Servitude ֠in the Haftara and in the Parasha

  • Rabbanit Sharon Rimon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


This parasha series is dedicated
Le-zekher Nishmat HaRabanit Chana bat HaRav Yehuda Zelig zt"l.

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PARASHAT MISHPATIM

 

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This shiur is dedicated in memory of Nathan (Naftali Chaim ben Akiva) Wadler – whose yahrzeit is 29 Shevat.

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Servitude – in the Haftara and in the Parasha

By Rabbanit Sharon Rimon

 

 

As the Haftara to Parashat Mishpatim, we read the story of enslavement in the time of King Tzidkiyahu, as recorded in Yirmiyahu 34:8-22. We shall review the slavery described there, and then try to understand the significance of the command, in our parasha, concerning the freeing of servants.

 

"The word that came to Yirmiyahu from God after King Tzidkiyahu had forged a covenant with all of the people who were in Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty to them -

For every man to let his Hebrew manservant, and every man to let his Hebrew maidservant, go free, such that none of them, should enslave another who is a Jew.

And all the princes and all the people who had entered into the covenant heard that each man should let his manservant, and each man should let his maidservant, go free, and that none should enslave them any more, and they obeyed and let them go free.

But afterwards they relapsed and brought back the menservants and maidservants whom they had let go free, and they subjugated them as menservants and maidservants. (Yirmiyahu 8-11)

 

King Tzidkiyahu, the last king of Yehuda, makes a covenant with the nation. According to this covenant, everyone is required to free his (Hebrew) servants. The forging of such a covenant tells us that a phenomenon of indentured servitude was prevalent amongst Am Yisrael, contrary to the laws of the Torah. The people listen to Tzidkiyahu and agree to free their servants. But some time later, the masters violate the covenant and once again subject their former servants to servitude.

 

What is the background to this episode?

 

Tzidkiyahu

 

Tzidkiyahu, the last king of Yehuda, ruled after the exile of Yehoyakhin – the "exile of the artisans of wood and metal," which involved most of the nation's elite: the king and his household, the ministers, the valiant fighters, and the artisans.[1]

 

Tzidkiyahu was a weak king; he was submissive towards his ministers and did not dare to act in accordance with his own opinions, which were contrary to theirs.[2] Having been placed in power by the Babylonians, with the intention that he would be loyal to Babylon, he rebels against them, despite Yirmiyahu's repeated warnings against this dangerous course of action. Yirmiyahu tells the people and Tzidkiyahu to submit to Babylon, since it is God's will that the Babylonians reign at this time, and anyone who opposes this is opposing God's will. To Yirmiyahu's view, submission to Babylon means submission to God's will, and this is the last and only hope to save Jerusalem from destruction.[3] However, Tzidkiyahu ignores this advice and rebels, apparently under the influence of the ministers whose power he is unable to withstand.

 

As punishment for this rebellion, the Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem:

 

"And it was, in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth of the month, that Nevukhadnetzar King of Babylon came – he and all his host – against Jerusalem, and he camped against it and built a siege wall around it.

So the city was besieged, until the twelfth month of the reign of Tzidkiyahu." (II Melakhim 25:1-2)

 

From Sefer Yirmiyahu we know that at some point this siege was eased:

 

"The host of Pharaoh came out from Egypt, and the Chaldeans – who were besieging Jerusalem – heard news of them, they departed from Jerusalem." (Yirmiyahu 37:5)

 

This easing inspires among the people some hope that the Babylonians are gone for good, but Yirmiyahu prophesies that they will return:

 

"… Behold, Pharaoh's host – that has come out to help you – will return to their land, to Egypt.

And the Chaldeans will once again wage war against this city, and capture it, and burn it with fire.

So says the Lord: Do not deceive yourselves, saying: The Chaldeans have left us – for they will not leave.

For even if you were to smite the entire host of the Chaldeans, who wage war against you, and there remained of them only wounded men, each man would still rise up in his tent and burn this city with fire." (37:7-10)

 

All that Yirmiyahu prophesies comes to be. The Babylonians bring back their siege, which ends – as we know – with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the Babylonian exile:

 

"On the ninth of the month, the hunger grew acute in the city, and there was no bread for the people of the land.

