We Don’t Always Decide Who We Are

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Behar

Do Not Free an Eved Kena’ani

I chose the comment from HaKetav VeHaKabbalah for this parsha because it dovetails with other learning of mine, although it is not a full idea. Chapter 25, 44-46 introduces eved Kena’ani, a non-Jew in servitude to a Jew. [I avoid “slave” because of its English connotations, given the wrongs perpetrated against Blacks in the US from the 18th century until the end of the Civil War. The Torah’s version has significant differences.]

I’m taking R. Mecklenburg’s comments from verse forty-six, where the Torah tells us ve-hitnachaltem, which I found translated keep them as a possession for your children. The translation incorporates much of R. Mecklenburg’s point. The verb might sound like it obligates Jews to bequeath the servants, except Rashi points out the mistake: to mean that, the verse didn’t need to be reflexive, it could have said ve-hinchaltem. Our form of the verb, he says, means to hold onto, not to let go for no good reason.

He admits that Onkelos and Targum Yonatan, authoritative Aramaic translations, both had his rejected reading.

[He doesn’t lay out the stakes. The way Rashi has it, the verse stops Jews from freeing their servants without cause. Selling the rights to another Jew, for example, would be ok according to Rashi, less so for Onkelos. In addition, unmentioned here, other verses and the Gemara offer some options for how and when such a person might be freed.]

But Not Yours To Do Whatever

The next phrase seems to require Jews to work such people in perpetuity, le-olam bahem ta’avodu. R. Mecklenburg chooses to quote Bava Metzi’a 73, the Torah allows Jews to extract even slave-like avodah, service, from such people (such as their washing the person’s feet) in contrast to avadim ivrim, Jewish indentured servants), but not—as Niddah 47 points out—embarrassing or demeaning treatment.

[A remarkable idea, there is honorable slavery and demeaning treatment, and they are not the same.]

R. Mecklenburg adds an insight ofTurei Even, the obligation only applies where we have the legal right to require the “slave” to work. Where s/he will already somewhat freed of a work obligation—such as aneved Kena’ani freed by one of the partners who previously had the rights to his labor, this Torah obligation dissipates, since the verse is not being fulfilled anyway.

R. Mecklenburg has other points I will leave for some other time, but he has alerted us to this institution calledeved Kena’ani, people who may not be lightly freed, must be held to work but not embarrassed or demeaned, and can be freed at least wherever their work can no longer always be required.

Communism, the Good Kind

Before R. Hirsch discusses a Jewish indentured servant, 25;39 (I use the term to be sure we not be misled to see it as a born-Jewish version of eved Kena’ani), he first reminds us the Torah earlier obligated the community to support anyone teetering financially. (Verse 35 started with the same phrase, ki yamuch achicha, should your brother become poor (or be in straits), and told us to help them).

This support included lending money without charging interest. R. Hirsch said it set up a moral, not political, communism (he uses the word, I’m pretty sure to knock Marxism). The poor person has no right to demand assistance, but can expect it, because of other Jews’ obligation to help.

Indenture Isn’t a Choice and Isn’t Slavery

Coming to our verse, R. Hirsch notes the phrase is ve-nimkar lach, a passive form of verb, he shall be sold to you It reminds R. Hirsch of the rule in Torat Kohanim, a Jew may only indenture himself when he truly has nothing. It is passive, because it will happen to him, when there is no longer any other option.

The verse then bans working the servant avodat aved, the service of a slave. According to Torat Kohanim (and Mechilta Mishpatim), the master may not seek services slaves do for their masters, such as washing his feet, taking off his shoes, carrying his clothes for him to the bathhouse, and the like.

Since none of these are physically challenging, the Torah is making a point about dignity and attitude rather than overwork. To heighten the idea, R. Hirsch points out a Jew may hire a fellow Jew to do exactly these services, and—Ketubbot 96a says—a child or student may perform them for a teacher or parent, out of love. As long as it is not part of an indenture.

