Parsha

Mishpatim: Female Servitude...Wait, What?

In this week's parsha, we are given the laws of female servitude - worse, a female child, being sold by her parents! How are we, as 21st century students of the Torah, meant to understand such a difficult piece of text? In this video, Rabbi Fohrman shows us that the Torah argues that to create a better society, we must be proactive about addressing social and economic inequality.


Parshat Mishpatim


Hi everybody, it is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Mishpatim.

Today I want to tackle a topic which we don’t often talk about nowadays; the very notion of it seems almost barbaric in our day and age, and it is the topic of female servitude. The Torah recognizes the institution of servitude. Remember slavery was a fact of life in the ancient world. It took the advent of industrialization across the globe to rid the world of slavery. Once factories became commonplace, machines could do the work that people did. The Torah was written in a time in which slavery was an economic fact and, seemingly, the Torah seeks to make it humane rather than ban it immediately and outright.

According to Torah, in this week’s Parsha, a father has a right to sell his daughter into servitude…his little daughter; he can sell her any time before the age of twelve. And when you just listen to that Law, it just strikes you as awful! I mean, here is this little girl sold into servitude by her father. And again, it doesn’t even seem to make any economic sense. You can imagine an older girl, a teenager, an adult, having real economic usefulness, but a seven-year-old? How is it that we come to grips with these Laws? This is our Torah. How do we understand it? So I want to take a shot at trying to understand this with you by actually reading the text. I think if we put it all together, we’ll find a fascinating picture that we might never have imagined at first blush.

“V’chi yimkor ish et-bito l’amah,” when a man shall sell his daughter as a maidservant, “lo tetze k’tzet ha-avadim,” she shall not leave servitude the way other servants leave servitude. What does that puzzling expression mean? What other kinds of servants? Seemingly male servants. The female servants wouldn’t leave the way a male servant would leave. Now the Gemara’s puzzled by this because halakhically, a female servant does leaves in every way in which a male servant leaves. A male servant is only allowed to serve for six years; in the seventh year he has to go free. Same thing for a female servant. A male servant leaves in Yovel, the Jubilee year which happens once every fifty years. A female servant would leave then also. In what way does she leave in a way that’s different than other male servants?

“Im-ra’a b’eynei adoneiha asher-lo ya’ada v-hefdah,” if she is so evil in the eyes of her master that he does not marry her during her term of servitude then, at that point, he, the master, must give the father the right to redeem his daughter in a pro-rated way.  So for example, if he sold her into servitude for $6000 for six years and there is only two years left in her term, the master should allow the father to buy her back for $2000 rather than the $6000 for which she was initially sold.

Now, this is very puzzling because the Torah like jumps into this whole idea of marriage; like, who said anything about marriage? “L’am nachri lo-yimshal l’machrah b’vigdo-bah,” then for sure the master can’t sell her to anyone else. “B’vigdo-bah,” in so far as he has dealt treacherously with her. What does this mean? How has he dealt treacherously with her? I mean, he bought her as a slave, he didn’t marry her, her father didn’t choose to redeem her, so where is the treachery? “V’im-livno yiyadenah,” he can marry her off to his son, “k’mishpat ha-banot ya’aseh-lah,” and if he does, he has to treat her like a daughter.

“Im-acheret yikach-lo,” if the master or his son decide again to take another wife—in those days polygamy was allowed—“sherah k’sutah v’onatah lo yigra,” then he should in no way diminish the rights of his first wife, the servant girl: the clothing that he would give her, the food that he would give her, the times that he spends with her, moments of intimacy. He shouldn’t diminish any of that. By the way, this is the source for a man’s obligation in these three basic things in marriage: food, clothing, and intimate time together. And it’s strange that these basic obligations of marriage should come in this tangled case of a master marrying a servant girl. And finally, “im-shalosh-eleh lo ya’aseh lah,” and if he doesn’t do these three things, the master; (1) if he doesn’t marry her, (2) if the father doesn’t take him up on the offer to redeem his daughter, (3) if he doesn’t give her in marriage to his son, so “v’yatzah chinam eyn kesef,” then she goes free when she reaches twelve years old, without any money. What a strange list of Laws. How do we understand this whole thing? It seems crazy! So I would like to suggest a theory to you.