And the city was breached…

And he burned the House of God and the king's house and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great house he burned with fire.

All the hosts of the Chaldeans that were with the captain of the guard pulled down the walls of Jerusalem.

And the rest of the people who remained in the city, and the fugitives that fell to the king of Babylon, and the rest of the multitude, were carried away by Nevuzaradan, the captain of the guard." (II Melakhim 25:3,4,9-11)

 

The Covenant and its Violation

 

At what point during this descent did the episode described in Yirmiyahu 34 take place? When was it that Tzidkiyahu forged a covenant concerning the freeing of the indentured servants? And how much later did the former masters once again subject their servants? Why did they let them go, and why did they subject them again?

 

At the end of the chapter we find a hint as to the timeframe of this prophecy:

 

"And Tzidkiyahu, King of Yehuda, and his ministers, I shall give into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of those who seek their lives, and into the hand of the host of the king of Babylon, which has gone up from you.

Behold, I shall command – says the Lord – and I shall bring them back to this city, and they shall wage war against it, and capture it, and burn it with fire…." (21-22)

 

According to these verses, it appears that the prophecy came during the time that the Babylonian army was gone from Jerusalem. In other words, it was during the easing of the siege. Yirmiyahu prophesied that the siege would be re-imposed, and that Jerusalem would be captured.

 

The re-imposition of servitude, then, appears to have taken place during the easing of the siege.

 

How long before that had the liberation of the servants taken place?

 

The liberation appears to have preceded the easing of the siege. It may have happened during the first part of the siege, or perhaps even earlier.[4]

 

Why was this covenant forged? Yirmiyahu gives no reasons for this initiative, but we may posit that Tzidkiyahu and the people were fearful of the destruction that was approaching, they were afraid of war with Babylon, and decided to try to obey Yirmiyahu and repent. If this is so, then it was an attempt on Tzidkiyahu's part to repair the state of the nation, to bring them to repentance.

 

It is possible that the liberation of the servants came in the wake of Yirmiyahu's words to Tzidkiyahu, as recorded in Yirmiyahu 21:

 

"So says the Lord: Execute judgment in the morning, and save him who is robbed from the hand of his oppressor, lest My fury emerge like fire and burn, with none to extinguish it, because of the evil of your doings." (12)

 

Why, then, do the people once again subjugate their servants?

 

Perhaps, when the siege was eased and the people were certain that they had been saved from the Babylonians, they no longer saw any need to improve themselves, and so they returned to their evil ways. This shows that the covenant did not arise from a profound understanding of their mistakes, but rather was meant as a means of saving themselves from God's punishment.

 

What is God's response, as uttered by Yirmiyahu?

 

Firstly, Yirmiyahu goes back and describes the freeing the servants, as well as the act of their renewed subjugation (verses 12-16). Thereafter he describes the punishment that awaits them as a result (verses 17-22).

 

Let us set aside the description of the sin, for the moment, and consider the punishment:

 

"Therefore, so says the Lord: You did not listen to Me, each to proclaim liberty to his brother, and each to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim liberty for you, says the Lord, to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, and I shall cause you to be removed to all the kingdoms of the earth.

And I shall give those men who have violated My covenant – who did not fulfill the words of the covenant which they forged before me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between its parts.

The princes of Yehuda and the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the kohanim, and all the people of the land who passed through the parts of the calf.

And I shall give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives, and their carcasses shall be for food for the birds of the heavens and for the beasts of the earth.

And Tzidkiyahu King of Yehuda, and his ministers, I shall given into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of those who seek their lives, and into the hand of the host of the king of Babylon, that has gone up from you.

Behold, I shall command – says the Lord – and I shall bring them back to this city, and they shall wage war against it, and capture it, and burn it with fire, and I shall make the cities of Yehuda desolate without inhabitant." (34:17-22)

 

In his prophecy, Yirmiyahu protests against the actions of the people and prophesies that the act of subjugating the servants anew will cause the downfall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Chaldeans. From these words of Yirmiyahu we may deduce that had the covenant been honored, and had the people not subjugated the servants again, there would have been some chance of being saved from the sword – or at least of limiting its devastation.

