Kenneth Cohen

Hebrew Slave

The story of the אמה עבריה, and עבד עברי,the Hebrew male and female slave, is very much misunderstood. Using the term, “slave,” is also very misleading.

In the case of the male, he was more of a hired hand, living with a respectable family. He was working to pay off his debts, or it was a form of rehabilitation to wean him away from his life of thievery.

The female was actually a young girl of six, that had a tragic side to it. The girl’s father was so poor that he was unable to provide her basic needs. Left with no other options, he allows a family of means to take care of her, in return for some basic work around the house.

There is a contractual agreement made between the father and her adopted family. At age twelve, she will marry the son of the head of the household. She will be given all rights of every Jewish woman.

We must remember that in earlier times, young ladies routinely married at a very young age. The Torah also provides remedies in the event that the master reneges on his commitment, and how she must be treated with great respect.

In today’s world, we must be extra careful with our terminology. While on the surface, anything involving servitude, is frowned upon, and rightfully so. But the Torah’s intent does not involve servitude to the male or female slave. It is a compassionate remedy to overcome poverty, and ultimately allow them to become respected members of society.

To paraphrase a well known slogan: Torah is perfect. Those who practice it, and interpret it, are not.

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