Ethics in the Parsha-Mishpatim: Trade in humans is strictly forbidden


י״ז במרחשון ה׳תש״פ (15 בNovember 2019)


“When You buy a Jewish slave” (Shemot 21,20)

Having just left the harshest of slaveries and then beheld the most awesome revelation of G-d, the Jewish nation is now ready to learn the statutes of the Torah. We can assume that a shudder passed through their minds when they heard the first subject in this week's Parsha, discussing the laws of slaves, as they themselves had just a few months previously been trapped in miserable slavery with no hope of liberation. However, after noting the conditions for a Jewish slave, whose subjugation is limited to six years, they breathed a sigh of relief:

  • No Jew should be subjected to perpetual service- “For the Children of Israel are My slaves, as I redeemed them from Egypt” (Vayikra 25:55).
  • It is similarly forbidden to give a Jew demeaning jobs (“You shall not compel them to serve in menial work ; you shall not rule him with rigor”-ibid, 39, 46).
  •  A slave's physical needs must be addressed by his master (Devarim 15:15-“He has it good with you”, which Chazal interpret to mean providing food and drink for a slave)
  • One must be so attentive to a slave's needs that if there is one pillow in the house it must be given to the slave, a point which led Chazal to say: whoever buys a slave has bought himself a master.

  In theory the Torah should eschew all forms of slavery after the traumatic experience of the Jewish nation at the hands of their Egyptians captors. Yet the Torah is aware of practical realities, such as the need of affluent people to maintain a retinue of obedient servants to fulfill their needs and whims. Instead of proscribing slavery, the Torah places strict parameters in order to maintain the status and dignity of a slave. The severest punishment belongs to those who try and deprive people of their liberty against their will:

“He who kidnaps a person and then sells him, if he is found in his hands, the kidnabber shall be put to death” (Shemot 21:16)

The death sentence meted out to a kidnapper stems from his exploiting a human being as if he were some object, and denying his intrinsic status in a way described by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch as “social homicide”. Forced slavery demeans and cheapens the victims, and those who deal in this nefarious industry would not balk at murder or other serious crimes.

            Even in our generation there are some nations where slavery is accepted practice, notably in Sudan and Mauritania. But we need not go as far as Africa to find harsh and humiliating conditions of slavery. Trafficking women is a loathsome plague which has spread from Asia to our own country. To our great embarrassment, women are lured to Israel seeking honorable employment, and they are then deprived of their passports and identity papers and forced to work as sex slaves in squalid brothels. It is hard to believe that a nation which barely seventy years ago suffered the cruelest imaginable depravations can countenance people being kidnapped and humiliated against their will in such a way. This despicable industry is a stain on our national character.

            All the components of the abovementioned verse take place here. Those pimps who steal a woman's passport deprive her of her freedom, and when they sell her body to others for money, they transgress the rest of the verse and are worthy of capital punishment for their actions. According to Chazal, even the command “you shall not steal” in the Decalogue refers to those who kidnap others. We would do well to eliminate this scourge from our holy country.

            One of the most touching elegies said on Tisha Ba'av describes the feelings of the son and daughter of Rabbi Yishmael the high priest who had been sold into slavery and their masters wanted them to mate together:

            “They cried from vexation and fear. Until morning their tears did not abate…with dawn as they recognized each other, they cried “Oh my brother, Oh my sister” and hugged one another until their souls departed.”

             If we mourn to this day for the enslavement we have suffered from other nations, we must do more to remove from our midst any form of the forced slavery which the Torah so condemns. 

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