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The Slow End of Slavery

The Slow End of Slavery

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

In Parshat Mishpatim we witness one of the great stylistic features of the Torah, its transition from narrative to law. Until now the book of Exodus has been primarily narrative: the story of the enslavement of the Israelites and their journey to freedom. Now comes detailed legislation, the “constitution of liberty.”

This is not accidental but essential. In Judaism, law grows out of the historical experience of the people. Egypt was the Jewish people’s school of the soul; memory was its ongoing seminar in the art and craft of freedom. It taught them what it felt like to be on the wrong side of power. “You know what it feels like to be a stranger,” says a resonant phrase in this week’s Parshah.1 Jews were the people commanded never to forget the bitter taste of slavery, so that they would never take freedom for granted. Those who do so, eventually lose it.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the opening of today’s Parshah. We have been reading about the Israelites’ historic experience of slavery. So the social legislation of Mishpatim begins with slavery. What is fascinating is not only what it says, but what it doesn’t say.

It doesn’t say: Abolish slavery. Surely it should have done so. Is that not the whole point of the story thus far? Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. He, as the Egyptian viceroy Tzafenat Paane’ach, threatens them with slavery. Generations later, when a pharaoh arises who “knew not Joseph,” the entire Israelite people become Egypt’s slaves. Slavery, like vengeance, is a vicious circle that has no natural end. Why not, then, give it a supernatural end? Why did G‑d not say: There shall be no more slavery?

The Torah has already given us an implicit answer. Change is possible in human nature, but it takes time: time on a vast scale, centuries, even millennia. There is little doubt that, in terms of the Torah’s value system, the exercise of power by one person over another, without their consent, is a fundamental assault against human dignity. This is not just true of the relationship between master and slave. It is even true, according to many classic Jewish commentators, of the relationship between king and subjects, rulers and ruled. According to the sages, it is even true of the relationship between G‑d and human beings. The Talmud says that if G‑d really did coerce the Jewish people to accept the Torah by “suspending the mountain over their heads,”2 that would constitute an objection to the very terms of the covenant itself. We are G‑d’s avadim, servants, only because our ancestors freely chose to be (see Joshua 24, where Joshua offers the people freedom, if they so choose, to walk away from the covenant then and there).

So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of G‑d’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery, but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, albeit at their own pace, to abolish it of their own accord. Here are the laws:

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything . . . But if the servant declares, “I love my master and my wife and children, and do not want to go free,” then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost, and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.3

What is being done in these laws? First, a fundamental change is taking place in the nature of slavery. No longer is it a permanent status; it is a temporary condition. A Hebrew slave goes free after seven years. He or she knows this. Liberty awaits the slave, not at the whim of the master, but by divine command. When you know that within a fixed time you are going to be free, you may be a slave in body, but in your own mind you are a free human being who has temporarily lost his or her liberty. That in itself is revolutionary.

This alone, though, was not enough. Six years are a long time. Hence the institution of Shabbat, ordained so that one day in seven a slave could breathe free air: no one could command him to work.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the L‑rd your G‑d. On it you shall not do any work, neither you . . . nor your male or female servant . . . so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and that the L‑rd your G‑d brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. That is why the L‑rd your G‑d has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.4

But the Torah is acutely aware that not every slave wants liberty. This, too, emerges out of Israelite history. More than once in the wilderness, the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt. They say: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.”5 As Rashi points out, the phrase “at no cost” (chinam) cannot be understood literally. They paid for it with their labor and their lives. “At no cost” means “free of mitzvot,” of commands, obligations, duties. Freedom carries the highest price, namely, moral responsibility. Many people have shown what Erich Fromm called “fear of freedom.” Rousseau spoke of “forcing people to be free”—a view that led in time to the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.

The Torah does not force people to be free, but it does insist on a ritual of stigmatization. If a slave refuses to go free, his master “shall take him to the door or the doorpost, and pierce his ear with an awl.” Rashi explains:

Why was the ear chosen to be pierced, rather than all the other limbs of the body? Said Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai: . . . The ear that heard on Mount Sinai: “For to Me are the children of Israel servants,” and he, nevertheless, went ahead and acquired a master for himself, should [have his ear] pierced! Rabbi Shimon expounded this verse in a beautiful manner: Why are the door and the doorpost different from other objects of the house? G‑d, in effect, said: “The door and doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the two doorposts, and I said: ‘For to me are the children of Israel servants’”—they are My servants, not servants of servants—and this person went ahead and acquired a master for himself, he shall [have his ear] pierced in their presence.

A slave may stay a slave, but not without being reminded that this is not what G‑d wants for His people. The result of these laws was to create a dynamic that would, in the end, lead to an abolition of slavery, at a time of free human choosing.

