Less-Abominable Slavery

Exodus: Mishpatim

Less-Abominable Slavery

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains or slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take but as for me; give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry (1736 – 1799)

From antiquity and until the early 1800s, it was considered conventional wisdom that slaves were somewhat above farm animals on the social scale of sentient beings. And very much like cattle, slaves were regularly branded to demonstrate that they were property, as well as to affix the mark of the owner, lest others try to steal them.

The Torah hates slavery, but acquiesced to the economic reality of its existence. The Torah prophetically gave rights to slaves and softened the institution in Jewish law to make it a humane and compassionate affair, unknown to mankind at the time.

The Torah foresaw however, a case where a man would voluntarily choose slavery; where man of his own free will would desire to be the property of another.

“But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free; then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever.” Exodus 21:5-6

There are a range of rabbinic commentaries as to reasons for piercing the slave’s ear, and to do so by a doorpost. Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) explains that it is for the simple purpose of identifying the owner of the slave, if the slave should run away or be claimed by someone else.

How does piercing a slave’s ear help in identifying him as the particular property of his master? Why did the Torah forego the conventional, simple and much more painful process of hot-iron branding?

Hizkuni believes that the much less painful and less disfiguring piercing can still reliably identify the slave’s owner.

Hizkuni writes that the master would have a piercing device of a particular shape that could be later matched to the ear. The second proof of ownership is on the doorpost. The slave’s ear would be matched to the doorpost that was used. If the piercing and the dent in the doorpost from the initial piercing are at the same height, then that would be conclusive evidence that the slave belongs to the master.

May we avoid branding, piercing and slavery in all its forms.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Abraham Lincoln, on his birthday, February 12, 201 years ago.

Leave a Reply