A Jew can be a sort of slave to another Jew, but cannot choose it, and cannot act as a slave, although clearly non-enslaved Jews may act exactly those ways.

A Walled City Doesn’t Need a Wall

The Torah has a special rule for house sales in a walled city, 25;30. Where fields cannot be bought back/redeemed for the first two years, but then can be redeemed until the yovel, when they revert to the original owner anyway, houses in walled cities allow a year for redemption but then become the permanent property of the new owner.

In saying so, the Torah refers to a city asher lo chomah, that has a wall. The word lo means has if we read its second letter to be a vav. In the Torah, though, the word is written with an aleph, making lo not or no. Malbim reminds us our general rule for keri u-ketiv—where the Torah writes a word one way but we read it another–tells us to follow the meaning of as it is read, and to infer other lessons from how it is written.

Malbim brings up other examples of the word lo (since the change is so simple) in the Torah and other parts of Tanach, but I will stick with this one. R. Eliezer b. R. Yosi says (Erechin 32a-b) it teaches us the city need not currently have a wall, as long as it did have one. The Gemara points out his view only works if kedusha rishona kidshah le-atid lavo, the original sanctification of the Land of Israel lasted forever, such that this city’s once having had a wall conferred lasting status upon it. His disputant, R. Yishmael b. R. Yose, held it did not.

I think a simple reading of the Gemara would say R. Yishma’el thought the city would only count as a walled city when it has a wall. Malbim disagrees; he insists that even R. Yishma’el would agree that lo means even the city does not need a wall right now, as long as the original sanctity still reigned. If a city’s walls had fallen down during the first Temple, even R. Yishma’el b. R. Yose would have considered it walled.

Two takeaways: when a word is written one way, read another, the way we read it gives us the basic meaning, the written form adds some other idea. In our case, it teaches us the status of walled city started at the time of Yehoshu’a, and stayed, regardless of the continued existence of the wall, for as long as Israel retained its original sanctity.

[Not addressed: why the wall wasn’t crucial to being a walled city, a question to ponder and return to another time.]

Proving Yechezkel Knew the Torah

The comment of R. David Tzvi Hoffman’s that caught my eye this time is less about his insight than about what he felt needed to be shown. He lists all the places where the prophet Yechezkel referenced chapters twenty-five and twenty-six of Vayikra (from our parsha). [I stopped pretending to be an academic a long time ago; still, I think this is called intertextuality, where one text nods at another.]

Of his eleven examples, I’ll restrict myself to two. Verse ten commands us to declare liberty throughout the land (in the yovel/Jubilee year), and Yechezkel 46;17 speaks of a gift lasting until the shenat ha-deror, the year of liberty.

For verse thirty-six’s ban on taking interest, R. Hoffmann cites Yechezkel 18, where not paying or taking interest on loans is repeatedly named as characteristic of a righteous person.

After finishing his list, R. Hoffmann tells us he had earlier shown how Yechezkel counted years according to the Yovel, proof of his contention that prophets strove to uphold all the Torah, at least from the time of King Yoshiyahu.

Has your mind been blown, as mine was? R. David Tzvi Hoffmann felt the need to prove that Yechezkel knew Vayikra, that prophets were trying to convince everyone to keep all of Torah at least from Yoshiyahu’s time. Ideas I would have thought were not only elementary but too elementary for mention. R. Hoffmann had to prove it to the readers of his generation, telling us they did not take this for granted, that was the world he had to address, and it affected the character of the Torah ideas he produced

Rabbis have to speak to their times (or shout inaudibly into the storm), and it turns them into who they are.

Four ways status can be externally imposed: the eved Kena’ani (partially converted non-Jew, in indefinite servitude to a Jew), the eved Ivri (indentured out of dire poverty), a walled city, and R. David Tzvi Hoffmann, who had to spend time and energy proving the basics.

About Gidon Rothstein

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