January 28, 2023 |

The Eved Ivri in Culpepper Virginia

On December 30th, I got the following letter in the mail:

“Shalom Aleichem. Our Traditional Jewish Community desperately needs a volunteer one Saturday evening per month to lead our conclusion of Shabbat, Havdalah service. Without your assistance we will be unable to meet and experience the oneg, menuchah, and kedushah of Shabbat. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts, beshalom.” Beshalom was written in Hebrew letters.

The letter was from the Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpepper, Virginia. The prisoners are asking for volunteers to lead a Jewish prayer service for their congregation, which is in a medium security prison, once a month.

I thought of this letter as I was studying this week’s Torah portion.

Our Torah portion takes up the narrative after the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai in last week’s portion. This week we are taught a series of civil laws and torts. Ramban explains that these laws are basically a continuation and a fuller explanation of the Ten Commandments.

The first law that we are taught in this week’s portion is the law of an eved ivri, which is usually mistranslated as a “Hebrew slave.” By virtue of the fact that this law is the first law taught in this section of civil laws the Torah is emphasizing how special and important is this concept of an eved ivri. It would be accurate to say that the idea of an eved ivri is the underpinning for the basis of all of our civil laws and torts. What is so special about this law?

First some background information in an attempt to clear up some confusion:

There are two major types of avadim discussed in the Torah, an eved ivri and an eved kenani.

The word eved can mean slave, as in “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” But it can also mean a “trusted servant” as in the “eved,” the servant, of Abraham who found a wife for Isaac. Moshe himself is also called an “eved Hashem,” a servant of God.

The difference in meaning between these two terms is reflected in the two different concepts of an eved kenani and an eved ivri.

An eved kenani is translated as a Canaanite Slave. Such a slave was usually captured in battle and such slavery is comparable to the horrible concept of slavery that we know of from American History. A Canaanite slave was basically the property of his owner.

Slavery is a horrible institution. It removes the dignity of a human being and takes away his humanity. And so even though the Torah is divine and beautiful and good beyond words, I am personally unable to understand how the Torah allowed for this institution. Sometimes the ways of the Torah are beyond my human ability to comprehend.

The best I can do—and I admit that this is apologetics--is to say that the rabbis in another area of the Torah put forth the concept, “lo dibrah torah elah keneged hayetzer.” This means that the Torah sometimes doesn’t outlaw certain activity, even though it doesn’t like the activity, because it knows that to outlaw the activity all at once will be too much for society to handle and thus the reform of society won’t be successful.

Here too, I believe that the Torah really despises the idea of an eved kenani, but it cannot outlaw it all at once, as such legislation would be too much, too fast. Instead the Torah puts forth a series of reforms which are intended to lead eventually to the total abolition of slavery.

These biblical reforms are the fact that Canaanite slave was given off one day a week, Shabbat; an owner who beats his Canaanite slave to death is liable for murder; the Canaanite slave cannot be sold to a non-Israelite; if a Canaanite slave fled he could not be turned in; and if an owner knocked out a slave’s tooth or eye or 22 other limbs on his body, then the slave would go free. Although the Torah doesn’t abolish this type of slavery, these laws lay the framework for the basis that a slave is also a human being who needs to be treated with dignity. And such a basis that forces the owner to treat his slave as a human being will eventually lead to the abolition of slavery.

That is the concept of eved kenani. But the eved kenani is not discussed at the beginning of our portion. It is only discussed in the middle of the portion.

The beginning of our portion discusses an eved ivri, which is a totally different concept. It is totally inaccurate to translate an eved ivri as a “Hebrew slave.” Rather, we should leave this term without translation and just define the concept.

There are two ways one can become an eved ivri: one can be short of money and need to raise cash and thus sell himself as an eved ivri; or if one steals an object then the court can sell him as an eved ivri. The eved ivri is then required to work for the person who “purchases” him.

But look at the rules regarding an eved ivri.

The Talmud says, “koneh eved koneh rabbo,” one who purchases a slave is really purchasing a master.”

The reason for this is that an eved ivri is not treated as a slave, but like an equal.

The eved ivri must eat what the boss eats. If the boss only has one pillow then it goes to the eved ivri and not to the boss. One cannot assign to the eved ivri work that he was unaccustomed to do beforehand. One must provide room and board for the eved ivri, as well as for his wife and children. And after six years, the eved ivri must be set free. Only if he chooses to remain as an eved ivri can he do so, but this choice is very much discouraged by the Torah. And at the end of six years when the eved ivri goes free his boss must give him a severance package.