 

Why is the specific sin of re-subjugating the servants regarded in such a severe light?

 

Yirmiyahu, in his prophecies, accuses the nation and its leaders of many sins, including idolatry and various moral outrages. Why does he attribute such great importance to the matter of the servants – to the point of claiming that it is because of this sin that Jerusalem is ultimately destroyed? Why does the matter of the servants become, at the last minute before the destruction, the single factor that tips the scales?

 

Let us now examine the verses that we previously skipped over, in which Yirmiyahu describes this sin:

 

"The word of the Lord came to Yirmiyahu from the Lord, saying:

So says the Lord God of Israel: I forged a covenant with your forefathers on the day I took them out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, saying:

At the end of seven years each man shall let his Hebrew brother go, who had been indentured to you and who serves you for six years; you shall let him go free from you. But your forefathers did not listen to Me, nor did they lend their ears.

And you had turned, this day, and done what was upright in My eyes, each man proclaiming freedom to his neighbor, and making a covenant before Me in the House upon which My Name is called.

But you have relapsed and profaned My Name, each man bringing back his manservant and each man his maidservant, whom you had allowed to go free, for their pleasure, and you have brought them under your subjugation to be your menservants and maidservants." (12:16)

 

Why does Yirmiyahu go back and describe the sin after the text has already told us the story in verses 8-11?

 

If we take a close look at Yirmiyahu's words, we see that this is not a superfluous repetition. Verses 8-11 focused on the story of the servitude; the story of what happened. Verses 12-16 recall the deed, but with a very important addition: in these verses, Yirmiyahu sets out the significance of the deed in the eyes of God.

 

From these verses we can understand why this particular episode was regarded by God as being such a grave sin, to the point where the nation was worthy of having Jerusalem destroyed because of it.[5]

 

Yirmiyahu's description does not start with the story of the covenant in the days of Tzidkiyahu. Rather, he goes all the way back to the commandment of freeing servants as it appears in the Torah (Parashat Mishpatim, and in Devarim 15).

 

But before embarking on a description of the commandment itself, he starts by saying: "I forged a covenant with your forefathers on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt." He emphasizes that the commandment concerning the freeing of servants is not just a regular law; rather, it is a covenant. And not just a regular covenant, either: it is a covenant that was forged "on the day I took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage."

 

Thereafter, Yirmiyahu speaks about the law itself: the command to let a Hebrew servant go after six years, and the fact that "your forefathers" – the previous generations – had not fulfilled this command.

 

Verse 15 describes the covenant that was made in the days of Tzidkiyahu in strongly positive terms: "You had done what was upright in My eyes"; while verse 16 describes the act of renewed subjugation: "Each man bringing back his manservant…." Here too, even before describing the act itself, Yirmiyahu points out its deeper significance: "You have relapsed and profaned My Name…." The act of renewed subjugation of the servants is a desecration of God's Name.

 

Yirmiyahu's words point to the crux of the problem, in God's eyes:

 

a.           The violation of a covenant – and not just one covenant, but two.

b.           Desecration of God's Name.

 

The matter of the violation of the covenant therefore occupies a central place in this sin. It is the hypocrisy and cynicism of the nation's acts that are problematic.

 

Am Yisrael is perched at the edge of the abyss. At this critical moment it seems that they "catch themselves" and understand that they need to mend their ways. They make a covenant concerning the freeing of servants – which may serve as an opening for a more comprehensive move towards repentance, with a renewed connection between the nation and God. This is their last chance.

 

When they decide to violate this covenant, it becomes clear that there was never any real attempt at repair. The freeing of the servants was merely a means of saving themselves from punishment; it did not arise from a deeper understanding of the inherent evil of their deeds.

 

The severity of the violation of the covenant is emphasized in the number of times that Yirmiyahu mentions the making and breaking of this contract:

 

* As noted above, Yirmiyahu's description of the sin begins specifically with the matter of the covenant.

* The word "covenant" is repeated six times.

