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Home » Mishpatim, Shabbos

Mishpatim : The Six Year Bondsman

Submitted by on February 1, 2005 – 11:37 amNo Comment | 5,760 views

Automatic Liberty?

Our Parsha teaches that a Jew may be sold into servitude for six years but on the first day of the seventh year the slave is automatically granted full liberty. (1) This law evokes images of a spontaneous transformation from princess to pumpkin at the stroke of midnight. Kidding aside, why does the onset of a seventh year automatically produce emancipation?

Why Temporize?

Another question: If enslavement of a Jew is permissible we ought to grant potential masters the freedom to negotiate their own terms. If enslavement of a Jew is forbidden, it should be completely outlawed. What is to be gained by temporizing?

Shabbos – First in Thought?

G-d created the world in six days and on the seventh day he rested. The seventh day is described as “the last in creation, the first in thought.” (2) As in all plots, the author’s original thought is played out in the final scene. What does this mean with regards to Shabbos and creation?

Physical and Spiritual Origins

The Genesis account of creation is startlingly similar to the scientific view. Our classic commentators teach that the genesis of creation was an infinitesimally small point that was deliberately expanded by G-d until it reached the galactic size of our universe. (3)

The mystics saw this primordial point as a highly refined substance that was more ethereal than tangible. The material matter of our universe evolved from this primordial substance through a series of progressively developmental stages that were divinely ordained in the course of creation.

The mystics further explained that this highly rarified substance was endowed with a soul and intelligence. It perceived itself as a product of G-d’s creative power and was keenly aware of its creator. As this created substance progressed from a spiritual/energy state to a material/matter state, it gradually lost its esoteric awareness and reached the inanimate state of matter with which we are familiar with today. (4)

The Epicenter

These two phenomena, the inflation in size and the transformation of substance, were intimately linked. The gradual metamorphosis of the seminal substance from intangible to tangible weakened its spiritual dimension and strengthened its physical dimension. This physical dominance caused it to expand and take up more physical space, thus triggering a phenomenal inflation.

Sitting as it does at the center of an expanded universe, and representing as it does a lofty spiritual awareness, the point of genesis is truly the epicenter of the universe.

From this epicenter the universe expanded in six physical directions, north, south, east, west, up and down. The spiritual development of its conscience can also be traced through six different dimensions. (5) The six days of creation allude to these six dimensions of development. the six year bondsman - innerstreamThe seventh day represents a return to the seminal state of our genesis.

Six Days and Shabbos

The Torah writes that for six days we perform our work but the seventh is devoted to G-d. Physical labor is possible through engaging in the physical state of our created universe but devotion to G-d is made possible only through returning to an awareness of our creator. (6)

On Shabbos we strive to return to our epicenter, to the original experience of our existence. Shabbos is a return to our point of genesis. Shabbos may indeed be described the last day of creation, coming as it does at the end of the week. But it is first in thought. It constitutes a return to the beginning of the plot.

G-d’s Slave

A Jew is a slave by definition. At Sinai, G-d drafted every member of our people into servitude. (7) In the first commandment he declared himself our master and in the second commandment he forbade our service to any master but himself. (8)

The Midrash teaches that when G-d intoned the words, “I am G-d your lord who has redeemed you from Egypt,” and became our lord, he extracted us from subjugation to our former masters in Egypt, and secured our freedom from all manner of future subjugation. (9)

Sadly, this security was short lived. Forty days later the Jewish people engaged in the sin of the golden calf and in so doing surrendered their protected status. It is true that the Jewish nation was forgiven for this sin but even after atonement, the pledge of security was never reinstated. (10)

Thievery and Slavery

Freedom from slavery would now depend on individual behavior. Those who sinned could be sold into slavery. When a Jew was convicted of theft and could not afford to reimburse his victims, the court would generate the necessary funds by selling the convicted thief into servitude. (11)

The act of thievery is a statement against the first commandment. The words “who has redeemed you from Egypt,” indicate that G-d is cognizant of, and intervenes in, worldly affairs. A thief who prowls in the night and takes pains to ensure that no man is looking, blatantly ignores G-d’s presence and G-d’s awareness of his actions.

