CREDITORS, DEBTORS & SLAVES – B’har – Lev. 25-26:2, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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CREDITORS, DEBTORS & SLAVES – B’har – Lev. 25-26:2, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week we will read some ancient economic and social standards, starting with the law of the Sabbatical Year, still acknowledged in Israel today. No plowing, no cultivating, no harvesting during the seventh year of the cycle, the year called sh’mitah. Exported food shipments get marked “Not made with Shmitah products” so observant Jewish customers will not hesitate to buy them. Giving the land a year of rest is how our ancestors preserved it, and prevented the desert from taking it over.

Sedrah B’har, this week’s reading, includes considerably more about the 7-year cycles and their effect. An important extension of the cycle comes after 7×7 or a total of 49 years lead into the Jubilee Year, #50. Again on that year, the Israelite is commanded not to work the land, and to free all slaves, as both humans and property return to their ancestral status. Strikingly, the Torah text provides an answer to the farmer’s inevitable question: “If you say ‘What will we eat?… we may not sew or reap,’ I will bless your work on the sixth year so the land will produce enough for 3 years.” That is, years 48, 49 and 50! Further spelled out is the requirement that all slaves, both Hebrews and Canaanites, must be freed for the Jubilee year.

Historically, the institution of human slavery, and the laws about it in the Torah, form a particularly interesting lesson. Now, more than a century and a half since Lincoln, we sometimes overlook the fact that in some parts of the world slavery still exists. Reportedly, many Arab sheikhs have African slaves. No wonder that statistically more black Africans have immigrated to this country voluntarily than were ever brought here in slave ships. And in ancient times, human slavery was a recognized and accepted condition. So how does the Torah deal with it?

In Torah times, people became slaves for one of two reasons. Either they were captured in battle, or they got so deep in debt that they sold themselves – and sometimes their whole families – into slavery to pay off their debts. It is the second reason that produced Hebrew slaves. They were expected to work for 6 years and had to be released on the 7th – unless they voluntarily chose to remain in servitude. Then their owner had to take them to the doorpost and drill a hole in their ear, fitting them with an earring that marked them as slaves. Rabbinical wisdom explained this process as symbolic: “The ear that heard the revelation at Mount Sinai,” they said, was the part of the body that marked the decision to replace the free practice of G-d’s word with subjugation to another human being.

A non-Jewish slave had to accept the performance of Mitzvos while in servitude, and when freed became fully Jewish. When a master set a slave free, he had to provide that slave with a document of separation similar to a divorce paper, establishing the freed slave’s independence. Quite a few differences we might notice between Torah law and pre-emancipation practices in the American South – and certainly a contrast with how slaves are treated elsewhere in the world, even now. Talmudic discussion of these laws underscores the principle that long ago discontinued slavery in Jewish history, namely the concept of the n’shama, the sacred identity of each human being as a child of G-d.

No prince, no conquering enemy, no creditor can take that identity away from any of us.

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