Misconception: An eved Ivri (“Jewish servant”)1 goes free in the shemitah year.
Fact: An eved Ivri works six full years and goes free at the start of his seventh year of servitude, unless a yovel year arrives first, in which case every eved Ivri goes free. The date of an eved Ivri’s release is calculated on an individual basis, and thus they are not all released at one time. The shemitah year has no relevance to the length of servitude.
Background: To the modern era, the notion of slavery is an anathema, and it may even be troubling to modern Jews that the Torah permits such an institution. Yet, in discussing the concepts of eved Ivri and amah Ivriyah (a “Hebrew maidservant”), the Torah is in essence taking what was an accepted and almost necessary institution and regulating it to make it more humane.
The laws of eved Ivri are discussed in various places in the Torah: Shemot 21:2–6 and 22:2, Vayikra 25:39–42, and Devarim 15:12–18. Based on the pesukim, Chazal (summarized in Rambam, Hilchot Avadim 1:1) explained that a Jew can become an eved Ivri to another Jew2 in one of two ways:
1. If a Jew finds himself in abject poverty with no foreseeable way out, he may sell himself to another Jew (Vayikra 25:39).3
2. If a Jew steals and is unable to make restitution,4 the courts can sell him as an indentured servant as a means of his paying back what he stole.5
The Torah writes twice (Shemot 21:2 and Devarim 15:12) that an eved Ivri6 works for six years and goes free at the start of the seventh.7 To what “seventh” is it referring? In general, whenever the Torah gives a rule about six years and then a seventh year, the question can be asked if it is an independent count or linked to the fixed shemitah cycle. Thus, when the Torah (Devarim 15:1) instructs that after seven years debts are canceled, Rashi, quoting the Sifrei, observes that one might have thought that every loan has an independent seven-year life rather than all being linked to the uniform shemitah count. The Torah therefore revealed (Devarim 15:9) that all loans are uniformly released at the end of the standard shemitah cycle. Similarly, when describing the mitzvah of Hakhel (Devarim 31:10), the Torah says to count seven years. One might have thought to begin a count from that very date, the fortieth year after the Exodus; therefore the Torah explicitly links it to the shemitah cycle (Sotah 41a).
In the Torah, the rules of eved Ivri follow immediately after the laws of debt forgiveness, which occurs at the end of shemitah, and the language used for the eved Ivri sounds similar to that used for the shemitah laws (Devarim 15:12): “. . . and he shall serve you six years and in the seventh year you are to send him free.” The Torah also states (Vayikra 25:40) that “until the yovel year shall he work with you.” Yovel is a fixed date and one that is linked to the shemitah cycle. It is thus understandable that one might entertain the possibility that an eved Ivri works until shemitah, the “standard” seventh year, and is then freed. Nonetheless, Jewish tradition is monolithic in its understanding that an eved Ivri has a count unrelated to shemitah and goes free after working six full years.8
The Mechilta (to Shemot 21:2) and the Yerushalmi (Kiddushin 1:2) state explicitly that the six years is from the date of sale and is not related to shemitah. The Bavli (Arachin 18b) further says that it is not calendar years, i.e., he does not go free when the seventh calendar year commences in Tishrei, but rather it is full years—he goes free after working six full years, on the same date that he started. Thus we see that Chazal anticipated that one might think otherwise and therefore explicitly clarified the matter. In the Sifrei (Re’eh 111–112 [on Devarim 15:1–2]) it states that shemitah does not release an eved Ivri but does cancel loans, and in Sifra (Behar 3:6 [27; on Vayikra 25:13]) it states that while you might have thought shemitah frees an eved Ivri, that is not so; the Torah emphasizes that yovel frees them, but shemitah does not.
The Rambam writes (Hilchot Avadim 2:2): “If [an eved Ivri] is sold by the beit din, he works six years9 from the date of sale, and at the beginning of his seventh year he becomes a free person.” The Rambam wants to make sure there is no misunderstanding and thus continues: “. . . if shemitah is one of those six, he works during shemitah.” Rambam may be emphasizing that the eved Ivri does not go free in shemitah in order to counter this potential misunderstanding, or he may be doing so to contrast it with the next halachah that yovel does set an eved Ivri free even if it is within the six years.
Centuries after this law was given at Sinai, it was reiterated when the prophet Yirmiyahu rebuked the Jews for reneging on a commitment to free their Hebrew servants and warned that they would be exiled as a result (Yirmiyahu 34:17–20).10 Yirmiyahu (34:14) reminds them: “At “miketz” of seven years, every man should free his Hebrew brother, who had been sold to you; and when he has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you. . . .” The second half of the verse clearly states the halachah as given in the Chumash; yet the first half might be interpreted as meaning after seven full years. Ibn Ezra (long commentary to Shemot 21:2) is emphatic that both halves of the verse in Yirmiyahu accord with the accepted halachah. Regarding the seemingly problematic first half, he explains that “miketz” is a terminus, and everything has two termini. Thus, Ibn Ezra stresses, “miketz” in that verse means the starting terminus of the seventh year, not the ending terminus,11 according perfectly with the second half and with the pasuk in Shemot that says he is set free in the seventh year, which Ibn Ezra (Devarim 15:18) emphasizes is the start of the seventh year. Unlike Ibn Ezra, the Gemara (Arachin 33a) understood “miketz” seven years to mean the end of the seventh year and interpreted that part of the pasuk to be referring to an eved Ivri who had his ear pierced and was working until yovel, which in this instance happened to coincide with the eighth year of his servitude.