And so it happened. The Quakers, Methodists and Evangelicals, most famous among them William Wilberforce, who led the campaign in Britain to abolish the slave trade, were driven by religious conviction, inspired not least by the biblical narrative of the Exodus, and by the challenge of Isaiah “to proclaim freedom for captives, and for prisoners, release from darkness.”6

Slavery was abolished in the United States only after a civil war, and there were those who cited the Bible in defence of slavery. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his second Inaugural: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same G‑d, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just G‑d’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

Yet slavery was abolished in the United States, not least because of the affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson, who wrote those words, was himself a slaveowner. Yet such is the latent power of ideals that eventually people see that by insisting on their right to freedom and dignity while denying it to others, they are living a contradiction. That is when change takes place, and it takes time.

If history tells us anything, it is that G‑d has patience, though it is often sorely tried. He wanted slavery abolished, but He wanted it to be done by free human beings coming to see of their own accord the evil it is and the evil it does. The G‑d of history, who taught us to study history, had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit
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Menachem Posner March 27, 2017

RE: The slow end of Slavery It is true that the Canaanite slave was not accorded the same status as the Hebrew slave. However, it is important to note that even the Canaanite slave would rest on Shabbat. He would be freed if the master would ever mistreat him so badly that he would lose a limb. His freedom could also be purchased. In the event that he was freed, he was then elevated to the status of a complete Jew.

Thus, it is true that the Canaanite slave did not enjoy the same benefits of the Hebrew slave, who was more of a servant than a slave, but there were some very important improvements made to his living conditions, which should not be overlooked. Reply

Richard T Canada March 26, 2017

The slow end of Slavery I have enjoyed this exposition by Rabbi Sacks. However does it (does he) purposely glean over the biggest aspect of slavery ? There were 2 kinds of slaves such as the Jewish slaves and non-Jewish slaves (of surrounding nations) who were not treated equally and could be treated brutally. Those remained slaves forever and those are the kinds of slaves of our more recent past. The jews were (are) G'd's slaves) but non-Jewish slaves were treated not much different than Oxen. It took to long to abolish this kind of slavery and it was mainly brought about by Christians such as Abraham Lincoln and non-Christians of high moral fibre. Still Thank You Rabbi Sacks for your perspective. Reply

Avram J london February 25, 2015

“Don’t do unto others what you would not want do to you – that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 31a).

No more need be said to show the Slavery Provisions are contrary this rule which is our unique contribution to a universal ethical standards.

I suggest there are only two approaches to resolution of this dilemma ]
a. Its a mystery beyond our understanding
b .It is a human construct - which produces unacceptable consequences '

Other approaches look like sophistry.
It is a tribute to our monitors that they permit this discussion. Reply

Jasper May Netherlands February 16, 2015

Non-Hebrew Slavery 2 Another thing. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: “Why did G-d not say: There shall be no more slavery? The Torah has already given us an implicit answer. Change is possible in human nature, but it takes ... time on a vast scale”.

It's interesting how this doesn't apply to any of the Ten Commandments, which were given without regard for whether humans would be willing or able to keep them. We still have murder and theft 3500 years after Moses, so what's the difference? It would have been so easy to give a Commandment saying 'Thou shalt not own thy neighbour'.

Or G-d could have replaced the non-sequitur in Deut. 5:15 by an actual 'sequitur': “Remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy G-d brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy G-d commanded thee not to keep slaves like a hypocrite.”

Thank you, and shalom!
Jasper May

Avram J London February 16, 2015

Dory Scot and Lesson of Slavery Very skewed comment from an American Christian in a debate about a Torah text , Karl Marx gave us an opposite and perhaps more apposite view " Workers of the world unite - you have nothing to lose but your chains" But politics has no place in this discussion;
It is also regrettably resurrects McCarthyist blatant antisemitism (" yes, and non-Jews ") Reply

Jasper May Netherlands February 16, 2015

Non-Israelite slavery Yes, exactly, Avram J. The futureless plight of non-Israelite slaves is exactly what I was missing in this article, as I said two years ago. I'll repeat what I said then so anyone who knows more than me can enlighten us all.

“Imagine you're a non-Hebrew slave. What light at the end of the tunnel would you have? Would there be any way to win freedom for you or your children? Would any jewish court be willing to hear your case?” I'll add: which Torah verses could you quote to your 'master' to make him see the error of his ways?

And please don't compare it with other types of slavery (American, Arab, whatever) and say 'at least it's better than that', because NO slavery is better than ANY slavery.

