Do you like variety in your learning? You get plenty of it in the Sedrah called “Reyh” — in Deuteronomy chapters 11 thru 16. Here we find subjects like sacrificial worship, idolatry in the family or in a whole city, dietary laws, treatment of the poor, paying tithes, the three pilgrimage festivals, the year of release. Right in the middle of all these various Mitzvos, we get into the rules about debt.
Debt ceilings are nothing new. Here we find directions on what to do if you reach your debt ceiling and still need money. Biblical Israel had an out that we could use today, however. Every seven years came the Sabbatical year — the year of release called “Shmitah” — when debts were cancelled.
Still someone could reach his debt ceiling in year 1 or 2. No way to survive until year 7. In that case he could become an eved ivri — a Jewish slave. He could sell himself into indentured servitude to pay off his debt. Or as the Talmud explains, the court could sell him to pay back money he stole. Maximum time his new owner could keep him? Six years. After that, as we read in Deut.15:13, “you must send him out free.” Not just send him out, but “do not send him away empty-handed. Provide for him from your flock, your threshing-floor and your wine-press wherewith G-d blessed you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”
Slavery certainly did not end with the Exodus. Not in Israel and not in many other societies. Worldwide exploitation of fellow humans lasted well into modern times, and indeed exists today. Usually the slaves were taken from other populations. For example, Arab slave traders for the last milennium or more got their victims by raids on Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Eastern Europe too. In fact the name Slavs for Eastern European tribesmen is given as the origin of the word “slave.” In the 19th century alone an estimated 11-18 million black Africans were taken across the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean or the Sahara desert by Arab slave traders. Another 9-12 million got sent to America. Reportedly, black slaves still serve some Saudi Arabian masters.
Greek and Roman “civilizations” practiced slavery on a large scale too. Aristotle accepted the theory of “natural slavery” — that some people are slaves by nature. Imperial Rome, of course, enslaved whole populations.
But back to the eved ivri of Deuteronomy. This was not an enemy soldier taken prisoner in war, nor an eved canaani to whom different rules applied. This was a man — or a woman — who had all the rights and responsibilities of every member of every tribe of Israel.
How could one Jew take advantage of another Jew this way? Strange and repugnant as the procedure seems to us today, ancient Israel was not the only society that enslaved its own people. Russia had 4 centuries of slavery of its own people, ethnic Russians whom Czar Ivan III in 1438 bound to their owners by law. Only in the 18th century were these slaves converted to serfs. No great improvement. They were still peasants and house servants tied to the estate.
By the end of the 20th century, some 27 million people were still in slavery throughout the world. The average price of a slave globally = $340.
That is how slaves in other cultures left their masters — they got a new master. No provisions from anyones flock or threshing-floor or wine-press.
What our Sedrah does also tell us, however, is that some indentured servants got to like their dependent life style. “If he says to you: I will not go away from you, because he loves you and your house and he has it good there. Then take him to the doorpost and run an awl through his ear and into the door, and he will be your permanent servant.” Clearly the Torah associates shame with voluntary servitude. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai commented on this directive: “The ear that heard the Divine words, for the people of Israel are My servants, and yet preferred a human master, let that ear be drilled.” In other words, value your freedom!