Versions of Limited Autonomy

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Shemot 21;3 tells us about when a master sends free his eved Ivri, that his wife goes with him. The term “eved Ivri” is commonly translated as a Hebrew “slave,” but this parshain particular reminds us that multiple versions of servitude qualify as “eved”; translating it as slave weights it with the experience of African-Americans in the United States, even though that does not reflect any of the Torah’s versions of being an eved. So I will avoid the word slave.

The news that the wife goes free surprises and confuses us, since the Torah had not told us she joined her husband in his servitude, so it is not clear why or what it means to tell us that she is now free. Rashi reports Chazal’s view that the verse informs us that one who purchases an eved Ivri takes on the obligation to feed that man’s wife and children [we are left to assume the value of his labor justifies the purchase price, including room and board for his family].

The Master in Place of the Husband

Ramban takes that rule more expansively. He thinks Chazal meant that the master must fulfill all of the father/husband (now eved)’s financial responsibilities. In the Talmudic version of family finances, the father received all his wife and children’s earnings in exchange for supporting them (for much of history, that was a benefit, since they earned less than they needed to live; it was always true, too, that the wife could turn down the deal, forego support and keep her earnings).

Ramban thinks that same dynamic characterizes the wife and children’s relationship with the master. This is a kindness of the Torah’s, that they’ll be financially sustained, and the father/ husband will not have to watch his family suffer or starve while he is bound to this master, having been forced to indenture himself because of penury or pilfering.

The wife thus becomes the master’s servant too in the sense that the fruits of her labor go to him. With the difference that she can leave at any point she chooses to forego the master’s money [I think the essence of avdut in the Torah is that the person cannot leave. That’s what the multiple versions of eved and adon, servant and master, have in common. There is a continuum of obligations, rights, restrictions, and permitted treatment; in all of them, the eved cannot leave without some new input into the situation].

Once we know she too is connected to the master, we understand why the Torah tells us it ends for her when it ends for her husband, at latest.

The Power of Custom

As for the children, Ramban’s model means the master must support them only when the father would have had to. Or, he adds, when the custom is that a father takes care of his child [this is a vital addition, in that the Gemara’s model was that fathers’ financial responsibility for their children could end at age six. R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe Even HEzer 1;106) assumed the custom in our times went much further, for as long as children lived at home; today, that might continue until college or even graduate school].

The role of custom in this rule explains why Mechilta can logically infer that the master has no such obligation to the eved’s arusah, betrothed, or his shomeret yabam, the childless widow of his brother.  Since the eved does not have financial responsibility for such women (Ramban does know of times the eved would have had to support a certain woman, but the master still would not; we can leave that for another time), the master need not.

Slaves as Property to be Mistreated, Or Not

Later in the chapter, the Torah takes up the case of an eved or amah, a male or female “slave,” whose master beat him/her to death. The verse says the victim must be avenged.Mechilta tells us that this must be discussing be a non-Jewish eved, since they are seen as property in halachah. Ramban adds that this fits the simple meaning of the text, which never refers to a Jew as an eved without the qualifier Ivri, Hebrew [whom the master must treat more circumspectly, since he never loses his status as an ordinary Jew, in addition to being an eved of sorts to this master].

The Torah describes the instrument with which the master beat the eved as a shevet, a rodThat reminds Ramban of Mishlei 22;15, where a rod is an instrument of educative discipline. To beat someone with a makel yad, a stick readily at hand, is to lose self-control and yield to ordinary (inexcusable) fury. The Torah comes here to tell us that even when the master uses a shevet, so we believe that his intent was to discipline/educate [Ramban assumes that which is nowadays out of fashion, that there is a version of corporal punishment that is appropriately educational, even as it can also cross the line into abuse], he is still fully liable if he goes so far that the eved dies.

Ramban says the Torah does not bother to mention the punishment, since it’s the same as killing any other human being. In saying that, he highlights two sides of this evedpuzzle. While the non-Jew is treated as closer to a slave than a Jew, and physical punishment is accepted as a reasonable way to teach a lesson, the non-Jewish eved is at the same time also a full person in the eyes of halachah, such that the master would be liable for capital murder if he goes too far.

The Lies of Seduction

Shemot 22;15 mentions a man who is mefateh (seduces, although there’s more to the story, as we’ll see) a single girl. Devarim 22;29 discusses a rapist, which has some parallels to this case. The Torah says the mefateh must marry his victim, unless her father refuses, in which case he has to pay her the usual bride-price for a marriage. The rapist must pay a fine and marry her, and may not ever divorce her.

To understand the similarities and distinctions Ramban sees between the cases, let’s first define the mefateh better. Rashi read it in the usual sense, that a man found a way to convince a woman to have sexual relations. Ramban disagrees; he thinks the root pitui implies falsehood, such as when the second paragraph of Shema warns us pen yifteh levavchem, lest your hearts be seduced (which he takes to mean that something false will lead us astray, since the verse refers to Jews’ being lured by worship of powers other than Hashem).

That’s what peta’im (peti in the singular) means in Mishlei, people with insufficiently developed intellects, such that they cannot distinguish truth from falsehood; Mishlei 14;15 says this most starkly, peti ya’amin le-chol davar, a peti believes everything s/he’s told.

Ramban assumes that no woman would let herself be lured to a man’s bed without having been promised that which was not true, and, second, that if what we would call a seduction involved no misrepresentations, he bears no liability. If she makes a free choice, that’s on her, however much she later regrets it.

Limited Consequences for the Seducer

He also thinks there’s no fine for the liar who seduced her. The mohar he’s required to pay is to replace the costs of her wardrobe and other preparatory materials for married life that a groom would ordinarily give his bride. The seducer could marry her, but is not required to; nor is the father required to agree to that marriage, since that opens the door to men seducing women as a way to force marriage upon them.  

The mohar he pays is for when either party decides not to let a marriage go through. Since this woman will have a harder time marrying, her father will have to offer financial incentives to make her more attractive to other grooms, and the seducer pays those costs.  

There are obviously elements to this discussion that no longer fully fit contemporary customs of how husbands and wives find each other (although there are communities today where much of this discussion would feel fully applicable). One glaring difference is that this is all about a na’arah, a twelve-year-old girl, still under her father’s financial thumb; another is that it takes for granted that a woman/girl who is “damaged goods” will struggle to find a husband.

On the other hand, Ramban respects even such a young woman’s ability to choose. In his view, she bears responsibility for her choices unless there was fraud. And the punishment/ consequence if the man did lie is only compensation for that which he took from her, her highest level of marriage prospects.

The rapist, wholly and solely in the wrong, pays a fine and must marry her, without any right of divorce (if she and her father are interested, the only reason for which would be, again, because of the difficulties of women finding husbands in such circumstances).

Between the Jewish eved, who enters a largely financial relationship, to a non-Jewish one, who comes closer to being fully owned but still has fundamental human rights, to a woman who’s lured, lied, or forced into a sexual (and then, possibly, marital) relationship, Ramban’s comments this time take us into questions of halachic personhood, free, owned, or something in between.

About Gidon Rothstein

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