When discussing the eved ivri (Hebrew servant), the text states: “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve for six years, and in the seventh year he is to be set free without liability” (Shemoth 21: 2). This refers to a Jew who was sold by the court into servitude to make restitution for his theft (Ibid. 22:2).
A bit later we read about a similar situation regarding a Hebrew maidservant: “And if a man sells his daughter as a maidservant, she shall not be freed as male servants are released” (Ibid. 21:7).
Each case speaks of a tragedy: one, in which a man has to sell himself as a servant because of a theft he is unable to repay; the other, in which a father has to sell his minor daughter because he is absolutely destitute with no possible means of support. The hope is that she may survive, and even marry her master or his son later on. (Though we can no longer imagine such conditions, they were very prevalent in the ancient world, and even today we know of countries in the Far East where such tragedies are not uncommon. The Torah, while trying to prevent such practices, had to compromise its ideals on occasion and find a temporary solution to ease the situation until the arrival of better times.)
Careful reading of both texts, however, gives us pause. In the first case, the Torah uses the second-person pronoun (“If you buy a Hebrew servant…”), while in the second case it speaks in the third person (“And if a man sells his daughter…”).
Why the difference?
Meshivath Nefesh offers a most illuminating explanation. According to the talmudic sages, the buying of a servant – however sad – is not just a positive commandment, but in fact, is paradoxically a somewhat joyful event. The whole institution of servitude in the Torah is built on the principle that one wants to help a fellow man who has fallen. Instead of the thief being put in jail, as would be the procedure in other legal systems, he is adopted by a Jewish family who will try, throughout the six years of his servitude, to rehabilitate him. By taking him in and setting an example of how a proper family functions, the family will give the slave a different understanding of his own future, and by the time he leaves six years later, he will be equipped to start a new way of life with renewed hope. This is borne out by the fact that he must be treated with the utmost respect by the family members. They are not allowed to abuse him, and he is even granted some privileges denied to others in the family. For instance, if there is only one cushion available, he has the right to use it, since he must not be made to feel discriminated against by the family, even in the slightest way. The fact that he may not want to leave at the end of six years (Shemoth 21:5) is further proof of how well he must be treated by his “new family.” Taking such a person under one’s roof is, therefore, a happy occasion, and consequently, the Torah uses the second-person voice, “If you buy a Hebrew servant…” In other words, it speaks directly to the reader.
However, in the case of the Hebrew maidservant, one cannot speak about a happy occasion. When a man needs to sell his daughter out of sheer poverty, it is a tragedy – no matter how much he is helped by such a move and no matter how much better a future his daughter may have if she marries her master or the son of her master. In that case, the Torah is not prepared to use the second person, but instead creates a distance by saying “And if a man sells his daughter” – in third person. Nobody wishes his friend to be faced with the tragic situation of being forced to sell his daughter.
This remarkable sensitivity on the part of the Torah is not found in any other legal system.
Obviously, it is not just the case itself that is important (we even wonder how often this ever happened, knowing that in accordance with Jewish law the community has the responsibility to help the destitute man so that he will never have to sell his daughter), but above all, an attitude that the Torah tries to convey to its readers. When you speak to your fellow man about something good, you should speak in the second person: “May you merit…” But when speaking to another about a possible tragedy, one should use the third-person voice: “If somebody finds himself in…”
This indeed shows great sensitivity and has far-reaching consequences for human relationships.