* The law of liberating servants is referred to here as a "covenant." What covenant was there in the Torah concerning the liberating of servants? The law of freeing a Hebrew servant after six years appears in Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot 21) as well as in Devarim 15. In both cases the law is presented like any other, with no mention of any special covenant being made over it.[6]

* The covenant of Tzidkiyahu is describes in detail: what exactly was said, and how the people passed between the parts.

* Verses 18-20 summarize the sin and its punishment: "I shall give the people who have violated My covenant… and I shall give them into the hands of their enemies."

 

Thus, it seems that the violation of the covenant is a central issue in the nation's behavior.

 

Perhaps it is not only the violation of the covenant that is so grave, but also the very forging of such a covenant in the first place. This covenant testifies to the nation's distorted view of the performance of the commandments in general, as Yirmiyahu protests on many occasions. They regard the Temple service and the commandments as external religious rites that can save them from punishment. They do not understand the inner meaning of the laws, nor the connection between religious rites and more general moral behavior that is connected to God.[7]

 

Hence, this act of violating the covenant shows up the nation's hypocrisy; it testifies that no change has taken place in their perception of Divine service and the performance of the commandments. The subjugation anew of the servants is regarded in such a serious light because it shows the nation's hypocritical attitude towards the commandments in general. Even if they were to make a covenant of repair with regard to some other law, and then went on to violate it, the significance of their act would be equally grave.

 

Hence, the gravity arises not from the issue of servitude but rather from the violation of the covenant, which was their last chance for repair – a chance that was squandered. Aside from this, a covenant forged solely to save themselves from punishment, and violated the moment that the tangible threat was removed, testifies that the nation is oblivious to the significance of God's laws and is not interested in real change and repair. There is no attempt to return to God truly and wholeheartedly.

 

Servitude

 

Does Yirmiyahu emphasize only the gravity of violating a covenant, or does he also emphasize the severity of the act of subjugation itself?

 

Let us examine his words again, paying attention to several important points:

 

*          In verse 16, describing the profanation of God, the nation is not told, "You profaned My Name by violating My covenant," but rather, "You profaned My Name, bringing back each man his manservant…." In other words, the profanation of God's Name is directly connected here to the subjugation. (Obviously, violation of a covenant also represents a desecration of God's Name, but this particular verse focuses on the offense inherent in the subjugation itself.)

*          Yirmiyahu refers to the law of liberating servants as a "covenant" that was forged with Am Yisrael at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. As mentioned, the Torah does not present any specific covenant based solely on the matter of servitude; rather, there is a covenant concerning all of the commandments. Yirmiyahu chooses to highlight the law of liberating servants as a covenant, so as to emphasize the importance of this law.

 

Verse 17 presents the punishment as corresponding to the sin, measure for measure: "You did not listen to Me, each to proclaim liberty to his brother, and each to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim liberty for you, says the Lord, to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine…." According to this verse, the punishment comes because the servants are not free. In other words, Yirmiyahu here presents the servitude itself as the reason for the punishment.

 

*          The word "servant" (eved) appears ten times in this chapter; the word "free" (chofshi) appears five times, and the word "freedom" (deror) appears four times.[8]

 

It is clear, then, that the subject of servitude is central to this narrative. It is not only the violation of the covenant that is so serious, but also the situation of servitude itself.

 

Why is this so?

 

Let us examine the subject of servitude in this week's parasha, Mishpatim, and try to understand the seriousness of this issue and of Yirmiyahu's prophecy of rebuke.

 

The connection between Parashat Mishpatim and the Haftara from Yirmiyahu is obvious. Parashat Mishpatim opens with the commandment to free servants:

 

"And these are the judgments which you shall place before them:

If you acquire a Hebrew servant, he shall work for six years, and in the seventh year he shall go out free, for nothing." (Shemot 21:1-2)

 

The Haftara, as we have seen, tells about servitude during the period of Tzidkiyahu.

 

Yirmiyahu echoes the words of the Torah and commands that the servants be set free after six years, noting that this commandment has not been fulfilled.

 

In light of Yirmiyahu's assertion that the servitude represents a violation of a covenant, let us take another look at Parashat Mishpatim, where we discover something interesting.

