewish link to Jerusalem and serves as the synagogue closest to the remains of both Holy Temples.
The Western Wall's visible stones tell of its history from the time of the Holy Temples' ruin. The original Herodian stones are distinct from the others in size and in their unique borders.
The building style of "grading" used when layering the Western Wall's stones, teaches us that the Temple Mount's walls were not perpendicular but marginally sloping.
פרשת שבוע

Parasha of the Week

Notice for Women's Section in Tunnels

The women's section in the Western Wall Tunnels closes on Fridays at 13:00 and opens again about 15 minutes before Shabbat begins.

Event Calendar

נא בדוק את החיבור שלך לאינטרנט

Skip to content