Kenneth Cohen

Hebrew Slave

The first case that is introduced in Parshat Mishpatim, is that of the עבד עברי, or Hebrew slave.

The Keli Yakar explains that this is the first subject, because it is connected with the first of the Ten Commandments, that tells us that Hashem is the G-d who took us out of Egypt, the house of slavery.

Man is meant to be free, and not placed in a situation where he is under the domination or control, of another person. The situation of the Hebrew slave was meant to be one of rehabilitation, to help reform the thief, who has separated himself from society. He lives with a welcoming family, and he learns to have the self esteem not to break the law, and take what doesn’t belong to him.

The second type of Hebrew slave (which is a very misleading term), applies to an individual who has fallen on hard times. He is unable to make ends meet, and is taken in by a kind individual, who will allow him to work for him, in return for food and lodging.
It is also interesting to note that the Torah advises the master to give his slave a מענק, a gift, after he has completed his years of devoted service.

Despite the element of compassion connected with these laws, it is still not a desirable situation to be categorized as slave or servant. Man was meant to be free. Our Rabbis tell us that the only truly free individual, is one who is עוסק בתורה, involved with Torah study. When this becomes our priority, we have made a clear decision in our lives, as to what is important, and what is fleeting. We are no longer slaves to materialism and comforts. Our occupations serve as a means to sustain our families. We are not prisoners to our jobs, or obsessed with trying to amass fortunes.
It is very easy to be enslaved by the various temptations that exist in the world. Our עבד עברי is given a second chance to start over. We must be certain that we don’t fall to that level, but remain free men, as we attach ourselves to Hashem’s holy Torah.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for over twenty years while also teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach of Old Katamon. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles. He recently published a series of Hebrew language-learning apps, which are available at