Unnoticed Elements of Avdut, Kohanim, and Shemittah

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Are There Jewish Slaves?

We usually translate eved as slave, but for Jewish avadim I think a better term is indentured servitude, since it is carefully delineated in time and in the owner’s limited rights. Meshech Hochmah finds an indication there is an underlying slavery to it as well. He points out the Torah says an eved who chooses to remain with his master (and the wife the master had had him marry, with the children they had had together) serves le-olam, 21;6.

While le-olam often means forever, rabbinic tradition said this one meant only until yovel, the next Jubilee year. If so, we seem to be back to his being an indentured servant, he stays until yovel, but never becomes a forever servant.

Meshech Hochmah presents a seemingly theoretical question with a deeper conceptual point to it. Imagine an eved Ivri, contracted when yovel was still in effect (the institution only functions when yovel is in effect), and then it stops while the Jew is in his first six years as an eved. This likely happened, back when the ten tribes went into exile during the first Temple, because yovel only applies when kol yosheveha aleha, the majority of the Jewish people live in Israel.

[As I think too few of us consider, trends suggest we will again reach such a situation in the next couple of decades, meaning yovel, shemittah, and other rules will return in full force. Unless we assume all the tribes must be in their granted parts of Israel.]

Did the avdut stop right then, since it depends on yovel? [Were that the case, we would conclude avdut is a subset of the yovel system, for whatever reason.]

Slavery Blows Through the Suspension of the Yovel System

Or does his servitude continue until the end of the agreement, as would happen with a field? The price of fields sold while the yovel system applied depended on how many years were left until yovel, with the original owner also allowed (after two years) to get it back by repaying the remainder of the purchase price. Yovel turned all land sales into long term leases.

The eved Ivri comes with a buyback right, too, but only for the value of the full term, so I think Meshech Hochmah thinks it might have continued until then, not only until the yovel would have been. [To be clear: if a Jew becomes an eved Ivri five years before yovel should have happened, then yovel stops functioning at year three, we might think he goes free right away, but Meshech Hochmah doesn’t. We might have thought he goes free at yovel, but again Meshech Hochmah seems to think he goes free after the entire term of sale, from the parallel to the field.]

With the nirtza, the eved who chose to stay with his master and family, and had his ear pierced, there is no purchase price, so the comparison to a field falls apart. Meshech Hochmah suggests yovel for this kind of eved was afka’ta de-rahmana, Gd’s fiat decision to end the servitude. Where the yovel stops functioning, nothing interrupts the avdut, and he in fact serves forever.

He says ve-haven, which I have suggested is a hint toward contemporary resonance, but I don’t know what that would be here. Possible, he means it shows the peshat, the literal sense of the text, always has value, regardless of rabbinic tradition’s take [which was a hot topic in the nineteenth century, a major factor in the Torah commentaries of the generation or two before Meshech Hochmah, such as Ha-Ketav ve-Ha-Kabbalah, Malbim, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and R. Meir Simhah’s contemporary, R. David Zvi Hoffman]. The peshat of le-olam, forever, functions in a rare situation, meaning we should never completely ignore it.

His idea means the Torah does envision slavery for Jews. (If so, the piercing of the ear switched the eved’s status more profoundly than in number of years, perhaps the reason Hazal inferred disapproval of the Jew’s choice, as Rashi shares, but not Meshech Hochmah’s concern here.)

Murder To Acquire a Woman

In its discussion of murder, the Torah (21;14) says if a man maliciously and premeditatedly kills another, the authorities must take him “from My altar” to be put to death. The Gemara dealt with the verse’s direct intent, whether we interrupt a sacrificial service to take a murderous priest to justice. Meshech Hochmah suggests (his words are lo muzar lomar, it’s not strange or outlandish to say; he knows he is speculating) the verse means to focus our attention on priestly murder.

Bereshit makes clear men used to murder women’s husbands when they fancied them (Avraham and Yitzhak both fear it during their travels). The word ormah in our verse—should a man kill his fellow be-ormah—reminds Meshech Hochmah of the nahash in Eden, whom the verse tells us was arom. A Tosefta in Sotah 4 says the nahash was attracted to Havah, hatched the “eating from the Tree” plot to get Adam killed, to have Havah for himself.

