Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“Born Free” Parashat Mishpatim – Shekalim 5775

Those of us who regularly read Mark Shapiro’s “Seforim Blog” are aware of a brouhaha of epic proportions in the world of Torah literature. ArtScroll, the people who brought us the Schottenstein Talmud, recently published the Book of Bereishit, the first volume of their Mikraot Gedolot. The first Mikraot Gedolot was published in 1524 and has become the primary source for learning Torah. Aside from the actual text, Mikraot Gedolot typically contains at least one Aramaic translation along with a slew of commentaries, primarily from medieval sources. Without a doubt the ArtScroll edition will become the yardstick by which future editions are judged[1]. It is beautifully laid out and all of the commentaries are based on manuscripts, correcting many errors that have crept into previous editions.

The problem with the ArtScroll Edition is that it appears to have taken certain liberties with certain commentaries. Specifically, it appears as if it has censored the commentary of the Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson. The Rashbam strives to bring the absolutely simplest understanding of the verse, and in some cases his explanation runs counter to the normative Halacha. The case in point here is the Rashbam’s explanation of the words [Bereishit 1:5] “It was evening and it was morning: one day”. According to the normative Halacha, a day begins at sundown. For instance, Shabbat begins on Friday evening. The Rashbam, however, explains the verse as “It was evening, and then when the morning came the first day was over”, meaning that the day begins in the morning at sunrise. This explanation of the Rashbam is well-known and many commentators have offered ways of understanding it in light of the normative Halacha. The most straightforward explanation is that the normative Halacha does not always interpret the Torah literally. For instance, it is well known that “an eye for an eye” is not implemented as it is written, but, rather, as a financial penalty. Suffice to say that the Rashbam began Shabbat at sundown along with everybody else. However, the people at ArtScroll seem to have taken the easy way out and have excised the “problematic” parts of the Rashbam’s commentary. Mark Shapiro takes ArtScroll to task for this. I highly recommend reading the entire story on the “Seforim Blog”[2].

Shapiro notes that he is patiently waiting for ArtScroll to release the Book of Shemot so that he can check to see if another potentially problematic explanation of the Rashbam has also been censored. The verse in question is in Parashat Mishpatim and it discusses the freeing of a slave. A slave may work for his master for a maximum of seven years, after which he must be freed. If, after seven years, the slave does not wish to be freed, his ear is pierced with an awl and [Shemot 21:6] “he shall serve [his master] forever”. How long is “forever”? The Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin [15a] teaches that “forever” means “until the Yovel (Jubilee Year)”, meaning that the slave can tack on up to fifty additional years of labour until he absolutely must go free. The Rambam in Hilchot Avadim [3:7] rules that this is the normative Halacha. The Rashbam, on the other hand, interprets the verse literally: a slave whose ear has been pierced will remain a slave forever, or until the day he dies, whichever comes first. In this shiur we’re going to take a deep dive into the explanation of the Rashbam, unless ArtScroll censors it first.

Not only does the explanation of the Rashbam contradict the normative Halacha, it flies in the face a verse in the Torah that seems to clearly state that the Yovel frees all slaves [Vayikra 25:10]: “You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom (d’ror) throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family.” Two phrases are particularly problematic for the Rashbam: “proclaim freedom” and “each man will return to his family”. The Talmud interprets both of these phrases as referring to the slave, who even if he has his ear pierced after seven years of slavery, is commanded to become a free man and to return home to his family on the Yovel. Further, this seems to be the absolutely simplest understanding of the verse. And to top it off, there is an elephant of monstrous proportions in the room. The Rashbam, commenting on the above verse in Vayikra, asserts that the “person returning to his home” is the referring to the slave who is set free on Yovel. This is a blatant contradiction of his comment in Parashat Mishpatim. How does he get around this?

It is a well-known urban legend that the Eskimos who live in the Arctic have more than fifty words for snow. They have words for light snow, heavy snow, wet snow, drifting snow, and so on. In a similar vein, the Torah, a book that sets the standard for human freedom, has multiple words for freedom. The First Amendment of the US Constitution mentions three basic freedoms: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. The Torah mentions only two: “chofesh” and “d’ror”. Let’s begin with d’ror, used in Vayikra [25:10]. Rashi explains the word “d’ror” as “ke’m’dyer bei dye’ra” – “As one who dwells in a dwelling, who dwells wherever he wishes, and is not under the domain of others”. Free as a bird. In order to understand Rashi’s explanation, we must understand the context. Land in Israel cannot be sold forever. Every fifty years, on Yovel, all land returns to its original owners. This is what the Torah is referring to when it says “you shall return, each man to his property”. A Jew living in Israel will always have a place to call home. In the words of Robert Frost, “Home is where they have to let you in”. Every fifty years, they have to let him in. A Jew cannot be forced to live indefinitely in a ghetto. No matter how far he has drifted, he can always return home, to his house, to his fields, to his family, and to his identity.  The word “chofesh” appears in the discussion on the slave [Shemot 21:2] “On the seventh year [the slave] shall go free (chofshi) from you”. Rashi translates “chofesh” as “cherut”. Neither of these words is used anywhere else in the Torah, so it is clear that the freedom denoted by “chofesh” is pertinent specifically to a slave. A slave is completely bound by his master’s desire. He does what he is told and only what he is told. The definition of “chofesh”, then, is the freedom of one’s choice of action – to be able to do what I want to do. “Chofesh” is a person’s freedom to be free. “Chofesh” is the most basic kind of freedom, without which all other types of freedom are irrelevant.

Let’s return to the Rashbam. When a slave, after seven years, declines to cease being a slave and to go free, he is not waiving his freedom – he is waiving his chofesh. He is voluntarily giving up his freedom to be free. He is using his own free will to give up his free will. There is no greater sin. The Rashbam teaches us that once a person gives up his chofesh, he can never get it back. He changes irreversibly. He can never return to the human being he once was. Even if he is physically released from slavery, he will always remain a slave. He will always behave like a slave. He will always be treated like a slave.

Every fifty years, on Yovel, all slaves are released from their masters. They are free to return to their homes and to their families. In this respect they are no different than any other Jew. Except that they are not at all the same. They might have d’ror, but they do not have chofesh. They are no different from the salmon who return home each year to spawn. The salmon do not return because they miss their families or their old school buddies. They return because it is in their genes to do so. They return because they must. They have d’ror but, as animals, they have no chofesh.

Perhaps, on our way home from another late day at work, running to pick up the kids to take them to ballet and to soccer practice, stopping at the supermarket to pick up the groceries, rushing back home only to fall asleep three minutes into our Daf Yomi shiur, we should ask ourselves if we aren’t mistaking d’ror for chofesh.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] The previous yardstick is the Mossad HaRav Kook “Torat Chaim” Edition, published in the 1990’s.


About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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