Still, at the end of the day this person is called an eved ivri, and so you might be saying: “Ok. It is enlightened servitude, but it is still servitude. And that is a terrible thing.”

Recently I was quoted in the newspaper as saying that the Messiah will not be able to come as long as there is one Agunah left in the world. In that context, a person approached me this week and asked me if there will be slavery in the time of the Messiah.

My answer to that question was: “I hope not but one never knows….”

I hope there won’t be the concept of Canaanite Slavery. It is inconceivable to me that that concept will ever arise again. We have surpassed that point and are well beyond it.

But, on a strictly utopian level--and I admit that this is not currently realistic--it might be better than our current world if we would see the concept of eved ivri reinstituted.

We should think of the eved ivri as a type of personal rehabilitation program. Can you imagine if in response to a crime of theft we encouraged each family to open their home and enter into an eved ivri type of relationship with the criminal?

Instead of incarceration, we would be bringing the criminal into a warm, loving, and caring environment with the hope of cleaning up his past and changing his future. Instead of teaching the criminal how to be a better criminal which is how prisoners today often leave prison, we would be teaching the criminal a trade and giving him a chance to succeed in life.

Compare this approach which at its core seeks to treat the criminal with dignity to the way the United States currently treats its criminals.

Currently we have almost 3 million people incarcerated. Admittedly, not all of those people are incarcerated for theft, but still that is more than any other country today. This is true both as it relates to the actual number of prisoners as well as the percentage of the population of people imprisoned. In 2007, the United States incarcerated more that 23% of the total prison population of the world.

Now I am not advocating that we lobby to change the current prison system from one of incarceration into an eved ivri system. Such an approach is currently unrealistic and can only be done if we are living in a utopian world, i.e. in the messianic era.

But we can dream and say: wouldn’t it be wonderful, if instead of incarcerating people who steal, we instead opened our homes to individuals and changed their lives for the better.

And it is important to dream about how we can help these criminals. There is a reason why the Torah places these laws first in parshat mishpatim.

Once a criminal has committed a crime of theft they are exposed to the tremendous power of society and they are open to being abused.

By putting these laws at the outset of Mishpatim, the Torah is reminding us that the test of a society is how we punish people for their wrong doings. Do we warehouse them or do we elevate them and bring them into our own families?

Make no mistake about it: the way we treat our criminals is a central element as to who we are as a society.

The Torah tells us that even before any plagues were brought upon Pharoah, Moshe was given a specific law to teach the people. “Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe ve-Aharon vayetzavem el benei yisrael, and Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aaron and he commanded them to the Children of Israel.”

It is a hanging sentence. What did he command them? Explains the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 3:5): “He commanded them regarding the obligation to free their slaves.”

In other words, the very first commandment the children of Israel received, even before they received their freedom was that they needed to free their slaves. This teaching of the Talmud is a reference to the law of this week’s portion that they cannot keep a Hebrew slave for more than six years.

This is seen from the words of the prophet Jeremiah who tells us in this week’s Haftorah that the reason the Jews were expelled from the land of Israel and our Temple was destroyed was our ancestors refused to free their Hebrew slaves after six years.

As the prophet says: “So says Hashem, God of Israel, I made a covenant with your forefathers on the day that they were led out of Egypt saying…after your brother works for you for six years you must send him away, so that he may be free from you. And your fathers did not listen to me…so you should repent today…and do what is good in my eyes and call out for freedom (deror) each man to his friend.”

The prophet is teaching us that a prerequisite to our redemption is calling out for freedom for all those are enslaved.

So today we might not be able to bring back the eved ivri model of a personal involvement with each prisoner; we might not be able to abandon an approach that advocates for large scale incarceration for criminals.

But what we can do in a very small way is try to bring some spirituality into the lives of criminals who are imprisoned.

All these prisoners are seeking from us is to recite some basic prayers with us as a community.

And this is what we pray for every day when we say, shomer yisrael, shemor she-erit yisrael…haomirm shema yisrael. Oh Guardian of Israel, watch the remnant of Israel, who say ‘shema yisrael.’

So I called the Christian chaplain of that prison and I said please tell our friend that I will go once a month and lead a prayer service in Culpepper, Virginia.

And now I turn to you, members and guests of our holy congregation, and I ask you to join me on this spiritual path and join me on our monthly trip to Culpepper. Hopefully, you will have the time to join me on our monthly visits. But even if you can’t, I hope you will join me in remembering the fundamental message of this week’s portion which must govern all our interpersonal relationships: The Torah mandates preservation of human dignity even when dealing with a society that permits slavery; so too, we must remember that we have a responsibility in all our deeds and institutions to preserve human dignity.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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