There is a basic fundamental problem in all capitalist societies and that is that if you allow unrestrained capitalism, where, theoretically, there is a level playing field—everybody has the same opportunity—invariably, there is still a wealthy class and a poor class and, invariably, over time, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Now why is that? There is equal opportunity. Why can’t the poor just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and get moving? Why do the poor get poorer? Why do the rich get richer? And how should we deal with that?

So, in our society, Democrats say “let’s redistribute wealth. Let’s tax the rich and give the money to the poor. That will level the playfield.” And Republicans say “the playing field was already level. Everybody has equal opportunity. We can’t just redistribute wealth.”  How does the Torah deal with the problem—the rich get richer; the poor get poorer? Why do the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?

I would like to suggest that the reason for this wealth disparity lies in the social nature of humanity. We make friends with people who are like us. The rich people live amongst themselves, they marry amongst themselves. The poor live amongst themselves, they marry amongst themselves, they socialize amongst themselves. And why is it that you go to Harvard and Yale and Columbia? Part of it is for the education, but part of it is for the social bonds, the friends you make. And as you leave University, friends hire friends, and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. What’s the way out?  The Torah has a solution. It’s not about redistributing wealth; it’s about changing the social construct.

“Ki [sounds like: yimkor] ish et-bito l’amah,” when a man is so destitute and he asks himself how can my daughter possibly have a better life? Who is she going to marry? We’re poor. I have no money for a dowry, no money for anything. The Torah gives him a chance. It creates a fiction called female servitude, an institution that has everything to do with the very opposite of servitude, bringing of equality into the class system. The Torah gives a father the right to, quote, “sell his daughter” in servitude into a man, a wealthy man, a man that he chooses, a family that he would want his daughter to marry into. And there is every expectation that as she grows up in the household, they will take her in, and the master of the house will find someone in the house to marry her.

“V’chi yimkor ish et-bito l’amah,” when a man will, quote, “sell his daughter” as a maidservant, “lo tetze k’tzet ha-avadim,” she is not meant to leave servitude the way male slaves leave servitude. The hope is she will leave in an entirely new way, in a way that’s not open to male slaves; she will leave through marriage. She will become an equal of the Nobility because she will marry into them. And if it doesn’t work out, if she is so evil in the eyes of her Master, then he has to give the father a chance to buy her back at a pro-rated rate. Don’t allow her to stay in the house, she is not going to marry into the household. “L’am nachri lo-yimshal l’machrah b’vigdo-bah.” If the master doesn’t marry her, and he doesn’t marry her of to his son, and the father can’t buy her back, the master shouldn’t think to himself that he can sell her to someone else. He does not have that power over her, “b’vigdo-bah,” he dealt treacherously with her. It’s not right!  He didn’t marry her, he couldn’t find anyone in the house to marry her, she was so evil? And if his son does marry her, “k-mishpat ha-banot ya’aseh-lah.” You know how he has to treat her? “K’mishpat ha-banot ya-aseh-lah,” he has to treat her like a full-fledged daughter-in-law; she is not a servant anymore, she is your daughter-in-law. She is an equal.

And the Torah is very careful about this. In those times, polygamy was allowed. The Torah anticipates the problem. What if the master or his son says “yeah, I’ll marry this girl out of pity. She is going to be my little ‘servant-girl wife.’ But then of course I have to marry my ‘movie-star wife.’” Oh no! “Im-acheret yikach-lo,” if he should ever choose to marry another woman, “sherah k’sutah v’onatah lo yigra,” he dare not diminish the rights of his first wife!  She is an equal. The Torah guards her rights.

The Gemara in Kiddushin explains: normally in marriage you would have to give the woman a ring; here you don’t have to give her anything. The original money that the master gave the father, that serves as the money for Kiddushin, as  the money to effectuate marriage. The Torah is saying, in effect, in retrospect, once you decide to marry her, she was never your servant girl, she is your equal. She is a wife in your household.

The Torah, in this Law, is not attempting a band-aid solution to the problem of class. It is not attempting to redistribute wealth. It’s not lying and saying “it’s all equal. The playing field is equal.” The Torah recognizes why the playing field isn’t equal. The issue is social bonds. And the Torah is trying to attack that issue in the most just way possible, trying to, ironically, use slavery, the most unequal institution on earth, to achieve the goal of equality.

I want to let you know I always love hearing your feedback. There is a little space for comments underneath these videos, please take advantage of that. Leave comments that I or your fellow students can take a look at.

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