In the Selichot (minhag Lita) for day four, the pizmon “choker hakol” (ca. early thirteenth century; ArtScroll, p. 148) argues that our exile should have ended long ago since G-d ordained that an eved Ivri works for six years, and many “six years” have passed and yet we are not free. Only an eved Ivri who loves his master stays longer, until yovel, but we have declared no such love for our foreign masters. And while a Jew who is enslaved by a non-Jew does not go free after six years, his relatives are enjoined to redeem him, so we appeal to G-d as our “relative” to redeem us.
Despite the agreed-upon understanding that an eved Ivri goes free after working six years and not in shemitah, the notion of freeing an eved Ivri in shemitah has crept into several sources. Targum Pseudo-Yonatan,12 on the pasuk that states the law of eved Ivri, (Shemot 21:2) translates it as understood by Chazal, i.e., if a Jew is sold in order to repay a theft, he works for six years and goes free at the start of the seventh. Yet quite perplexingly, when translating the verse a mere few sentences later about a maidservant (Shemot 21:7), he says that one of the means of her acquiring her freedom is the shemitah year! Similarly, on Shemot 22:2, he says that a person sold by the beit din because of a theft works from the time of his theft until the shemitah year! In an approbation to a book about Targum Pseudo-Yonatan,13 Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach asserts that there is not even a hint in Shas that an eved goes free during the shemitah year, and objects to what he thought was the author trying to find support for this opinion. In a note in the introduction, the author denies having attempted to find support for that indefensible position, but he does note four other sources that seem to say an eved Ivri and/or an amah Ivriyah goes free in the shemitah year. He mentions the Zohar (vol. 3, 108), Sefer HaKanah (vol. 2), Sefer Yere’im (286),14 and perhaps the most famous example, the twelfth-century Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bechor Shor of Orléans (Bechor Shor to Shemot 21:2 and 21:11). A student of Rabbeinu Tam, the Bechor Shor wrote that since there is no plowing or planting or harvesting during shemitah, the master does not need so much help and should send the eved Ivri free. Rabbi Menachem Kasher (Torah Sheleimah, Shemot 21:2:70) adds to the list Chemdat HaYamim HaTeimani (p. 40b). However, Rabbi Kasher argues that except for the Bechor Shor, who unquestionably wrote contra the halachah, all the other sources could be interpreted as using the word “shemitah” to refer to the Hebrew servant’s seventh year. Regarding the Bechor Shor, Rabbi Kasher is left perplexed because while the Bechor Shor was known to try to stick to peshat, Rabbi Kasher says that even the most extreme purveyors of peshat interpretation do not understand this verse as referring to the shemitah year.15
The notion that canceling debts might be linked to freeing slaves finds an echo in ancient “clean slate” decrees in which a powerful ruler would declare that ancestral land sold under duress be returned to its original owner, anyone forced into servitude by debts liberated and debts canceled. There are numerous records of such “economic resets” in the ancient world. Possibly the most famous is the forgiving of debts and the release of prisoners in Egypt in 196 bce as described on the Rosetta Stone. These differ from shemitah/yovel in that they were at the whim of the ruler and thus unpredictable, while in the Torah’s system these events were scheduled and therefore predictable.
The institution of eved Ivri exists only in a time period when yovel is observed (Rambam, Hilchot Avadim 1:10) and has thus not been applicable for many centuries. Nonetheless, lessons, both specific and general, about how to relate to a worker can be gleaned from the laws of eved Ivri.
The Shulchan Aruch (CM 333:3) says that a worker may quit midday even if he has already been paid and no longer has the money to refund, in which case it is converted to a loan. The Shulchan Aruch then adds a proof text: “to Me the children of Israel are slaves” (Vayikra 25:55), understood to mean that Jews are slaves only to G-d, and a non-slave is always free to quit. The Rema then adds that for the same reason, a worker, even a teacher or a sofer, may not hire himself out to work in someone’s house for more than three years.16 According to some, the three years is derived from the pasuk describing an eved Ivri: “. . . for he has done double the work of a hired hand during the six years. . .” (Devarim 15:18), implying that the six years an eved ivri works is twice that of a regular worker (see Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni based on Yeshayahu 16:14; cf. Rashbam).
An eved Ivri must also be treated with respect and be well cared for. Some of the laws that reflect this are: an eved ivri may not be sold at auction so as not to embarrass him (Hilchot Avadim 1:5); he may not be given degrading work or open-ended or frivolous assignments (1:6–7); he must be provided with food, drink and shelter that is commensurate with the master’s lifestyle (1:9); the eved Ivri’s wife and children must be provided for (3:1); and if the master has but one pillow he must give it to the eved Ivri (Tosafot, Kiddushin 20a, s.v. kol, citing Yerushalmi). These requirements led Chazal to declare that anyone who buys an eved Ivri is as if he bought a master for himself (Kiddushin 20a).
