One of the more shocking behaviors that we find seemingly sanctioned in the Torah is the concept of slavery. Many of us are familiar with the most common explanation of the Torah’s sanctioning of this odious practice. While in an ideal world we would find slavery forbidden by the Torah, the societal reality at the time of Matan Torah simply did not allow for such a radical step. Instead, the Torah chooses to regulate a practice that, for societal reasons, it can not yet outlaw, with the goal being to make slaveholding so difficult that it will ultimately disappear. Until the time that slavery can be outlawed, the Torah seeks through regulation to “humanize” the practice as much as possible. While the place for a full fledged discussion of this issue is in Parshat Mishpatim, this week I would like to focus on one of the humanizing aspects that the Torah employs, the concept of Hakoneh eved ivri k’koneh adon l’azmo, (one who acquires an Eved Ivri is akin to someone who has acquired a master for himself).
In this phrase Chazal pithily summarize the major humanizing aspect of slavery, and at the same time sow the seeds for the demise of the practice. There is no such thing as a slave and his master. Rather, the master is commanded to treat the slave as an equal. By legislating the “master” and the “slave” out of the relationship, the Torah lays the groundwork for the ultimate (though in the distant future) elimination of slavery. But what does this equality between the “Adon” and the “Eved” look like?
In Parshat B’Har (25:40 the passuks says as follows: “He (i.e. the Eved Ivri) should be with (i.e.be treated by) you (imach) as a day laborer and a temporary resident, until the Yovel year he should be with you (imach). The Midrash (found with slight variations in Torat Kohanim and Medrash HaGadol) on the passuk derives from the word imach that the Eved Ivri should be with you (i.e equal to you) in the food he eats, the drink that he drinks and the clothes that he wears. There should not be a situation where you eat fine bread while your eved eats coarse bread, you drink fine wine while your eved drinks barely fermented wine, or you sleep on a soft mattress while your eved sleeps on straw. The Midrash then concludes by saying “from here we can derive that Hakoneh eved ivri k’koneh adon l’azmo, one who acquires an Eved Ivri is akin to someone who has acquired a master for himself.”
It is fascinating to note that while the passuk that we quoted is the source for the Midrash, the gemara (Kiddushin 15a) quotes a different passuk from Parshat Re’eh in Sefer Devarim as the source of this teaching. The passuk in Re’eh (15:16) states as follows: “ki yomar eilecha lo yeti mimach, ki ahaivecha ve’et beitecha ki tov li imach.” If he (your eved) says to you I will not leave you (m’imach), because I love you and your household, because it is good for me with you (imach). Similar to the Midrash, the gemara wishes to derive the lesson of Hakoneh eved ivri k’koneh adon l’azmo based on the word imach.
Tosafot immediately notes a fundamental difference between the two sources. The language of the passuk in our Parsha is one of a command; “Yihiye imach”, (he should) be with you. On the other hand, the language of the passuk in Devarim: I will not leave you (m’imach), because…, is merely descriptive. With this distinction in mind Tosafot (Dibur HaMatchil Ki Tov Li Imach) questions how a descriptive passuk can be the source of an obligation? Based on this question Tosafot concludes that the true source for the concept of Hakoneh eved ivri k’koneh adon l’azmo is in fact the passuk in our Parsha, since it is written in the form of a command.
The reader would be forgiven for wondering why I would have termed this seemingly arcane dispute regarding whether the passuk in Sefer VaYikra or the passuk in Sefer Devarim is the source of the Midrash as being “fascinating”. And perhaps it is an overstatement. But it is certainly noteworthy for both halachic reasons, and perhaps more significantly, for what it teaches us about the interplay between Pshat, the simple meaning of the text, and Drash, what we derive from the text.
Let us first look at the Halachic ramifications of this question. Does the Torah in fact require an adon to behave so magnanimously towards his eved? Rambam certainly thinks so, and in Hilchot Avadaim (1:9) he codifies the requirement requiring that your eved be equal to you in all the ways that the Midrash described. This position is of course totally consistent with the use of the passuk from our Parsha, which was phrased as a command. Rambam’s position would become more tenuous, however, if we were to adopt the version of the Midrash which uses the passuk in Parshat Re’eh as a proof text. How can a passuk which is descriptive serve as the basis for a binding command?
For this reason it appears that Rambam’s view that the adon is commanded to treat his eved as an equal is not universally accepted. Meiri, commenting on the Gemara in Kiddushin (20a) reaches the conclusion that the fulfillment of Hakoneh eved ivri k’koneh adon l’azmo, while certainly a mitzva, is not a requirement. In the words of Meiri, this is “midat mussar u’derech eretz she limdtahu Torah”, i.e. the value of of ethics and proper behavior that the Torah has taught him. According to Meiri, the adon treating the eved as an equal reflects the fact that the adon has internalized Torah values and is applying them to a facet of his life, slave ownership, that could easily become desensitizing and destructive. If the adon was truly a master of his slave in the classical sense, then at best he would be treating the eved disrespectfully and at worst he would be brutalizing and demeaning him. Instead, having internalized the Torah’s ethical standards and teachings, he establishes the eved as an equal and in doing so the adon accomplishes the Torah’s goal of humanizing slavery. All of this is of course laudatory, but it can not be required.
The second noteworthy element which emerges from this disagreement regards the relationship between the simple meaning of the text and how far the Midrash can deviate from that meaning. In his work Kedushat Peshuto Shel Mikra on Parshat BeChukotai Rav Yehuda Cooperman uses the Midrashic teaching of Hakoneh eved ivri k’koneh adon l’azmo to make this point. The Midrash, Rav Cooperman tells us, is limited in its scope by the simple meaning of the text. The Midrash can affect the extent to which we apply an idea that is found in Torah Shebiktav, but the essence of a command is unshakeably linked to the simple meaning of the text. If, as is the case with the passuk “ki tov li imach – because it is good for me with you”, the Torah makes a descriptive statement, then the Midrash can at most use this passuk to exhort us to higher level of behavior, but it can not compel us to behave in that way. If the Hashem did not command something then the Midrash is powerless to turn hoped for behavior into required behavior. Hence, if the source of Hakoneh eved ivri k’koneh adon l’azmo is a descriptive passuk, then the Midrash can urge us to reach for that level, but it can’t require it.
Ultimately, the halacha follows the position of Rambam, and Hakoneh eved ivri k’koneh adon l’azmo is an inescapable part of the adon/eved relationship. But the message of Meiri remains relevant. Torah is meant to enoble us in all areas and under all circumstances. Even if we are not required to behave in a certain fashion, the Torah always encourages us to strive to reach a higher standard.