Mr. Rabbi Schmary Brownstein, you said: “Even as slaves they must always be treated with dignity and never abused.” So what if they refuse to work? Then you redefine 'abuse' to exclude 'letting them starve while not letting them go'? Reply

Dory Scott USA February 11, 2015

Lesson of Slavery Has Not Been Cleaned From the reading I could not help wondering why so many Jews (yes, and non-Jews) still believe in slavery? Why are so many today in support of communism when communism enslaves workers, takes their produce giving it to non-workers? There will always be people that want something for nothing, that want power over others, i.e. there will always be thieves in this world until the return and reign of Messiah. I agree that men have changed, but not mankind. Reply

Avram J London February 10, 2015

Slavery With great respect to the learned Rabbi , I remain deeply unsatisfied by his dissertation. Which does appear to be an apologia . He seems to ignore the futureless plight of the non- Israelite slave..
That non- Israelite slaves are regarded as chattels is shown by the cruel law that the wives and children of Israelite slaves cannot follow him after his release. Finally , 3000 years maybe a moment in G-d's sight but it is over 300 generations of human beings and slavery is well and thriving in the world today.
Do he have to have the patience of angels?
Why cannot the Sages and Rabbis simply accept that the Slavery provisions in Torah are an anomaly and just say - only G-d knows the reasons and He won't tell us. Reply

brandyn ashing February 10, 2015

Let Slavery Live In a world of greed where an employer can terminate someone for the slightest of infractions that he may satisfy his own desires. I want my G-d given right to be a slave back and trade my intelligence with someone who is willing to act godly towards me. Let slavery die not lest we forget this. Reply

Paul Sterling, Alaska February 9, 2015

Very interesting article. I'm not so much as a deep thinker as the Rabbi, but a couple thoughts about the article. First, I believe that the commandment (brought down by Moses), "do not steal," forbids taking another human as a slave. My readings have revealed the typical slave "owned" by a Hebrew were more indentured slaves as opposed to slave trade Europeans and others engaged in.

Also, the article mentioned Thomas Jefferson. I've read most of his letters, and he despised slavery. He inherited his slaves; under Virginia law, if he were to free them, he would have been forced to pay for passage to Africa; later Virginia law dictated he would have had to pay room and board, plus education--things he would have been unable to afford. Reply

Brandyn crestview, fl February 9, 2015

liberty I'm perceiving. (illustration) 'I don't want to be horribly disfigured. I suppose I should go live in a cardboard box?' Reply

Avram Anschel London March 24, 2014

Slaves who are not Israelites The sections of Torah setting out the rules for the treatment of slaves fits ill with the Judaic ethos of "Love they neighbour" . Clearly the Rabbis throughout our history have felt it neccessary to find a reconcilliation. Those who accept that the Torah is G-dly as an article of faith produce ingenious solutions. There must be answer they tell me. The answers offered do not reasonably explain why different rules .apply to Israelites than to others. Are we not all created in G-d's image?
Some provisions are cruel - Hebrew slaves cannot take their children from non Hebrew wives with them if they choose freedom-
To me there is a simple answer ; The economics of the ancient world was based on slave labour. So ethics had to be "adjusted" accomodate an economic imperative. just as they are today The American Civil War demonstrated that the cancer of slavery . ( and it is a social cancer ) cannot be exorcised summarily.
without causing suffering to the previously enslaved.. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein January 16, 2013

Re: Non-Hebrew Slaves It is true that the Torah says of non-Hebrew slaves that they should be kept forever. However, this is actually for almost the same reason as the freeing of the Hebrew slave. All people must remember that they are primarily obligated to G-d, not other people. As a slave, the Hebrew is limited in his ability to properly perform his duties to G-d, being answerable to a human master. Therefore, his servitude must come to an end. For non-Hebrew slaves, on the other hand, their entry into a Jewish household entails becoming quasi-Jews, obligated in many of the Torah's laws. The requirement to keep them on as slaves means that they must not return to their non-Jewish lives devoid of the Torah. However, it is possible and under certain circumstances necessary for them to be freed, thus becoming full-fledged Jews. Even as slaves they must always be treated with dignity and never abused. The treatment of non-Hebrew slaves prescribed by the Torah is also a step on the road to ending slavery. Reply

Jasper May Amsterdam, Netherlands January 12, 2013

Non-Hebrew slaves Dear Rabbi Sacks,

Your apology of Hebrew slavery makes it sound reasonable and just, almost like court-ordered community service. "If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years." "A Hebrew slave goes free after seven years. He or she knows this. Liberty awaits the slave, not at the whim of the master, but by divine command."

Now imagine you're a non-Hebrew slave. What light at the end of the tunnel would you have? Would there be any way to win freedom for you or your children? Would any jewish court be willing to hear your case?

Thank you. Reply

Hadassa March 2, 2012

Constitution Class Dear Rabbi Sacks,
Your understanding of the purpose of G-d's government is profound!!!! I am using this article in my Constitution Class that I am conducting right now. It is relevant to the constant comment, "yeah, but the founders all owned slaves".
The founders inherited slaves, and eventually outlawed the practice, but the invention of the cotton gin, prolonged it once more. It is sad indeed, but your perspective gives so much insight as to human nature, and the person who truly lives by Torah in their heart, will set others free. It is so great that our G-d is not a dictator, and that all his mitzvot lead to our freedom. Reply

Nechama Zuroff Boca Raton, FL, USA February 16, 2012

Insights Thank you, Rabbi Sacks, for the special insights into Parsha and history! Reply

chana leah rego park February 14, 2012

But what of the victims? Deliver me not in the hands of men, indeed Reply

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