Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mishpatim: Independence and Servitude.

The beginning of Parshas Mishpatim teaches the laws of owning a Jewish servant. Among these laws is the rule that a Jewish servant must be set free at the latest after six years of servitude. If the servant insists on remaining where he is, and staying in his condition of servitude, he may do so, but he must undergo “retzi’ah.” Retzi'ah means that his master nails him to the doorpost by his ear. This is obviously humiliating and uncomfortable. Rashi explains this with a drasha on the passuk in Vaykra 25– "Ki li Bnei Yisrael Avadim," "for it is to me that the Bnei Yisrael are servants". This is an awkward locution, since it could have simply said "Ki Bnei Yisrael avadai," "they are my servants." Rav Shimon says that the stress is on the "li," "mine." This passuk teaches that “avadai heim, velo avadim le’avadim.” They are my servants, not the servants of servants. The law of retzi'ah teaches us that it is shameful to be an eved, because you are avdei Hashem, and you must maintain your independence and dignity and self-determination. This lesson is so important that its presence justifies the placement of the parsha of avadim before any other din in the Parsha of Mishpatim. The Torah is telling us that as avdei Hashem, we must eschew the mind-set of subordination inherent in servitude, and most certainly the commodification of ones self.

What servitude, what debased state is the Torah warning us to avoid? See Choshen Mishpat 333:3 and Be’er Heiteiv 3, (easy enough to remember, especially in the Winter– it’s 333:3:3) where it says that since the Torah wants a Ben Yisrael to be independent, and not an eved to avadim, a person may not sign a contract that obligates him to work for someone for more than three years. Since an eved ivri is said to have worked “Mishneh schar sachir”, double the engagement of a regular employee, and the term of an eved’s servitude is six years, it must be that the maximum term of non-eved employment is three years and no more. (Sachir=X, Eved=2(X), Eved=6, so Sachir=3.) So we are not talking about debased and dehumanizing labor-- this applies to any contract that limits the employee's freedom to freely choose what to do. Obviously, not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur or a Thoreau, and many people are best suited to being employees. And to some extent, it is possible that an employee has more menuchas hanefesh and can focus his free time on spiritual pursuits. But the point it that this is an attitude, a self-image, that one should aspire to.

What about Rabbinical contracts? There is a machlokes whether a rav can sign a contract for more than three years! Some hold that a lengthy contract doesn’t compromise the rov’s independence, because the longer contract is to protect the rav from getting thrown out when he wants to stay– it is for the protection of the Rav, and so this halacha would not apply. Others hold that the longer contract is to protect the community from a Rav who wants to leave when they want him to stay– it binds the Rav for the protection of the community, and so the halacha would apply. See also the Ktzos there, who brings the Tshuvos Chavos Yo’ir and argues with him on this topic. So you see that no matter what the job is— even being a rov— if the contract is more that three years, you are dangerously moving away from schirus toward avdus, and this is assur.

Rav Schwadron’s sefer puts this concept into perspective: Who can be sold as an eved? A man who is so desperately poor that he cannot find any way to pay back what he stole. What conditions does he live under? It says in Devorim 15 “Ki tov lo imoch.” The Gemorah (Kiddushin 20a) explains that the master has to treat him with respect, and cannot give him menial labor. Furthermore, the eved must be fed, clothed and given bedding of a grade equal to that which the master has. Your wine is old, his wine has to be just as old. His bread is from Breadsmith, you can’t give him bread from a normal bakery. In fact, if the owner only owns or manages to buy two articles of clothing or bedding and one is of a higher quality, that good one goes to the eved, and the master wears the shmatteh. The Gemorah says that when you buy an eved ivri, you are buying yourself a master, koneh odon le’atzmo (Kiddushin 20a). So you can imagine that when the two are walking to shul, the master in a shmatteh and the eved in a good suit, a friend would come from behind and slap the eved on the shoulder and say “nice eved you bought there.” Who can buy an eved ivri with such restrictions and requirements? Only a wealthy man, and only a tzaddik who could handle the restrictions. So what conditions are we talking about here? A destitute man, reduced out of desperation to theft, is sold to the Chofetz Chaim, but a wealthy Chofetz Chaim, who takes care of all his needs, and buys him the best suits he can afford, and can only tell him to do things like take a letter to the post office. And the Torah says, if that man wants to stay an eved, nail his ear to the door, shame on him, avodai heim. You are servants of Hashem, and you should not be taking orders from other people. Don’t allow yourself to be in a position where you will not be absolutely independent. And if this is true when you sell yourself to the Chofetz Chaim, imagine how wrong it is to sell yourself to a sheigitz. And how wrong it is to sell yourself to a beheima, to an animal. “Sell yourself to an animal? What does that mean!” The answer is... “Ein lecho ben chorin elloh mi she’oseik batorah.” A person who does whatever his yeitzer horah wants is fahrkoift to his nefesh habehamis, he is an eved to his yeitzer horah. As the Romans used to say, Nemo liber est qui corpore servit. (The last sentence is not from Rav Schwadron.)

1. My use of the term 'commodification' does not make me a Marxist.

2. I wonder why the Torah allows for Retziah at all? And why is the master not equally wrong in enabling this to occur?

3. I mentioned that the Halacha about not signing a contract for service for a term greater than three years is a citation that's easy to remember, since it's in CM 333:3:3. Another two-- Where does Reb Akiva Eiger say that you are yotzei Kiddush Mide'oraysa when you tell someone good Shabbos? In 271. That's Reish Ayin Aleph, Reb Akiva Eiger. And, of course, the most famous-- Where are the dinim of Birchos Harei'ach? In Reish Yud Ches? Nope. They're in Reish Yud Zayin. This tells you something about the Baal Haturim's attitude about this kind of stuff, not what you'd expect from reading the Baal Haturim ahl hatorah.

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