כי תקנה עבד עברי שש שנים יעבד ובשבעת יצא לחפשי חנם
When you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve, and in the seventh year he shall go out into freedom for nothing. (Shemot 21:2)
When discussing the case of the Eved Ivri—the Hebrew Servant—the Torah states that the Hebrew slave is to be released after six year of service, without having to buy his freedom.” This situation only arises when the court convicts a Jew of theft and he is subsequently unable to make restitution. As a result, the thief must work as a servant to pay off his debt. A little later in the text, we read about a similar situation regarding a Hebrew maidservant: “And if a man sells his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the man servants do.”
Both cases describe tragic circumstances; one in which a man has to sell himself into servitude because of a theft that he could not repay, and the other in which a father has to “sell” his young daughter out of sheer poverty, with the hope that she will survive and perhaps marry her new master or his son when she grows to maturity.
If we pay close attention to the wording of the text, we notices that the Torah uses the second person (“When you buy a servant…”) in the Eved Ivri case, while the case of the Hebrew maidservant is written in the third person (“And if a man sells his daughter…”).
Why the difference in conjugation?
Based on a comment by Meshivat Nefesh, According to the Talmudic Sages, buying a thief as a servant is a positive commandment, and was also a somewhat joyful occasion. The whole institution of servitude in Judaism is built on the premise that the time spent living and working in a proper Jewish home will help to rehabilitate the thief. Instead of going to jail to be surrounded by like-minded criminals, as is the procedure in other legal systems, he is adopted by a Jewish family who will try, throughout the six years of his servitude, to rebuild his self-respect and re-educate him by giving him a model of how life should be. The example of how a proper family functions provides the Hebrew servant with a new image of what his future could be. And at the end, he will leave with hope for enjoying a new and better way of life.
The Dignity of the Slave
The most critical aspect of the servant’s education comes from the Torah’s requirement that the members of the family treat him with the utmost respect. For example, if the family has only one pillow, Jewish law obligates the family to let the servant use it, since he must not be made to feel discriminated against by the family in even the slightest way. The fact that he may not want to leave at the end of the six years is another proof of how well his new family must care for him. Taking such a person under one’s roof is, therefore, a happy occasion, and so the Torah speaks directly to the reader using the second person (“When you buy a Hebrew servant”).
However, the case of the Hebrew maidservant is anything but happy. When a man’s circumstances become so dire as to necessitate “selling” his daughter, however much he may be consoled by the monetary reward involved and/or the fact that the arrangement may give his daughter the opportunity for a better future, the situation remains, undeniably, a human tragedy. In that case, the Torah does not want to implicate the reader or relate to him as the case’s sad protagonist in any way, and therefore does not use the second person, but rather creates a distance by speaking exclusively in the third person.
Obviously, the details of the case are not the most striking feature of the Torah’s instructions (we may even wonder if such a thing ever happened, given that Jewish law would require the community to help the father so that he would never be forced to sell his daughter). Rather, the way in which the Torah subtly conveys its wisdom regarding the way one should ideally communicate to his fellow man, demonstrates true greatness. When a person speaks to his fellow man about something good, he should use the second person—“When you loan someone a million dollars…” But when one has to discuss a possible tragedy, one should speak in the third person: “When a man buries his relative….”
When a person lives by this advice, he demonstrates great sensitivity to the way words influence people’s psychological condition, as well as a desire to be a source of positive, growing energy for his fellow man.
 Shemot 21:2.
 Ibid., 22:2.
 Ibid., 21:7.
 On Shemot 21:2.
 See Kiddushin 20a and Tosafot s.v. “Kol ha-kone eved ivri ke-kone eved le-atzmo”; Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avadim, 1:6-9; Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:39.
 Shemot 21:5.
Questions from the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank:
- Regarding Rabbi Cardozo’s pondering about the reality of the case of the Hebrew maidservant, do you agree with his thinking that this may be one of those theoretical cases which never actualized (and was never meant to be actualized), akin to the rebellious son (בן סורר ומורה) and the wayward city (עיר נדחת)? Or do you think that the Torah was presenting a realistic yet sad situation in which a father would “sell” his daughter into servitude in the hope of her living a better life?
- Do you think that the rehabilitation system for property crime (for example theft, vandalism, larceny, shoplifting and the like) as proposed by the Torah (the Eved Ivri system) is more effective at criminal reform that the penal system (i.e., jail) used today in Western countries? Why? At face value, the Eved Ivri system is only used if the criminal cannot repay the restitutions decided by the judge. Given the apparent benefits of reform to the criminal as described by Rabbi Cardozo above, why do you think the Torah did not legislate the Eved Ivri system even if the criminal can repay the restitutions? If someone got to a mental and emotional state where they justified stealing why should the ability to repay the restitutions be the condition of whether the Eved Ivri system is used or not?
3. Rabbi Cardozo argues that the sensitivity of language, second person vs. third person, is what makes all the difference in how one is to relate to the Hebrew slave versus the Hebrew maidservant. The verses relating to the Hebrew slave and the Hebrew maidservant however exhibit other differences which might suggest a change in how one is to relate to the two cases, for example, the Hebrew slave is “set free without charge” whereas the Hebrew maidservant “shall not go out like the man servants do”. What other lessons can be learned from this difference in language between the two cases?
R jamed says
This is a well-written useful article that you posted thank you ( adds to my understanding somewhat about the difference between slave and servant Douloi, a very misunderstood concept used often in the New Testament. the commentaries I’ve read regarding this difference disagree and rarely make much sense)
But I would especially like to understand more about
“משׁיבת נפשׁ, meshibath nephesh” referred to in the beginning of this post
I am a Christian and this is a New Concept to me and I would appreciate a resource or your explanation ( in English because I do not understand Hebrew) so I can learn more about it