 

Parashat Mishpatim, too, concludes with the forging of a covenant:

 

"Moshe wrote all of God's words, and he arose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve monuments for the twelve tribes of Israel.

And he sent the young men of the children of Israel, and they offered up burnt sacrifices and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord.

And Moshe took half of the blood and placed it in basins, and [the other] half he sprinkled upon the altar.

And he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said: All that the Lord has spoken we shall do and we shall hear.

And Moshe took the blood and sprinkled it over the people, and he said: Behold, the blood of the covenant which God has made with you concerning all of these things." (24:4-8)

 

Thus, the subject with which Parashat Mishpatim opens (servitude) and the subject with which it concludes (the covenant) are the two central themes of the Haftara.

 

Parashat Mishpatim is the first parasha of laws following the Revelation at Sinai (Parashat Yitro). The parasha does go on to discuss a list of other laws, but it opens with the subject of servitude and ends with the covenant. Hence, while the covenant is admittedly more comprehensive, its beginning and its heart pertain to servitude.

 

Why does the Torah introduce the first collection of laws specifically with the matter of the Hebrew servant?

 

Apparently, the Torah attaches great importance to this law.[9]

 

Yirmiyahu, too, attaches great importance to the law of liberating servants, when he asserts that a covenant was made in this regard. According to the prophet, the covenant concerning servitude was made with Am Yisrael "on the day I took them out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage." Here Yirmiyahu borrows the language of the first of the Ten Commandments:

 

"I am the Lord your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage." (Shemot 20:2)

 

The commandment of liberating servants is inherently connected to the Exodus "from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage," and it is fundamentally connected to faith in God.

 

Thus, the Torah attaches great importance to the matter of servitude, and therefore presents this subject as the introduction to this parasha of laws; and from Yirmiyahu's rebuke, too, we deduce that servitude is an important component in the covenant between God and Israel.

 

The basis for the entire Torah is faith in God: "I am the Lord your God." This is the first of the Ten Commandments. We do not read, "I am the Lord Who created the world," but rather "Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage." It is the emergence from slavery to freedom that allows a person to connect fully with God. Freedom is the basis for the fulfillment of the commandments. Only after emerging from slavery to freedom can the Torah be accepted. A person who is subjgated to someone else cannot be fully subjugated to God. This is true not only in the technical sense – that his master's demands interfere with the fulfillment of God's laws – but also in a psychological, spiritual sense: a slave cannot fully sense his dependence on God so long as he is dependent on his human master.

 

For this reason, the Torah introduces Parashat Mishpatim – the first parasha of laws – with the matter of the Hebrew servant.

 

An indentured Hebrew servant is not completely subjugated. Numerous laws attest to this, but the first law that appears in the Torah in this regard is the most significant: a Hebrew servant is not subjugated forever, but only for a fixed period of time.

 

The moment that a servant is not a slave for perpetuity, his servitude is not real slavery.

 

Even in the case of a person who wants to continue serving his master forever, the Torah does not encourage this:

 

"And if the servant should say: I love my master and my wife and my children; I shall not go free –

Then his master shall bring him to the judges, and bring him close to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce through his ear with an awl, and then he shall serve him forever." (Shemot 21:5-6)

 

What is the significance of piercing the servant's ear?

 

"Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai explains this verse like a packet. In what way is the ear different from any other organ of the body [i.e., why is it specifically the ear that is pierced?] The Holy One said: This ear, that heard My voice at Mount Sinai, when I said, 'The children of Israel are slaves to Me'[10] - not slaves to slaves, and nevertheless went and acquired itself a master – it shall be pierced."[11] (Kiddushin 22b)

 

The piercing of the ear, as Chazal understand it, is a sign that the Torah is not happy with this situation of servitude.

 

Still, even a servant who wants to continue his servitude, and has pierced his ear as required, does not remain a servant literally "forever," but rather only up until the Jubilee year.

 

The commandment of the Jubilee year, in Vayikra 25, cancels the "permanent" status of servitude.[12] Once every fifty years, every Israelite goes free:

 

"You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty[13] in the land for all of its inhabitants; it shall be a Jubilee unto you, and you shall return, each man to his inheritance; and each man of you shall return to his family…

If your brother who is with you grows poor, and he is sold to you, you shall not compel him to work as a slave.

