Sharing Torah Insights

Human Master or Divine Authority?

Posted on כ״ח בשבט ה׳תש״ע (February 12, 2010) | in Mishpatim | by

In this week’s parsha, the Torah discusses the laws of eved ivri – a Jew who is sold as an indentured servant to another Jew. If a man steals and cannot afford to pay restitution, he is sold into slavery for up to 6 years. Alternatively, a man can voluntarily, because of severe poverty, choose to sell himself as a slave. After 6 years, he is freed but can choose to stay with his master and continue to be a slave. If he chooses not to go free, he is taken to the Jewish court of law where his ear is pierced, after which he remains a slave until the yovel year, which occurs every 50 years.

Rashi[1] quotes the Gemara in Kiddushin, “let the ear that heard at Mt. Sinai ‘lo tignov – do not steal’, yet went and stole, be pierced. If he sold himself into slavery, let the ear that heard ‘ki li B’nei Yisrael Avadim – Israel shall be servants to Me (God)’ be pierced.”

If we pierce his ear as a punishment for stealing or for selling himself into slavery, why do we not pierce his ear immediately when he stole or sold himself? Why do we wait until 6 years later, when the slave decides that he does not want to go free?

The Kli Yakar[2] explains that Jewish law does not punish someone twice for the same offense. At the time of the theft, the punishment was to either pay restitution or to be sold into slavery. Now, six years later, the eved ivri shows that slavery was not a true punishment for him. In fact, he enjoyed it so much that he now wants to stay for up to 50 more years. His original offense then remains unpunished and piercing his ear serves as that punishment.

Rav Shimon Schwab[3] offers a different explanation. He argues that the sins deserving of piercing an ear (theft and selling oneself into slavery) were not actually committed until the point that the slave decides to renounce his freedom. When it says in the 10 commandments, “lo tignov­ – do not steal,” this refers specifically to “stealing souls,” i.e.  kidnapping. (The prohibition on monetary theft appears later.) The concept of “ki li B’nei Yisrael Avadim – Israel shall be servants to God” is also inherent to the first commandment heard at Sinai, “I am Hashem, your God, who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” Kidnapping is considered theft because the kidnapper, so to speak, steals the victim’s soul from its rightful owner, Hashem. He takes a person from the freedom to serve God, and imposes human subjugation upon him. So too, when a man voluntarily, not out of poverty or legal requirement, decides to remain a slave to another person, he is, in effect, kidnapping his own soul from God. He is choosing a human master over God and is therefore culpable for violating what his “ear heard at Sinai.”

Though we do not implement the legal structure of eved ivri today, we are still susceptible to rejecting Divine authority in deference to human masters. The eved ivri reminds us to keep our Divine obligations paramount to any responsibility to humans such as professors, bosses, or sfriends .


[1] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), a classic Torah commentator, who lived in France.

[2] Rabbi Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz (1550-1619), a Torah commentator from Poland and Czechoslovakia.

[3] (1908-1995) Rabbi and communal leader in Germany and subsequently the United States.

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