This repudiation of the divine master makes the thief vulnerable to the subjugation of mortal masters. This is why the Jewish thief may be sold into servitude. (12)

However this servitude can only last for six years. The seventh year is a Shabbos of sorts. It represents a collective return to an awareness of G-d as our creator and an acceptance of G-d as our master. At this point even the thief returns to the initial point of being, to the seminal point of existence, to the epicenter of religious experience. (13) (14)

When the sun sets on the sixth year the thief closes a chapter of sin. It comes then as no surprise that the sun rises the next morning over a year that provokes automatic emancipation. (15)


  1. Exodus 21, 2
  2. Lecha Dodi, Liturgical poem chanted in the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday nights. (Composed by R. Shlomo Halevi Alkebatz  (Safed)- 1505-1580.) See also Bereishis Rabba 10, 09
  3. (3) See Nachmanidies’ Commentary to Genesis 01, 01(Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (Spain) 1194-1270). See also Midrash Tanchumah on Genesis 43, 14.
  4. Sefer Maamarim 5704 (R. Yosef Y Schneerson Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe 1880- 1950)
  5. These six stages are the emotive Sefirot. For a detailed explanation see Mystical Concepts in Chassidus p.80-92 Dr. Immanuel Jacob Schochet. Kehos 1988.
  6. Torah Or p.69d (Rabbi Schneeur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad Chassidic dynasty, 1745 – 1813) See also Horeb para. 141 (R. Samson Raphael Hirsch ( Germany) 1808 -1888)
  7. Bab. Talmud Kidushin p. 22b
  8. Exodus 20, 2-5
  9. Shemos Rabbah 32, as explained by Shem Mishmuel Mishpatim 1916. (An important Chassidic work written by Rav Shmuel Salir, Rebbe of Sochaczev, 1855-1927)
  10. Exodus 33, 1. Bab. Talmud Shabbos 88 a. Shemos Rabbah 32, 1
  11. Maimonidies Laws of Slaves ch. 1,1 (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Egypt) 1135-1204). Mechilta on Exodus 21, 2. See also Bab. Talmud Gittin 65a that this practice is only in effect when the laws of Yovel (Jubilee) are in force.
  12. Shem Mishmuel Mishpatim 1916. See also Bab. Talmud Kidushin p. 22 b
  13. This helps to explain a question that troubled the classic commentators. Why did the Torah begin its exposition of law with the details of slavery when there were clearly no Jewish slaves at that time? Nachmanidies explained that the slave’s emancipation is a reminder of our own liberation from bondage in Egypt. Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (Toledo, 1089-1167) argued that because the slave is in the most disheartening of circumstances his needs must be addressed first. According to this essay the reason for outlining the laws of slavery immediately after the Ten Commandments is obvious. Slavery returned to the Jew because of the sin of the Golden Calf. Because the seventh year emancipation is symbolic of repentance from this sin it was appropriate to address these laws at this juncture.
  14. This also explains why the Torah refers to the Jewish Bondsman as the Ivri. The Torah refers to Avraham as the Hebrew or Ivri, loosely translated as being from the other side of the (Euphrates) river. (Genesis 14, 13. Joshua 24, 2-4. Bereishit Rabba 42, 8.) The mystics have long seen this river as spiritually linked with the biblical river that flowed from Edan to water the garden. (Genesis 2, 10.) Mankind can trace its biblical history to the Garden of Eden, the destination of that river. The Patriarchs had their spiritual roots on the far bank of that river, i.e. the source of the river, which is Edan. They were therefore euphemistically titled Ivri, meaning, from the other side of the river. By referring to the Jewish Bondsman as the Ivri the Torah assures us that he is in possession of hidden qualities that will surely lead to his eventual emancipation.
  15. This essay is largely based on a chassidic discourse given in 5676 by the Shem Mishmuel.

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