He shall be like a hired servant as like a sojourner; until the Jubilee year he shall serve with you.

And he shall go out from you – he and his sons with him – and return to his family, and he shall return to the inheritance of his forefathers.

For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves." (Vayikra 25:10,39-42)

 

Amongst Am Yisrael there is no slavery for perpetuity, "for they are My slaves." All of Israel is subjugated to God, and therefore none of them can be subjugated to another person. The basis for subjugation to God is that every person is free.

 

An examination of the laws pertaining to indentured service shows that, in truth, the concept of slavery does not exist at all amongst Am Yisrael. A Hebrew servant is a worker, who enjoys special rights: his indenture is temporary (six years) and is also dissolved by the Jubilee year, and during that time the servant must enjoy the same conditions that the master receives: "With you in eating and in drinking – it should not be that you eat fine bread while he eats coarse bread…" (Kiddushin 15a and 20a), to the extent that Chazal declare, "Anyone who acquires himself a servant is like someone who acquires a master for himself!" (Ibid.). It is forbidden to impose humiliating work on the servant (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Mishpatim, 1). A person sells himself into indenture only if he is so poor that he has nothing at all (Rambam, Laws of Servants, 1:1). If a person steals, Beit Din may sell him into indenture in order to facilitate his paying back what he owes. This measure reflects a desire to educate the thief (as opposed to locking him up in jail). For this reason, selling a person into indenture is a possibility only in the case of theft; it is not applicable where a person has regular debts.[14] Even in the case of theft, only a Beit Din is entitled to sell him; no one else can,[15] and only the thief himself can become a servant, not someone else from his family[16] (see Rambam, Laws of Servants, chapter 1). In the case of a Hebrew maidservant, the girl is taken into indenture with the purpose of marriage: "If he designates her for his son, then he shall treat her in the manner of daughters… and if he does none of these three things for her, then she shall go out free, for no money." (This accorded with the ancient practice whereby women were married at a young age, for without the financial security of marriage they were doomed to starve.)

 

The Torah does not accept or recognize a reality of absolute subjugation of one Jew by another Jew. As we learn from Parashat Mishpatim and its complement in Yirmiyahu, such a situation is fundamentally opposed to God's will, and also represents a violation of His covenant.

 

Servitude as Violation of the Covenant

 

Let us now return to the narrative in Yirmiyahu 34, and try to understand better the violation of the covenant that is involved.

 

The liberation of the servants is presented in Yirmiyahu as a covenant. Having reviewed the subject of servitude, we can now understand what Yirmiyahu means: while the covenant was admittedly made over all the commandments, the basis for all of those commandment – and for the fulfillment of the covenant itself – is a state of freedom. The same conclusion arises from the end of Parashat Mishpatim: the covenant is made over all of the commandments, but the first commandment of the list concerns servitude, since this is an important, meaningful platform for the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.

 

Faith in God is dependent upon "leaving the house of bondage" – emerging from slavery to freedom, and the first commandment of all the commandments comprising the covenant, in Parashat Mishpatim, is that of liberating servants, facilitating freedom for every person in Israel. This is the basis of the covenant.

 

Against this background, we can better understand the great severity with which Yirmiyahu views the act of the nation. When servitude is a widespread phenomenon in Israel, contrary to the laws of the Torah, the basis for faith in God is removed. A state of servitude weakens the "I am the Lord…" in two senses:

 

Firstly, the servants are not free to be servants to God.

 

Secondly, the masters themselves do not understand the significance of their own subjugation to God; therefore they consider themselves "masters" who are able to subjugate others. The fact that they allow themselves to subjugate other people testifies to their failure to fulfill not only one commandment, but rather a broader covenant.

 

If the nation of Israel were to have upheld the covenant of freeing servants now, a moment before the imminent destruction, perhaps this would have demonstrated that they were ready to repent and to subjugate themselves to God. By bringing back their servants they showed that they were "violating the covenant" – not only the covenant of Tzidkiyahu, but the broader, ancient covenant between Israel and God.