For Meshech Hochmah, the connotation of ormah from the nahash [I checked, the nahash does seem the only other comparable use of ormah in the Torah] implies the man here, too, killed his fellow Jew with designs on his wife. He offers one more support for the idea: Sanhedrin 69a refers to our verse (in a different context) and says an ish, a man, is capable of sexual relations, where a minor is not, inserting an issue of sexuality into our verse, to Meshech Hochmah explaining why a minor likely would not commit a murder for the reasons in this verse.

His first surprising step, based on Bereshit, is that the Torah here doesn’t mean any premeditated killer, it refers to a Jew who finds a way to kill a woman’s husband to take her for himself.

Kohanim’s Tendency to Womanize

Next, he says the altar reference tells us it was more likely to be kohanim who did this, first because they would have more contact with men’s wives than other men. The Torah assigns sacrifices for after childbirth and for unusual menstruation, so women might come to the Temple relatively regularly to offer a sacrifice, opening the door to a kohen fancying a particular woman and deciding to find a way to make her his own.

Divorce would not work, because kohanim may not marry divorced women, so they might turn to murder most foul (where ordinary Jews would “only” convince the woman to divorce). In his read, the Torah is telling us we must bring these kohanim to justice.

Aside from the tour de force of finding links we might have missed, Meshech Hochmah’s underlying idea fascinates me, that kohanim, who we usually think of as so focused on Gd’s service, on their role as Temple functionaries, could become corrupted by their desires for women [I don’t think he mentions it here, but the beginning of I Shmuel suggests Hofni and Pinhas, the two sons of Eli, had some aspect of this in their service].

A reminder that being in a conspicuously religious role does not render people immune to their temptations, for some people perhaps even heightens them.

Don’t Circumvent the Torah

I have pointed out before the uncertainty about when R. Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen wrote Meshech Hochmah. His comment to 23;11 implicitly objects to the heter mechirah, the symbolic selling of the Land of Israel to a non-Jew to relieve Jewish farmers of many of the restrictions of shemittah. That first occured before the shemittah of 5649 (1888-89), when he was in his mid-forties.

The verse says to observe shemittah, and Meshech Hochmah notes a view that selling the land to a non-Jew removes its sanctity in terms of agricultural rules (a debate in Gittin 47b, and among halachic authorities throughout history). Adopting that view would facilitate avoiding shemittah completely. By entering a partnership with a non-Jew, the Jew could take the produce from year six of the shemittah cycle, and leave year seven for the non-Jew (he assumes the non-Jew has real ownership, takes the profits from his year, which is not true in the heter mechirah).

Similarly, Jews could own animals (or bakeries, as I once saw in Manhattan) with non-Jews, and have the non-Jew own the property for Shabbat, avoiding the obligation to let the animal rest on that day (an obligation the Torah tells us in 23;12, the verse right after the shemittah one, I think the reason he saw a link here). Or for orlah, the Jew could cede the first years of a fruit tree to the non-Jew, take it over only after the obligation to abstain from benefit had gone away.

Proactively, the Torah told Jews to be careful about all Gd had told them in verse thirteen, a verse Meshech Hochmah understands to obligate the community to make ordinances against such partnerships. We might think that’s a stretch, except the end of the verse warns against mentioning the names of other gods, for no obvious reason in its context. Sanhedrin 63b tells us the amora Shemuel read the phrase to prohibit partnerships with non-Jews, because if they have conflict, the non-Jew will swear in his court, using the name of whatever god he worships. Jews are not supposed to be the cause of invoking other gods as a marker of truth.

Independent of Meshech Hochmah, in other words, the rabbis applied the verse to partnerships with non-Jews, and it comes right after a verse about shemittah and one about letting animals rest on Shabbat, both circumventable by a partnership with non-Jews.

An elegant reading of the Torah arguing against halachic workarounds he might have seen in his day. We don’t have to accept his view to enjoy the insight, nor do we have to reject it completely because we think we need such workarounds. We can agree the Torah warns against completely wiping away these practices and still think a current workaround can be used, particularly because most authorities think shemittah today is rabbinic. When it returns to being Biblical (see above, when yovel comes back), his idea might become even more applicable.

Our first and last comment took us into shemittah, how it teaches us about Jewish avadim and as a reminder the Torah does not want its laws completely circumvented. In between, we had to consider whether kohanim might be more likely than other Jews to commit horrific acts, leading the Torah to warn about letting them get away with it.

About Gidon Rothstein

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