1. In this article the term eved ivri will be used rather than “Jewish slave/servant.” An eved Ivri is a Jew who is “owned” in a very limited sense by another Jew as a sort of “servant.” However, his conditions are more akin to a long-term employee than to a slave and do not compare to those of slaves in nineteenth-century United States or enslaved people in many parts of the world today (even if the term slave is not used regarding them). Vayikra 25:39-40 mandates regarding an eved Ivri: “. . . you shall not work him with slave labor. Like a hired laborer or a resident shall he be with you.” His situation is so similar to an employee that Chatam Sofer (5:CM:172) needed to point out the differences when discussing the rules of an employee backing out of a job.
2. An eved Ivri is a Jew working for another Jew. The rules governing a Jew “owned” by a non-Jew (in a society where Jewish law is followed) and those governing an eved Kena’ani, a non-Jewish slave owned by a Jew, are different and not discussed in this article.
3. The Rambam (Hilchot Avadim 1:1) permits a Jew to sell himself only if he is in abject poverty to the degree that he cannot even afford food. Only such truly dismal circumstances warrant a Jew selling himself to another. If a person sells himself despite not being allowed to do so, Tosefta (Arachin 5:8) says the sale takes effect, while Minchat Chinuch (mitzvah 42:17) opines that the sale is void.
4. Note that a thief is only sold if he lacks the means to pay the value of the stolen item. If he can pay the principal but not the additional penalty (either double or four or five times the principal), he is not sold (Kiddushin 18a—regarding double, Rambam, Hilchot Geneivah 3:2—regarding four or five; Torah Temimah, Shemot 22:2:16 suggests a source for the Rambam).
5. The many halachic differences between these two are enumerated by the Rambam (Hilchot Avadim 3:12). For example, the beit din always sells for six years, while a person who sells himself can do so for more, or, according to the Ritva (Kiddushin 14b), also for less; one sold by the beit din is given a “grant” (ma’anak) upon being freed, while one who sells himself is not; the owner can give him a non-Jewish maidservant as a “wife” if he is sold by the beit din but not if he sells himself; and one sold by the beit din can extend his servitude until yovel by the ear piercing ceremony, while one who sold himself has no such option.
6. Or an amah Ivriyah. A woman is not sold due to theft, but a minor girl can be sold by her destitute father, for a maximum of six years.
7. The Netziv (Shemot 21:2) points out that from the word “chinam” we learn that unlike in other relationships, such as marriage or an eved Kena’ani, an eved Ivri goes free automatically without a need for a get (separation document). The notion of a slave working a fixed number of years was not unheard of in the ancient world. The eighteenth-century-bce Code of Hammurabi (see J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts [New Jersey, 1955], pp.163–177; law 117) specified that if a man in debt sold his wife, son or daughter, they worked for three years and were freed in the fourth year.
8. In a link between shemitah and eved Ivri, the Gemara (Kiddushin 20a) quotes Rabbi Yose ben Chanina as teaching that the true cause of a Jew ending up as an eved Ivri is from transgressing the prohibition of engaging in commerce with shemitah
9. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 30:15) has G-d saying that in parallel to His creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh, so too an eved Ivri works for six years and rests on the seventh.
10. Korban Ha’edah (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 3:5) says that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of not enslaving a fellow Jew.
11. Metzudat David (Yirmiyahu 34:14) says similarly. Ibn Ezra notes the ambiguity of “miketz” and which terminus it refers to in Bamidbar 13:25 and Devarim 9:11. He states his position that it means the beginning in Devarim 14:28 and 15:1 (against Chazal in Arachin 28b); and Devarim 31:10 (against Chazal in Sotah 41a and Rosh Hashanah 12b). Rashi (Bereishit 41:1) disagrees with Ibn Ezra and says that “(mi)ketz” always means “end.” Mizrachi and Gur Aryeh explain that Rashi believes that “katzeh” can refer to beginning or end, but (mi)ketz always refers to the end.
12. Targum Pseudo-Yonatan on Chumash was not written by Yonatan ben Uziel (see Megillah 3a, stating that he wrote only on Navi). There are other places where his perush is different from Chazal’s interpretation; for example, on Bamidbar 19:17, his limiting that halachah to an earthenware vessel contradicts a mishnah (Parah 5:5).
13. Kalman Azriel Pinski, Nosei Klei Yehonatan, 3rd ed., 5765.
14. The Sefer Yere’im seems to be self-contradictory, as in 271 he says explicitly that an eved Ivri does not go free in shemitah.
15. Nahum Sarna takes a clearly non-traditional approach in “Zedekiah’s Emancipation of Slaves and the Sabbatical Year,” in Orient and Occident: Essays presented to Cyrus H. Gordon on the Occasion of his Sixty-fifth Birthday, edited by Harry A. Hoffner, Jr. (1973).
16. See Chavot Ya’ir 140, Shevut Yaakov 1:6 and Chatam Sofer (1:OC:206 and 5:CM:172) regarding the applicability of this to a rabbi or chazan.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.