 

The very existence of servitude represents a violation of the covenant between God and Israel. It is for this reason that Yirmiyahu regards this episode in such a serious way, presenting the servitude as leading to destruction.

 

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]  II Melakhim 24:8-17

[2]  This fact is borne out by the story of Yirmiyahu being cast into the pit (Yirmiyahu 37-38), when the ministers demand that he be silenced and arrested and Tzidkiyahu is afraid of them and gives in, although it is clear that he himself does wish to hear what Yirmiyahu has to say.

[3]  Yirmiyahu, chapters 21, 25. The same idea is also repeated in chapters 28-29, 37-38.

[4]  According to Seder Olam Rabba, chapter 26, the covenant was forged in the seventh year of Tzidkiyahu's reign.

[5]  Obviously, Jerusalem was not destroyed solely because of this sin. There had been an accumulation of terrible sins over the course of many years. Nevertheless, in this chapter, Yirmiyahu presents this particular episode as the straw that broke the camel's back – the final, decisive element.

[6]  At the end of Parashat Mishpatim there is, admittedly, a general covenant concerning the observance of all the words of the Torah (Shemot 24:4-8), and we may therefore conclude that any failure to fulfill one of the commandments is considered a violation of a covenant. However, the covenant concerns all of the laws, not only the freeing of servants.  Nevertheless, Yirmiyahu takes pains to emphasize that the matter of freeing servants involves a covenant, and that the failure to fulfill this law represents a violation of a covenant (see at length below).

[7]  See especially Yirmiyahu 7.

[8]  The word "free" also appears in the commandment in the Torah concerning the liberation of servants, in Shemot 21 and in Devarim 15. The word "freedom" (deror) appears only seven times in all of Tanakh, four of which are here. The first appearance of this word is in the context of the liberation of servants in the Jubilee (Yovel) year: "You shall proclaim liberty in the land for all its inhabitants" (Vayikra 25:10).

[9]  See Ramban on Shemot 21:2 – "The first 'judgment' concerns the Hebrew servant, since the liberation of the servant serves… as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, mentioned in the first of the Ten Commandments… and it also serves as a reminder of the act of Creation… therefore it is appropriate that this law appear first, since it is highly important, hinting at great matters of Creation. And it is for this reason that the prophet [Yirmiyahu] is very strict in this regard… and that exile was decreed because of it…."

[10]  This verse appears in Vayikra 25, in the context of the Jubilee (Yovel); see below.

[11]  The Gemara continues; "Rabbi Shimon ben Rebbi explained this verse like a packet: In what way is the door, or the doorpost, different from any other part of the house? The Holy One said: The door and the doorpost, which were witnesses in Egypt, when I passed over the lintel and over the two doorposts and said, 'For the children of Israel are slaves to Me' – not slaves to slaves, and I brought them out from slavery to freedom, and this one has gone and acquired a master for himself – let him be pierced in their presence."

[12]  The Vilna Gaon writes, in his Aderet Eliyahu: "'Forever' – meaning literally forever, except that in the section discussing the Jubilee year, the Torah states that anyone who is sold [into servitude] in perpetuity is freed…." The Meshekh Chokhma offers a similar view.

[13]  As noted, the word "freedom" (deror), which appears here for the first time, appears four out of a total of seven times (in all of Tanakh) in Yirmiyahu 34. Tzidkiyahu's covenant was like a Jubilee, because it was decided that all the servants would be liberated at the same time, as in a Jubilee year. The Jubilee was not observed in Tzidkiyahu's time because it applies only when all of Am Yisrael is living in the land. During Tzidkiyahu's time, most of the nation had already been exiled.

[14]  In contrast to the situation encountered by Elisha, in II Melakhim 4, where people are indentured because of debt: "A woman, one of the wives of the children of the prophets, cried out to Elisha, saying: Your servant, my husband, has died; you know that your servant feared God, but the creditor has come to take my two children to himself as servants."

[15]  In contrast to the situation in note no. 14, where it is the creditor who "takes" the children as servants.

[16]  In Elisha's case, it is the two children who are taken as servants.